The Montgomery bus boycott changed the way people lived and reacted to each other. The American civil rights movement began a long time ago, as early as the seventeenth century, with blacks and whites all protesting slavery together. The peak of the civil rights movement came in the 1950’s starting with the successful bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama. The civil rights movement was lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached nonviolence and love for your enemy.
“Love your enemies, we do not mean to love them as a friend or intimate. We mean what the Greeks called agape-a disinterested love for all mankind. This love is our regulating ideal and beloved community our ultimate goal. As we struggle here in Montgomery, we are cognizant that we have cosmic companionship and that the universe bends toward justice. We are moving from the black night of segregation to the bright daybreak of joy, from the midnight of Egyptian captivity to the glittering light of Canaan freedom”
explained Dr. King.
In the Cradle of the Confederacy, life for the white and the colored citizens was completely segregated. Segregated schools, restaurants, public water fountains, amusement parks, and city buses were part of everyday life in Montgomery, Alabama.
“Every person operating a bus line should provide equal accommodations…in such a manner as to separate the white people from Negroes.” On Montgomery’s buses, black passengers were required by city law to sit in the back of the segregated bus. Negroes were required to pay their fare at the front of the bus, then get off and reboard from the rear of the bus. The front row seats were reserved for white people, which left the back of the bus or no man’s land for the blacks. There was no sign declaring the seating arrangements of the buses, but everyone knew them.
The Montgomery bus boycott started one of the greatest fights for civil rights in the history of America. Here in the old capital of the Confederacy,
“inspired by one women’s courage; mobilized and organized by scores of grass-roots leaders in churches, community organizations, and political clubs; called to new visions of their best possibilities by a young black preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., a people was reawakening to its destiny. “
In 1953, the black community of Baton Rouge, Louisiana successfully petitioned their city council to end segregated seating on public buses. The new ordinance allowed the city buses to be seated on a first-come, first-served basis, with the blacks still beginning their seating at the rear of the bus. The bus drivers, who were all white, ignored the new ordinance and continued to save seats in front of the bus for white passengers. In an effort to demand that the city follow the new ordinance, the black community staged a one-day boycott of Baton Rouge’s buses. By the end of the day, Louisiana’s attorney general decided that the new ordinance was illegal and ruled that the bus drivers did not have to change the seating arrangements on the buses.
Three months later a second bus boycott was started by Reverend T.J. Jemison. The new boycott lasted about one week, and yet it forced the city officials to compromise. The compromise was to change the seating on the buses to first-come, first-served seating with two side seat up front reserved for whites, and one long seat in the back for the blacks.
The bus boycott in Baton Rouge was one of the first times a community of blacks had organized direct action against segregation and won. The victory in Baton Rouge was a small one in comparison to other civil rights battles and victories.
The hard work of Reverend Jemison and other organizers of the boycott had far-reaching implications on a movement that was just starting to take root in America. In 1954 the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision by the Supreme Court overshadowed Baton Rouge, but the ideas and lessons were not forgotten.
They were soon used 400 miles away in Montgomery, Alabama, where the most important boycott of the civil rights movement was about to begin.
The idea of “separate but equal” started in 1896 with a case called Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896). On June 2, 1896 Homer Adolph Plessy, who was one-eighth Negro and appeared to be white, boarded and took a vacant seat in a coach reserved for white people on the East Louisiana railroad in New Orleans bound for Covington, Louisiana.
The conductor ordered Plessy to move to a coach reserved for colored people, but Plessy refused. With the aid of a police officer, Plessy was forcibly ejected from the train, locked up in the New Orleans jail, and was taken before Judge Ferguson on the charge of violating Louisiana’s state segregation laws. In affirming Plessy’s conviction, the Supreme Court of Louisiana upheld the state law.
Plessy then took the case to the Supreme Court of America on a writ of error ( an older form of appeal that was abolished in 1929) saying that Louisiana’s segregation law was “unconstitutional as a denial of the Thirteenth Amendment and equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. ” The Plessy v. Ferguson case decision stated that separate but equal was fine as long as the accommodations were equal in the standard.
Case after case the “separate but equal” doctrine was followed but not reexamined. The equal part of the doctrine had no real meaning, because the Supreme Court refused to look beyond any lower court holdings to find if the segregated facilities for Negroes were equal to those for whites. Many Negro accommodations were said to be equal when in fact they were definitely inferior. The separate but equal doctrine
“Is one of the outstanding myths of American history for it is almost always true that while indeed separate, these facilities are far from equal. Throughout the segregated public institutions, Negroes have been denied equal share of tax supported service and facilities”
Stated President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1947.
