The Montgomery bus boycott changed the way people lived and reacted toeach other. The American civil rights movement began a long time ago, as earlyas the seventeenth century, with blacks and whites all protesting slaverytogether. The peak of the civil rights movement came in the 1950’s startingwith the successful bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama.
The civil rightsmovement was lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , who preached nonviolence andlove for your enemy. “Love your enemies, we do not mean to love them as a friend or intimate. Wemean what the Greeks called agape-a disinterested love for all mankind. Thislove is our regulating ideal and beloved community our ultimate goal.
As westruggle here in Montgomery, we are cognizant that we have cosmic companionshipand that the universe bends toward justice. We are moving from the black nightof segregation to the bright daybreak of joy, from the midnight of Egyptiancaptivity to the glittering light of Canaan freedom”explained Dr. King. In the Cradle of the Confederacy, life for the white and the coloredcitizens was completely segregated. Segregated schools, restaurants, publicwater fountains, amusement parks, and city buses were part of everyday life inMontgomery, Alabama.Order now
Every person operating a bus line should provide equalaccommodations. . . 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 theback of the segregated bus.
Negroes were required to pay their fare at thefront of the bus, then get off and reboard from the rear of the bus. The frontrow seats were reserved for white people, which left the back of the bus or noman’s land for the black’s. There was no sign declaring the seatingarrangements of the buses, but everyone knew them. The Montgomery bus boycott started one of the greatest fights for civilrights 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; calledto new visions of their best possibilities by a young black preacher namedMartin Luther King, Jr.
, a people was reawakening to its destiny. In 1953, the black community of Baton Rouge, Louisiana successfullypetitioned their city council to end segregated seating on public buses. Thenew ordinance allowed the city buses to be seated on a first-come, first-servedbasis, 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 tosave seats in front of the bus for white passengers. In an effort to demandthat the city follow the new ordinance, the black community staged a one-dayboycott of Baton Rouge’s buses.
By the end of the day, Louisiana’s attorneygeneral decided that the new ordinance was illegal and ruled that the busdrivers 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 cityofficials to compromise. The compromise was to change the seating on the busesto first-come, first-served seating with two side seats up front reserved forwhites, and one long seat in the back for the blacks.
The bus boycott in Baton Rouge was one of the first times a community ofblacks had organized direct action against segregation and won. The victory inBaton Rouge was a small one in comparison to other civil right battles andvictories. The hard work of Reverend Jemison and other organizers of theboycott, had far reaching implications on a movement that was just starting totake root in America. In 1954 the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Educationof Topeka descion by the Supreme Court overshadowed Baton Rouge, but the ideasand lessons were not forgotten. They were soon used 400 miles away inMontgomery, Alabama, where the most important boycott of the civil rightsmovement was about to begin.
The idea of separate but equal started in 1896 with a case called Plessyv. Ferguson 163 U. S. 537 (1896). On June 2, 1896 Homer Adolph Plessy, who wasone-eighth Negro and appeared to be white, boarded and took a vacant seat in acoach reserved for white people on the East Louisiana railroad in New Orleansbound for Covington, Louisiana.
The conductor ordered Plessy to move to a coachreserved for colored people, but Plessy refused. With the aid of a policeofficer , Plessy was forcibly ejected from the train, locked up in the NewOrleans jail, and was taken before Judge Ferguson on the charge of violatingLouisiana’s state segregation laws. In affirming Plessy’s conviction, theSupreme Court of Louisiana upheld the state law. Plessy then took the case tothe Supreme Court of America on a writ of error ( an older form of appeal thatwas abolished in 1929) saying that Louisiana’s segregation law was unconstitutional as a denial of the Thirteenth Amendment and equal protectionclause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Plessy v. Ferguson case descionstated that separate but equal was fine as long as the accommodations were equalin standard.
Case after case the separate but equal doctrine was followed but notreexamined. The equal part of the doctrine had no real meaning, because theSupreme Court refused to look beyond any lower court holdings to find if thesegregated facilities for Negroes were equal to those for whites. Many Negroaccommodations were said to be equal when in fact they were definitely inferior. The separate but equal doctrine is one of the outstanding myths of Americanhistory for it is almost always true that while indeed separate, thesefacilities are far from equal. Throughout the segregated public institutions,Negroes have been denied equal share of tax supported service and facilitiesstated President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1947.
In Topeka, Kansas the Brown’s, a Negro family, lived only four blacksfrom the white Sumner Elementary School. Linda Carol Brown, an eight year oldgirl had to attend a segregated school twenty-one blocks from her home becauseKansas’s state segregation laws allowed cities to segregate Negro and whitestudents in public elementary schools. Oliver Brown and twelve other parents of Negro children asked that theirchildren be admitted to the all-white Sumner School, which was much closer tohome. The principle refused them admission, and the parents filed a suit in afederal district court against the Topeka Board of Education. The suitcontended that the refusal to admit the children to the school was a denial ofthe equal protection clauseof the Fourteenth Amendment.
