November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and its legacy
December 1, 1955, was a cool, drizzly night in Montgomery. James F. Blake, a veteran of World War II and a veteran bus driver, was maneuvering the bus he normally took on the Montgomery Avenue route through downtown toward Cleveland Avenue on the city’s west side.
On Montgomery buses the front 10 seats were reserved for whites. If there were no whites on board, the seats remained empty. The last 10 seats were for blacks, and the middle 16 could be occupied by either race, except a white person was never asked to sit next to or behind an African-American. The driver was given the responsibility and the authority to maintain the separation of the races by adjusting the seating as needed.
Rosa Parks had finished her day’s work as a seamstress at a local department store, done a little shopping, and waited to catch the bus home at the Court Square stop. She took a seat on the aisle opposite the driver’s side in the first row behind the “whites only” seats. Three stops later, in front of the Empire Theater, at the corner of Montgomery and Moulton, several whites boarded and filled all the remaining “whites only” seats, leaving one white man standing. He asked Blake to get him a seat.
Blake turned and demanded that the four blacks sitting in the first row of the “colored section” stand to make a place for one white man. As they had probably done all their lives, three of the black riders grudgingly but resignedly got up and moved back into the already crowded aisle.
Spontaneously, Mrs. Parks simply moved to the window seat and stayed there. A life lived under the laws of Jim Crow and 20 years of civil rights activism collided in an instant. “When I made that decision,” she said later, “I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me.”
Blake walked back to her seat and, standing over her, demanded that she move, telling her he could have her arrested. She quietly acknowledged that he “may do that.” She later said she was simply “tired of giving in.” The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver noted that at that moment “somewhere in the universe, a gear in the machinery shifted.”
Blake radioed his supervisor at the bus company and then the police. Two officers responded and took Parks off the bus and to the police station. She was charged with violating the city ordinance requiring passengers to obey the orders of drivers in maintaining racial separation on the buses. At her trial on Monday, December 5, the charge was shifted to violating a similar state ordinance rather than the city ordinance. She was convicted and fined $10 and $4 in court costs. Her conviction was upheld by the Alabama Court of Appeals in February 1956.
After spending a couple of hours in a jail cell on the night of her arrest, Parks called her mother and husband at home. They quickly called several people, and soon E. D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP, and Clifford and Virginia Durr, white liberals who had befriended Mrs. Parks, were joining Raymond Parks in securing his wife’s release.
During a long evening in the Parkses’ dining room, Mrs. Parks agreed to have her case become a test of the segregation laws. However, events were getting out of the control of this small group. For months activists had been agitating for improvements in the way the bus company employees treated their black customers, even threatening a boycott. Hearing the news of the arrest of the well-known and respected Rosa Parks, one of those longtime activists, Jo Ann G. Robinson, mimeographed thousands of leaflets calling for a one-day boycott of the bus company.
The one-day boycott on Monday, December 5, was an overwhelming success. King spoke in public for the first time that evening, as the spokesman of the hastily organized Montgomery Improvement Association in the Holt Street Baptist Church. He galvanized a crowd of 5,000 supporters. Community members decided to carry on the boycott as long as it took to end segregated buses in Montgomery.
For 381 days Montgomery’s black community conducted this nation’s first mass, direct-protest action for civil rights. The social injustice of Jim Crow was brought to the world’s attention through King’s leadership and rhetorical power. A legal challenge involving other Montgomery residents mistreated by the bus company was mounted by the attorney Fred Gray in Browder v. Gayle and ended with the United States Supreme Court declaring Montgomery’s bus-segregation law unconstitutional. On December 21, 1956, the buses were integrated. The psychological impact on whites and blacks alike was enormous.
The next year federal troops were called out to protect black students integrating the Little Rock, Arkansas, high school, and the year after that there were lunch-counter sit-ins in Oklahoma and Kansas. In fact, every year for the next 10 years, there were mass protests for civil rights across the nation, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.