In Topeka, Kansas the Brown’s, a Negro family, lived only four blacks from the white Sumner Elementary School. Linda Carol Brown, an eight year old girl had to attend a segregated school twenty-one blocks from her home because Kansas’s state segregation laws allowed cities to segregate Negro and white students in public elementary schools.
Oliver Brown and twelve other parents of Negro children asked that their children be admitted to the all-white Sumner School, which was much closer to home. The principle refused them admission, and the parents filed a suit in a federal district court against the Topeka Board of Education. The suit contended that the refusal to admit the children to the school was a denial of the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision of the principle lead to the birth of the most influential and important case of the Twentieth Century, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
The federal district court was sympathetic to the Negro cause and agreed that segregation in public schools had a negative effect on Negro children, but the court felt binded by the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, and refused to declare segregation unconstitutional. Mr. Brown then took the case directly to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Other cases involving school segregation were making their way to the Supreme Court from three different states-Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina-and the District of Columbia. All of the cases arrived around the same time as the Brown case. The cases all raised the same issue, and the state consolidated them under Brown v. Board of Education.
The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is a restriction that applies only to the states, so the case from the District of Columbia was “rested on the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment which is applicable to the Federal government “. The case was called Bolling v. Sharpe, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), and had the same outcome as the Brown case.
In front of the Supreme Court the arguments against segregation were presented by Thurgood Marshall, council for the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP is an organization which had directed five cases through the courts and which had won many legal cases for American Negroes. The states relied on primarily Plessy v. Ferguson in arguing for the continuation of segregation in public schools.
The Supreme Court Opinion statement delivered by Mr. Chief Justice Warren stated that
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others of the similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained, and deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “
The Brown case was necessary for clearing the way towards full equality for the Negroes in America. Though the Brown case did not directly overturn the Plessy case decision, it made it perfectly clear that segregation in areas other than public education could not continue. The Brown case enabled Negroes to fight peacefully for their freedom through sit-ins, demonstrations, boycotts, and the exercise of their voting rights. With the Brown case decision and the end of school segregation came the start of the fall of white supremacy.
On December 1, 1955, the action of Mrs. Rosa Parks gave rise to a form of protest that leads the civil rights movement-nonviolent action. Mrs. Parks worked at a Montgomery department store pinning up hems, raising waistlines. When the store closed, Mrs. Parks boarded a Cleveland Avenue bus and took a seat behind the white section in row eleven. The bus was half full when Rosa Parks boarded but soon was filled leaving a white man standing.
“Y’all better make it light on yourself and let me have those seats,” said the bus driver James Blake as he ordered the black passengers in row eleven to move. Everyone except Mrs. Parks moved to the rear of the bus. “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No I’m not.'” recalled Mrs. Rosa Parks. James Blake replied “Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to call the police and have you arrested,” with Rosa Parks bravely replaying “You may do that.” Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for violating the Municipal code separating the races in Montgomery, Alabama.
Rosa Parks was taken to the city jail in a police car where she was booked for “violating the law banning integration “. At the police station she longed for a drink of water to soothe her dry throat, “but they wouldn’t permit me to drink out of the water fountain, it was for whites only. “Rosa Parks was convicted and fined ten dollars plus four dollars in court cost.
The arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 was not the first time Mrs. Parks had challenged the Jim Crow laws of the South. In 1943, the same bus driver who arrested her in 1955, James Blake threw her off the bus for violating the segregation laws. During the 1940s the quiet, dignified older lady refused on several different occasions to submit to segregation laws.
“My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day “stated Rosa after she was arrested. Mrs. Parks was an active member of organizations that fought for the equality of races. She was the first secretary for the Alabama State Conference of NAACP Branches, and she helped organize an NAACP Youth Council chapter in Montgomery.
News of Mrs. Park’s arrest soon reached E.D. Nixon, the man who headed the NAACP when Mrs. Parks was its secretary. Nixon tried to call one of the cities two black lawyers, Fred Gray, but Gray was not at home, so Mr. Nixon called Clifford Durr. Clifford Durr was a member of the Federal Communications Commission and had recently returned to Montgomery from Washington DC.