The descion ofthe principle lead to the birth of the most influential and important case ofthe Twentieth Century, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U. S. 483 (1954). The federal district court was sympathetic to the Negro cause and agreedthat segregation in public schools had a negative effect on Negro children, butthe court felt binded by the descion in Plessy v. Ferguson, and refused todeclare segregation unconstitutional.
Mr. Brown then took the case directly tothe Supreme Court of the United States. Other cases involving school segregation were making there way to theSupreme Court from three different states-Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina-andthe District of Columbia. All of the cases arrived around the same time as theBrown case. The cases all raised the same issue, and the state consolidatedthem under Brown v. Board of Education.
The equal protection clause of theFourteenth Amendment is a restriction that applies only to the states, so thecase from the District of Columbia was rested on the due process clause of theFifth Amendment which is applicable to the Federal government. The case wascalled Bolling v. Sharpe, 349 U. S.
294 (1955), and had the same outcome as theBrown case. In front of the Supreme Court the arguments against segregation werepresented by Thurgood Marshall, council for the National Association for theAdvancement for Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP is an organization which haddirected five cases through the courts and which had won many legal cases forAmerican Negroes. The states relied on primarily Plessy v. Ferguson in arguingfor the continuation of segregation in public schools. The Supreme Court Opinion statement delivered by Mr.
Chief JusticeWarren stated thatWe conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities areinherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others of thesimilarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of thesegregation complained, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteedby the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussionwhether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the FourteenthAmendment. The Brown case was necessary in clearing the way towards full equalityfor the Negroes in America.
Though the Brown case did not directly overturn thePlessy case descion, it made it perfectly clear that segregation in areas otherthan public education could not continue. The Brown case enabled Negroes tofight peacefully for their freedom through sit-ins, demonstrations, boycotts,and the exercise of their voting rights. With the Brown case descion and theend 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 formof protest that lead the civil rights movement-nonviolent action. Mrs. Parksworked at a Montgomery department store pinning up hems, raising waistlines. When the store closed, Mrs. Parks boarded a Cleveland Avenue bus, and took aseat behind the white section in row eleven.
The bus was half full when RosaParks 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 elevento move. Everyone except Mrs. Parks moved to the rear of the bus. When he sawme 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’mgoing to call the police and have you arrested, with Rosa Parks bravelyreplaying You may do that. Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for violating theMunicipal code separating the races in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks was taken to the city jail in a police car where she wasbooked for violating the law banning integration .
At the police station shelonged for a drink of water to soothe her dry throat, but they wouldn’t permitme to drink out of the water fountain, it was for whites only. Rosa Parkswas 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 hadchallenged the Jim Crow laws of the South. In 1943, the same bus driver whoarrested her in 1955, James Blake threw her off the bus for violating thesegregation laws. During the 1940’s the quiet, dignified older lady refused onseveral different occasions to submit to segregation laws.
My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else wasjust a regular thing with me and not just that daystated Rosa after she wasarrested. Mrs. Parks was an active member in organizations that fought for theequality of races. She was the first secretary for the Alabama State Conferenceof NAACP Branches, and she helped organize an NAACP Youth Council chapter inMontgomery.
News of Mrs. Parks arrest soon reached E. D. Nixon, the man who headedthe NAACP when Mrs.
Parks was its secretary. Nixon tried to call one of thecities two black lawyers, Fred Gray, but Gray was not at home, so Mr. Nixoncalled Clifford Durr. Clifford Durr was member of the Federal CommunicationsCommission, and had recently returned to Montgomery from Washington DC.
About six o’ clock that night the telephone rang, and Mr. Nixon saidthat he understood that Mrs. Parks was arrested, and he had called the jail, butthey wouldn’t tell him why she had been arrested. So they thought that if Cliffcalled, a white lawyer, they might tell him.
Cliff called, and they said she’sbeen arrested under the segregation laws. . . so Mr. Nixon raised the bond andsigned the paper and got Mrs.
Parks out,recalled Virginia Durr. Mrs. Parks, with your permission we can break down segregation on thebus with your case,E. D. Nixon asked Rosa Parks.
Parks consulted her motherand 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, whowould help support their boycott.
