After Rosa Sat: The Genius and Success of the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott

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After Rosa Sat: The Genius and Success of the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott

National City Lines bus No. 2857, which Rosa Parks was riding before she was arrested. Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a monumental 381-day organizing campaign that navigated logistical challenges and survived white violence, demonstrating the power of African-American communities to force change in the South. (Photo: Wikipedia.)

This week the nation remembered the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks' momentous decision to refuse to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, a moment that propelled the growing Southern civil rights movement — and then-unknown 26-year-old minister Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — into the national spotlight.

While the public mostly remembers Parks and her act of defiant courage, her actions on Dec. 1, 1955 were just the first step in one of the civil rights movement's most impressive and inspiring organizing campaigns, the Montgomery Bus Boycott: a massive effort that lasted 381 days, involved tens of thousands of city residents, and drew support from unions and other allies across the country.

Black leaders in Montgomery had been talking for years about mobilizing African Americans — who made up 75 percent of bus riders — to join a boycott, especially after Louisiana activist Rev. T. J. Jemison organized a successful boycott in Baton Rouge in 1953.

Laying the groundwork for a boycott in Montgomery were E.D. Nixon, a member of the black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union and officer with Parks in the local NAACP, and Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College and leader of the Women's Political Council. In 1954, more than a year before Parks' act of civil disobedience, Robinson wrote a letter to the mayor of Montgomery warning that "there has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of busses."

Immediately after Parks was arrested, Nixon and Robinson sprung into action. Nixon worked with white allies Cliff and Virginia Durr to post Parks' bail, and asked Parks to allow her arrest to be used as a test case for challenging segregation and mistreatment of African Americans on Montgomery buses.

The call for a boycott, however, came from Robinson, who held an emergency meeting of the Women's Political Council the same night as Parks' arrest and eventually created the now-famous leaflets [pdf] calling for boycott, which she mimeographed at Alabama State College throughout the night. As she would later remember:

As president of the main body of the Women's Political Council, I got on the phone and called all the officers of the three chapters. I told them that Rosa Parks had been arrested and she would be tried. They said, "You have the plans, put them into operation." We had worked for at least three years getting that thing organized. I didn't go to bed that night. I cut those stencils and took them to the college. ... I ran off 35,000 copies. I talked with every member [of the Women's Council] in the elementary, junior high and senior high schools and told them to have somebody on the campus. I told them that I would be there to deliver them [the leaflets]. I taught my classes from 8:00 to 10:00. When my 10:00 class was over, I took two senior students with me. I would drive to the place of dissemination and a kid would be there to grab them.

But it wasn't enough to call for bus boycott: On Monday, the city's overwhelmingly working-class black population still needed a way to get to work, and students needed to get to school. Nixon, Robinson and other leaders set to work on one of their greatest organizing successes: the immense logistical challenge of creating an alternative transportation system for Montgomery's black community.

Dozens of black taxi cab drivers were organized to offer discounted rates — 10 cents, the same as a bus fare — for those needing to get to work. A fleet of private cars, rare in Montgomery's black community, was located and mobilized to offer free rides. Many people simply walked to work. Jo Ann Robinson set the scene:

At 5:30 Monday, December 5, dawn was breaking over Montgomery. Early morning workers were congregating at corners. There, according to plan, Negroes were to be picked up not by the Montgomery City Lines, but by Negro taxis driving at reduced rates of ten cents per person, or by some two hundred private cars which had been offered free to bus riders for Monday only. The suspense was almost unbearable, for no one was positively sure that the taxi drivers would keep their promises, that the private car owners would give absolute strangers a ride, that Negro bus riders would stay off the bus. And then there was the cold and the threat of rain.

But the boycott held. Bus after bus went by, almost completely empty. The image left an indelible mark on the young Dr. King, convincing him of the power of united, direct action. As he would later write in his first book, "Stride Towards Freedom":

The first bus was to pass around six o'clock. And so we waited through an interminable half hour. I was in the kitchen drinking my coffee when I heard Coretta cry, "Martin, Martin, come quickly!" I put down my cup and ran toward the living room. As I approached the front window Coretta pointed joyfully to a slowly moving bus: "Darling, it's empty!" I could hardly believe what I saw. I knew that the South Jackson line, which ran past our house, carried more Negro passengers than any other line in Montgomery, and that this first bus was usually filled with domestic workers going to their jobs. Would all of the other buses follow the pattern that had been set by the first? Eagerly we waited for the next bus. In fifteen minutes it rolled down the street, and, like the first, it was empty. A third bus appeared, and it too was empty of all but two white passengers.

All day long it continued. At the afternoon peak the buses were still as empty of Negro passengers as they had been in the morning. Students of Alabama State College, who usually kept the South Jackson bus crowded, were cheerfully walking or thumbing rides. Job holders had either found other means of transportation or made their way on foot. While some rode in cabs or private cars, others used less conventional means. Men were seen riding mules to work, and more than one horse-drawn buggy drove the streets of Montgomery that day.

During the rush hours the sidewalks were crowded with laborers and domestic workers, many of them well past middle age, trudging patiently to their jobs and home again, sometimes as much as twelve miles. They knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them I knew that there is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.