“About six o’clock that night the telephone rang, and Mr. Nixon said that he understood that Mrs. Parks was arrested, and he had called the jail, but they wouldn’t tell him why she had been arrested. So they thought that if Cliff called, a white lawyer, they might tell him. Cliff called, and they said she’s been arrested under the segregation laws…so Mr. Nixon raised the bond and signed the paper and got Mrs. Parks out,”
recalled Virginia Durr.
“Mrs. Parks, with your permission we can break down segregation on the bus with your case, “E.D. Nixon asked Rosa Parks. Parks consulted her mother and husband and deiced to let Mr. Nixon make her case into a cause, stating “I’ll go along with you Mr. Nixon. “
Nixon, at home, was making a list of black ministers in Montgomery, who would help support their boycott. Lacking the influence he once had in the NAACP, because of his background, Nixon deiced that the church would be better to go through to reach people, “because they(the church) had their hands on the masses. ” Progressive minister, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who E.D. Nixon knew through his work at the NAACP would be the first to receive the call to mobilize people.
At five A.M. Friday morning, the next day, Nixon called Rev. Abernathy, who knew most of the other minister and black leaders in Montgomery. After discussing the situation Nixon called eighteen other ministers and arranged a meeting for Friday evening to discuss Parks arrest and the actions they wanted to take.
Fred Gray called Jo-Ann Robinson Thursday night and told her about the arrest of Rosa Parks. Robinson knew Parks from the Colvin case and believed she would be the ideal person to go through a test case to challenge segregation. Robinson then proceeded to call the leaders of the Women’s Political Council, who urged her to start the boycott in support of Rosa Parks starting on Monday, Parks’ trial date. Jo-Ann Robinson made leaflets that described the boycott and had her students help her hand them out.
“This is for Monday, Dec. 5, 1955- Another Negro woman had been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. The women’s case will come up Monday. We are therefore asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to schools, or anywhere on Monday… “
Thousands of anonymous leaflets were passed secretly through Montgomery’s black neighborhoods. By the time the ministers and civil rights leaders met on Friday evening, word of the boycott had spread through the city. Reverend L. Roy Bennett, president of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, headed the meeting.
Rev. Bennett wanted to start the boycott on the following Monday because he feared that there was no time to waste, he also wanted the ministers to start organizing committees to lead the boycott. Some of the black leaders objected, calling for a debate on the pros and cons of having a boycott. Almost half of the leaders left in frustration before a decision was reached, will those remaining agreed to spread the word about the one-day boycott at their Sunday mass meeting.
E.D. Nixon did not attend the meeting on Friday evening that he arranged because he was at work, but before Nixon left he took one of Jo Ann Robinson’s leaflets and called Joe Azbell, a white reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser.
“He said, ‘I’ve got a big story for you and I want you to meet me,’ now E.D. doesn’t talk in long sentences, he’s very short and brusque…He said, ‘Can you meet me?’ I said, ‘Yeah I can meet you.’ So we met down at Union Station and he showed me one of these leaflets. And he said, ‘I want to tell you what we are going to do. We’re gonna boycott these buses. We’re tired of them fooling around with our women-they done it for the last time.’ So I said ‘Okay’, Nixon said, ‘You gonna put this on the front page?’ And I said ‘yeah I’m gonna try to. “
recalled Joe Azbell. The story of the upcoming boycott was on the front page of Sunday’s morning edition, spreading the word to all the Negroes in Montgomery. The piece Azbell ran on the boycott accused the NAACP of “planting that Parks woman” on the bus to stir things up and cause trouble. The Montgomery Advertiser said that the Negroes were about to “embrace the same negative solutions” as the hated White Citizens Council.
The ministers reinforced the call of the boycott at the pulpit that Sunday morning, but doubt remained in the minds of the boycott organizers. Would Montgomery’s black community unite for the boycott? Or would they ride the buses in fear of white retaliation? The clergymen had barely been able to agree on the one-day boycott, so why would the people follow them? To add to their worries it looked like it might rain.
On Monday morning the sky was very dark with huge rain clouds covering the sun. City police were on the watch for black “goon squads” that would keep black people off the buses. The police chief even went as far as to have two motorcycle cops follow each bus. By 5:30 A.M. Monday, a torn-off piece of cardboard appeared on a bus shelter at Court Square, one of the main downtown bus stops. The sign read “PEOPLE DON’T RIDE THE BUSES TODAY. DON’T RIDE IT FOR FREEDOM “
In the house of young Dr. Martian Luther King Jr. on Monday, December 4th, Dr. King was making coffee in his kitchen. The Friday night meeting had taken place at his church in Montgomery and he feared that the boycott would fail. Dr. Reverend King took his coffee and sat down and waited for the first bus on the South Jackson l0 line to go by his house at 6:00 A.M. The South Jackson line carried more Negroes than any other line in town; “the first bus was usually jammed full with Negro domestics on their way to work “.
