Montgomery Bus Boycott
Montgomery Bus Boycott
By: Don Cravens
Date: December 26, 1956
Source: Photo by Don Cravens//Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images.
About the Photographer: Don Cravens began his career as a combat photographer in the U.S. Army. While working for Time-Life, Craven captured numerous significant moments of the civil rights movement.
Like most southern American cities at that time, Montgomery, Alabama, was thoroughly racially segregated in the mid–1950s. After the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation in schools, civil rights workers everywhere saw an opportunity for change. In Montgomery, activists focused on the city bus system, a source of frustration and humiliation for black riders. African Americans, who constituted three-quarters of the bus line's riders, were forced to sit in the back rows of the bus. Furthermore, they had to enter in the front of the bus to pay, then step back down to the sidewalk and re-enter the bus through the rear door. Occasionally, after a black rider had paid but before he or she could get back on the bus, the bus driver would simply drive away. If a white person entered the bus and could not find a seat, a seated black person was ordered by the bus driver to stand.
In 1955, civil rights workers in Montgomery began to plan for a citywide bus boycott. To implement their plan, they needed a model citizen to defy the segregationist policy and to get arrested for that action. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (1913–2005), a forty-three-year-old seamstress and civil rights worker, fulfilled that role. After refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on that Thursday evening, Parks was arrested. The following Monday, after a weekend of intense planning by civil rights activists, the black citizens of Montgomery held a one-day boycott of the bus lines. Organizers were unsure whether the black community would unite for the boycott and risk harassment for challenging the system of segregation known as Jim Crow. The boycott was an overwhelming success, however, and community leaders decided to extend it.
The city's black leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to organize the boycott, and they elected as the MIA's leader a young, educated, charismatic minister who had recently moved to Montgomery and who would become the civil rights movement's most visible leader: Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). As the boycott stretched on, black citizens found other ways to travel through the city. Some walked or rode bicycles, others benefited from the network of carpools organized by the MIA. They endured threats and sometimes beatings from white segregationists, and the leaders of the MIA faced particularly intense pressure. The boycott persisted, however, and at the same time the segregationist policies of the bus line were challenged in court. More than a year after the boycott had begun, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's order to end segregation on Montgomery's city buses. The day after the ruling reached Montgomery, on December 21, 1956, black citizens once again began riding the buses.
MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT
See primary source image.
The success of the Montgomery bus boycott marked an early and significant victory for the civil rights movement. It demonstrated that ordinary citizens, when united and determined, could make a difference. Rosa Parks became an inspiring symbol of courage and dignity. And Martin Luther King Jr. achieved international recognition for his leadership of the boycott, earning particular admiration for his advocacy of nonviolent resistance. A group of southern black religious leaders who had given their support to the boycott met a few weeks after the boycott had ended and decided to establish a formal organization to coordinate civil rights efforts throughout the South. They formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which went on to become one of the movement's most visible and effective organizations. The SCLC elected King as its first president.
The strategies employed during the Montgomery bus boycott were emulated elsewhere, including boycotts in the Alabama cities of Birmingham and Mobile and in Tallahassee, Florida. Throughout the next several years, campaigns were launched to end segregation in cities all across the South. While the setbacks were numerous and the obstacles substantial, the civil rights movement achieved many notable victories, ultimately bringing an end to legal segregation in the South.
Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000.
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: Viking, 1987.
Montgomery Bus Boycott. "They Changed the World: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott." <http://www.montgomeryboycott.com/> (accessed June 5, 2006).
Time Magazine. "The Time 100: Rosa Parks." June 14, 1999. <http://www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/ parks01.html> (accessed June 5, 2006).