Lacking the influence he once had in theNAACP, because of his background, Nixon deiced that the church would be betterto go through to reach people, because they(the church) had their hands on themasses. Progressive minister, Reverend Ralph Abernnathy, who E. D. Nixon knewthrough his work at the NAACP would be the first to receive the call to mobilizepeople. 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. Afterdiscussing the situation Nixon called eighteen other ministers and arranged ameeting for Friday evening to discuss Parks arrest and the actions they wantedto take. Fred Gray called Jo Ann Robinson Thursday night and told her about thearrest of Rosa Parks. Robinson knew Parks from the Colvin case and believed shewould 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’ trail date. Jo Ann Robinson made leaflets that described the boycott andhad her students help her hand them out. This is for Monday, Dec. 5, 1955-Another Negro women has been arrestedand thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus andgive it to a white person.
It is the second time since the Claudette Colvincase that a Negro women has been arrested for the same thing. This has to bestopped. The women’s case will come up Monday. We are therefor asking everyNegro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trail.
Don’tride the buses to work, to schools, or anywhere on Monday. . . Thousands of the anonymous leaflets were passed secretly throughMontgomery’s black neighborhoods. By the time the ministers and civil rightsleaders 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 followingMonday because he feared that there was no time to waste, he also wanted theministers to start organizing committees to lead the boycott. Some of the blackleaders objected, calling for a debate on the pros and cons of having a boycott.
Almost half of the leaders left in frustration before a descion was reached,will those remaining agreed to spread the word about the one-day boycott attheir Sunday mass meeting. E. D. Nixon did not attend the meeting on Friday evening that he arrangedbecause he was at work, but before Nixon left he took one of Jo Ann Robinson’sleaflets 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,’ nowE.
D. doesn’t talk in long sentences, he’s very short and brusque. . . He said, ‘Canyou meet me?’ I said, ‘Yeah I can meet you. ‘ So we met down at Union Stationand he showed me one of these leaflets.
And he said, ‘I want to tell you whatwe are going to do. We’re gonna boycott these buses. We’re tired of themfooling 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 gonnatry to.
recalled Joe Azbell. The story of the upcoming boycott was on thefront page of Sunday’s morning edition, spreading the word to all the Negroes inMontgomery. The piece Azbell ran on the boycott accused the NAACP of plantingthat Parks womenon the bus to stir things up and cause trouble. TheMontgomery Advertiser said that the Negroes were about to embrace the samenegative solutionsas the hated White Citizens Council. The ministers reinforced the call of the boycott at the pulpit thatSunday morning, but doubt remained in the minds of the boycott organizers.
Would Montgomery’s black community unite for the boycott? Or would they ridethe buses in fear of white retaliation? The clergymen had barely been able toagree on the one-day boycott, so why would the people follow them? To add totheir worries it looked like it might rain. On Monday morning the sky was very dark with huge rain clouds coveringthe sun. City police were on the watch for black goon squads that would keepblack people off the buses. The police chief even went as far as to have twomotorcycle cops follow each bus. By 5:30 A.
M. Monday, a torn off piece ofcardboard appeared on a bus shelter at Court Square, one of the main downtownbus stops. The sign read PEOPLE DON’T RIDE THE BUSES TODAY. DON’T RIDE IT FORFREEDOMIn the house of young Dr. Martian Luther King Jr.
on Monday, December4th, Dr. King was making coffee in his kitchen. The Friday night meeting hadtaken place at his church in Montgomery and he feared that the boycott wouldfail. Dr. Reverend King took his coffee and sat down and waited for the firstbus on the South Jackson l0 line to go by his house at 6:00 A.
M. The SouthJackson line carried more Negroes than any other line in town; the first buswas usually jammed full with Negro domestics on their way to work. Dr. Kingwas still in the kitchen when his wife Coretta cried Martin, Martin, comequickly!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 wasempty. So was the third one. With sprits soaring high Dr.
King drove over toAbernathy’s house in his car and the two of them drove all over town looking atthe buses. All over Montgomery the buses were empty of black people. It lookedlike the boycott would be one hundred percent effective. There were black students gladly hitchhiking to Alabama State. Therewere old man 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, justgroups 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 transportblacks for the same fare as they would pay on the bus-ten cents-on Mondaymorning the cabs were crammed with people. In the Alabama Journal a reporterdescribed that first Monday. Negroes were on almost every street corner in thedowntown area, silent, waiting for rides or moving about to keep warm, but fewgot on buses.
. . scores of Negroes were walking, their lunches were in brown papersacks under their arms. None spoke to white people.
They exchanged little talkamong themselves. It was an almost solemn event. A local black historian who had watched the days events unfolded statedthat the ‘old unlearned Negroes’ were confused. It seemed they could notfigure out if the police (ridding along the buses) would arrest them or protectthem if they attempted to ride the buses.
. . the few Negroes that rode the buseswere more confused. They found it difficult to get off without beingembarrassed 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 toset up a permanent organization to run the boycott. At Abernathy’s suggestionthey called it the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), to stress thepositive, uplift approach of their movement. The meeting was also called toelect officers.