Dr. King was still in the kitchen when his wife Coretta cried “Martin, Martin, come quickly! ” Martin just made it to the window in time to see an empty bus go by. In a state of high excitement, King waited for the next bus to go by. It was empty. So was the third one. With spirits soaring high Dr. King drove over to Abernathy’s house in his car and the two of them drove all over town looking at the buses. All over Montgomery the buses were empty of black people. It looked like the boycott would be one hundred percent effective.
There were black students gladly hitchhiking to Alabama State. There were old men and women walking as far as twelve miles to their downtown jobs. People were riding mules, cows, horses, and driving horse-drawn buggies to work. Not one single person stood at a bus stop that wanted to ride the buses, just groups of young people who stood there cheering and singing “No riders today! ” as the buses pulled away from the stop.
Montgomery’s eighteen black-owned taxi companies had agreed to transport blacks for the same fare as they would pay on the bus-ten cents-on Monday morning the cabs were crammed with people. In the Alabama Journal a reporter described that first Monday.
“Negroes were on almost every street corner in the downtown area, silent, waiting for rides or moving about to keep warm, but few got on buses…scores of Negroes were walking, their lunches were in brown paper sacks under their arms. None spoke to white people. They exchanged little talk among themselves. It was an almost solemn event. “
A local black historian who had watched the days events unfolded stated that
“the ‘old unlearned Negroes’ were confused. It seemed they could not figure out if the police (ridding along with the buses) would arrest them or protect them if they attempted to ride the buses…the few Negroes that rode the buses were more confused. They found it difficult to get off without being embarrassed by other Negroes who waited at the bus stops throughout the city. Some were even seen ducking in the aisles as the buses passed various stops. “
At 3:00 P.M. that afternoon King and other leaders of the boycott met to set up a permanent organization to run the boycott. At Abernathy’s suggestion, they called it the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), to “stress the positive, uplift approach of their movement. ” The meeting was also called to elect officers. Rufus Lewis saw the election as a way to move the “well-entrenched ” Bennett aside in a diplomatic way. Quickly Lewis nominated King as president. Lewis attended King’s church and heard him speak often and knew he was a master speaker, also Dr. King was new in town.
“Rev. King was a young man, a very intelligent man. He had not been here long enough for the city fathers to put their hands on him. Usually, they’d find some young man just come to town…pat him on the back and tell him what a nice church he got. They’d say ‘Reverend, your suit don’t look so nice to represent so-and-so Baptist Church’…and they’d get him a suit…you’d have to watch out for that kind of thing”
recalls E.D. Nixon, about how officials in Montgomery treated black leaders.
With Rev. King as the new leader of the boycott, the organizers had to deiced whether or not to have the bus boycott extend beyond Monday. The one-day boycott had shown a strength that was never seen before in Montgomery. To extend the boycott would be a direct assault by blacks on the Jim Crow system. A serious and potentially dangerous event.
Several of the ministers were suggesting to leave the boycott as a one-day success, they said the boycott might fall apart if it rained or if the police started to arrest people. No one thought that it would last till the end of the work week, which was four days away.
E.D. Nixon in a thundering voice said that they should confront the whites no matter what. The time had come to take a stand!
“What is the matter with you people? Here you have been living off the sweat of these washwomen all these years and you have never done anything for them. Now you have a chance to pay them back, and you’re too damn scared to stand on your feet and be counted! The time has come to be grown, man or scared boys “
said Nixon gesturing his big hands at the group of boycott leaders when they wanted to quit.
Nixon was mad because his successor at the head of the NAACP in Alabama had refused to help or support the boycott unless he got approval from the national office.
“The man who was the President of the NAACP, said at that time, ‘Brother Nixon, I’ll have to wait until I talk to New York ( NAACP headquarters) to find out what they think of it.’ I said ‘Man we ain’t got time for that.’ He believed in doing everything by the book. And the book stated that you had to notify New York before you take a step like that. “
recalled E.D. Nixon on how the NAACP responded when he asked them for support.
The group agreed to wait until that night’s meeting and let the people decided if the boycott was to continue. The meeting was to be held at the Holt Street Baptist Church, because it was in a black section of town. They figured that Negroes would probably feel safer if they didn’t have to travel through white neighborhoods to get to the meeting.