Later that day, a mass meeting was held at Holt Street Baptist Church, where Dr. King gave a hastily prepared but historic speech calling to continue the boycott. At the meeting, King was also elected to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association [pdf] — his first major leadership role. The group would coordinate the boycott over the next grueling 13 months.

SUSTAINING THE STRUGGLE

After the euphoria of the initial protest came the Herculean task of sustaining the boycott, which fell to other unsung movement heroes like Rufus Lewis, head of the MIA Transportation Committee. Every day, more than 17,500 African-Americans rode the buses to get to work, school and to run errands.

To transport Montgomery's black community, a "taxicab army" of 18 black-owned cab companies was organized to deliver people to work at low fares. But white law enforcement cracked down on the cab drivers, threatening to arrest them using a rarely-enforced law requiring a minimum fare of 45 cents.

Drawing on the advice of Rev. Jemison from Baton Rouge, the Association also coordinated a massive carpool operation. By Dec. 13, 150 volunteers were picking up and dropping off passengers on a route that mimicked the city bus lines, including 48 stations in African-American neighborhoods and more than 40 pickup points in white neighborhoods.

As remembered on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, keeping the boycott going relied on orchestrating a vast volunteer network:

[I]t's not easy. Running the carpool system is a massive coordination task — mobilizing cars and drivers, meeting urgent transportation needs, matching riders, rides and destinations. Most of the actual day-to-day work is done by women who volunteer for thankless, unsung labor. Ownership of a car is a prestige status-symbol, and many who volunteer their vehicles are fussy about maintaining a pristine appearance that as a practical matter is at odds with transporting loads of strangers through rain-soaked and muddy streets. Inevitably, there are complaints and conflicts, frayed nerves and frustrated emotions that require soothing.

Day after day, week after week, month after month the boycott holds solid through the cold drenching rains of winter, the thunder squalls of spring, and the sweltering heat of summer. Men and women walk for hours to get to and from work, leaving before sunrise, reaching home long after dark. Children walk to school and students to college. Others catch rides with the volunteer drivers of the carpools, many of whom are ministers or professionals, others are housewives, the self-employed, and un-employed laborers, and a few are whites including some from the two Air Force bases. Some white employers, unable to do without their Black servants, furtively use their own cars to drive them to and from work. And some of the carpool drivers are college students.

There's also the issue of money. "Gas, oil, tires, and vehicle repairs have to be provided, leaflets run off, an office set up, postage & phones paid for, and all of that costs money," notes the movement veterans website. Community members gave generously of their time and effort, but leaders had to reach out nationally to unions, churches and other money sources to cover expenses that rise to $5,000 a month.

DEFENDING AGAINST VIOLENCE AND HATE

Boycott organizers also faced the pressure of escalating white opposition. White police officers began following carpool drivers and ticketing them for minor traffic infractions; King's first arrest in the civil rights cause comes for driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone in Montgomery.

A White Citizens Council was formed to encourage whites to ride the buses, although it was largely unsuccessful. By January 1956, boycott organizers were receiving 30 to 40 threatening phone calls a day, many threatening violence. On Jan. 30, King's home was bombed. Two days later, Nixon's house suffered the same fate.

Later in February, city leaders decided to escalate their legal attacks on the boycott, citing a seldom-used Alabama statute against interfering with private business. More than 200 African Americans were subpoenaed, and 89 were eventually arrested for engaging in the boycott. White insurance agents denied coverage to black car owners known to be helping with carpooling. The twice-monthly boycott organizing meetings were renamed "prayer meetings."

At one point, the Montgomery Advertiser ran a front-page Monday news story falsely claiming the boycott was ended. However, word spread throughout the black community that it was a hoax, and the buses still ran largely empty.

ROADMAP FOR A MOVEMENT

Despite the challenges, internal and external, the boycott carried on. At the same time, the Browder v. Gayle court challenge wound its way through the legal system: A District Court ruled in June 1956 that bus segregation was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, a decision that was upheld that November by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Montgomery's political leaders defied the court's decision; it wasn't until Dec. 20 that U.S. marshals delivered the court's ruling to city officials. That evening, black leaders called a mass meeting to declare victory, and the boycott was ended. The next day, African Americans boarded the buses again, sitting where they pleased. As Jo Ann Robinson would later say:

We had won self-respect. We had won a feeling that we had achieved, had accomplished. We felt that we were somebody, that somebody had to listen to us, that we had forced the white man to give what we knew was a part of our citizenship."

The struggle, of course, didn't end. Gunshots rang into King's home on Dec. 23 and snipers fired on Montgomery buses on Dec. 29, causing buses to shut down. Black churches were bombed the next month. Black bus riders were still mistreated and harassed, and segregation and disenfranchisement flourished elsewhere.

But the boycott became a symbol of the collective power held in black communities to organize and win in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The campaign offered a roadmap that would be used throughout the South, combining legal strategies with coordinated, nonviolent direct action.

The boycott also gave everyday people, the army of unsung heroes who formed the backbone of the civil rights movement, a sense of their ability to change the course of history. As Claudette Colvin, the lesser-known Montgomery teenager who was arrested before Parks for defying bus segregation, told officials after being interrogated about who was leading the "conspiracy" of the boycott: "Our leader is just we, ourselves."

Chris Kromm

Chris Kromm is Executive Director of Facing South and Publisher of Southern Exposure at the Institute for Southern Studies.

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