Newly elected leader of the MIA, Dr. King had about twenty minutes to prepare a speech which he later called one of the most important speeches in his life. It took Doctor King fifteen minutes to park his car and make his way to the church at 7:00 P.M. There were no empty seats in the church and people were spilled into the aisles and through the doorways in the back, the church had been packed since five that afternoon. Outside the church thousands stood to listen to the speeches and preaching that was going on inside through loudspeakers. The meeting opened with “Onward Christian Soldiers”, followed by speeches from the boycott leaders.
Joe Azbell again covered the boycott story saying that
“the Holt Street Baptist Church was probably the most fired up, enthusiastic gathering of human beings that I’ve ever seen. I came down the street and I couldn’t believe there were so many cars. I parked many blocks from the church just to get a place for my car. I went up to the church, and they made way for me because I was the first white person there…I was two minutes late and they were already preaching, and that audience was so on fire that the preacher would get up and say, ‘Do you want your freedom?’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah, I want my freedom!’
The preacher would say, ‘Are you for what we are doing?; ‘Yeah, go ahead, go ahead!’…and they were so excited…I’ve never heard singing like that…they were on fire for freedom. There was a spirit there no one could capture again…it was so powerful. And then King stood up, and most of them didn’t know how he was. And yet he was a master speaker…I went back and I wrote a special column, I wrote that this was the beginning of a flame that would go across America. “
Doctor King approached the podium with only a mental outline of his speech. If he choked in front of all of these people it would be the end of the boycott, but if he inspired them there was no telling what they could do together.
“We’re here this evening for serious business. We’re here in a general sense because first and foremost, we are American citizens, and we are determined to acquire our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning…There comes a time when people get tired…tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about the brutal feet of oppression. We have no alternative but to protest. For many years, we have shown an amazing patience.
We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved, to be saved from patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice….If we are wrong then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong then the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. “
The crowd roared with ‘yeas’ and ‘right ons’, all through Dr. Kings speech. The strongest show of emotion and applause came when Rev. King bravely noted that
“If you protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations the historians will pause and say ‘There lived a great people-a black people-who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization’…We will not retreat one inch in our fight to secure and hold our American citizenship. “
The church roared in approval of King’s speech which was followed by an introduction of Rosa Parks that received a standing ovation. Then Rev. Abernathy proceeded to recite the three demands of the boycott.
1)Courteous treatment of passengers on the buses.
2)Change the seating to a first-come, first-served basis with blacks starting at the rear, and whites starting at the front.
3)The hiring of black bus drivers on predominantly black routes.
Rev. Abernathy asked the people attending the meeting to vote and describe whether or not the boycott should continue. Throughout the church, people began to stand. At first in ones and twos. Soon every person was standing in the Holt Street Church approving the continuation of the boycott. The thousands of people standing outside cheered in a resounding “YES!”
“The fear left that had shackled us across the years-all left suddenly when we were in that church together ” recalled Abernathy on how people left the church unafraid, but how they were uncertain on how the city’s white leaders would respond to their boycott. The Montgomery police were their main concern.
A white police officer had a few months earlier shot a black man who had refused a bus driver order to get off the bus and reboard from the rear. The man demanded his dime back, and the police officer suddenly fired his gun, instantly killing the man. The dreaded Montgomery police were already harassing blacks who were peacefully waiting for the taxis.
Four days later the MIA, including King and attorney Fred Gray, met with the city commissioners and representatives of the bus company. The MIA presented their three demands, with King making it clear that they were not seeking an end to segregation through the boycott.
The bus company’s manager, James H. Bagely, and its attorney, Jack Crenshaw frantically denied that the bus drivers were regularly discourteous to black passengers. They rejected the idea of hiring black bus drivers and stated that the proposed seating plan was in violation of the state statute and city code.
Attorney Gray responded by showing that the seating plan was in no way a violation of the already existing segregation laws. The seating arrangements proposed were already in practice in another Alabama city, Mobil. The Mobil bus company was also run by the same bus company as the Montgomery bus line.
Attorney Crenshaw was adamant about the seating proposal. Commissioner Frank was ready to give in and accept the seating proposal, but Crenshaw argued
“I don’t see how we can do it within the law. If it were legal I would be the first to go along with it, but it just isn’t legal. The only way that it can be done is to change the segregation laws. “