Rufus Lewis saw the election as a way to move the well-entrenchedBennett aside in a diplomatic way. Quickly Lewis nominated Kingas president. Lewis attended King’s church and heard him speak often and knewhe was a master speaker, also Dr. King was new in town.
Rev. King was a young man, a very intelligent man. He had not beenhere long enough for the city fathers to put their hands on him. Usually they’dfind some young man just come to town. .
. pat him on the back and tell him what anice church he got. They’d say ‘Reverend, your suit don’t look so nice torepresent so-and-so Baptist Church’. .
. and they’d get him a suit. . . you’d have towatch out for that kind of thingrecalls E.
D. Nixon, about how officials inMontgomery treated black leaders. With Rev. King as the new leader of the boycott, the organizers had todeiced whether or not to have the bus boycott extend beyond Monday.
The one-dayboycott had shown a strength that was never seen before in Montgomery. Toextend 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 thepolice started to arrest people. No one thought that it would last till the endof the work week, which was four days away. E.
D. Nixon in a thundering voice said that they should confront thewhites no matter what. The time had come to take a stand!What is the matter with you people? Here you have been living off thesweat of these washwomen all these years and you have never done anything forthem. Now you have a chance to pay them back, and you’re to damn scared tostand on your feet and be counted! The time has come to be grown man or scaredboyssaid Nixon gesturing his big hands at the group of boycott leaders whenthey wanted to quit. Nixon was mad because his successor at the head of the NAACP in Alabamahad refused to help or support the boycott unless he got approval from thenational 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 hadto notify New York before you take a step like that. recalled E.
D. Nixon onhow the NAACP responded when he asked them for support. The group agreed to wait until that night’s meeting and let the peopledecided if the boycott was to continue. The meeting was to be held at the HoltStreet Baptist Church, because it was in a black section of town.
They figuredthat Negroes would probably feel safer if they didn’t have to travel throughwhite neighborhoods to get to the meeting. Newly elected leader of the MIA, Dr. King had about twenty minuets toprepare a speech which he later called one of the most important speeches in hislife. It took Doctor King fifteen minuets to park his car and make his way tothe church at 7:00 P. M.
There were no empty seats in the church and people werespilled into the aisles and through the doorways in the back, the church hadbeen packed since five that afternoon. Outside the church thousands stood tolisten to the speeches and preaching that was going on inside throughloudspeakers. The meeting opened with Onward Christian Soldiers, followed byspeeches from the boycott leaders. Joe Azbell again covered the boycott story saying that the Holt StreetBaptist Church was probably the most fired up, enthusiastic gathering of humanbeings that I’ve ever seen. I came down the street and I couldn’t believe therewere so many cars. I parked many blocks from the church just to get a place formy car.
I went up to the church, and they made way for me because I was thefirst white person there. . . I was two minutes late and they were alreadypreaching, and that audience was so on fire that the preacher would get up andsay, ‘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, goahead!’. . .
and they were so excited. . . I’ve never heard singing like that. . .
theywere on fire for freedom. There was a sprit there no one could captureagain. . .
it was so powerful. And then King stood up, and most of them didn’tknow how he was. And yet he was a master speaker. . .
I went back and I wrote aspecial column, I wrote that this was the beginning of a flame that would goacross America. Doctor King approached the podium with only a mental outline of hisspeech. If he choked in front of all of these people it would be the end of theboycott, but if he inspired them there was no telling what they could dotogether. We’re here this evening for serious business.
We’re here in a generalsense because first and foremost, we are American citizens, and we aredetermined to acquire our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. . . Therecomes a time when people get tired. .
. tired of being segregated and humiliated;tired of being kicked about the brutal feet of oppression. We have noalternative but to protest. For many years, we have shown amazing patience. Wehave sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way wewere being treated.
But we come here tonight to be saved, to be saved frompatience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice. . . . Ifwe are wrong then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrongthen the Constitution of the United States is wrong.
If we are wrong, Godalmighty is wrong. The crowd roared with ‘yeas’ and ‘right ons’, all through Dr. Kingsspeech. The strongest show of emotion and applause came when Rev. King bravelynoted that If you protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love,when the history books are written in future generations the historians willpause and say ‘There lived a great people-a black people-who injected newmeaning and dignity into the veins of civilization’.
. . We will not retreat oneinch in our fight to secure and hold our American citizenship. The churchroared in approval of Kings speech which was followed with an introduction ofRosa Parks that received a standing ovation. Then Rev. Abernathy proceeded torecite 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 startingat 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 anddescied whether or not the boycott should continue.
Throughout the churchpeople began to stand. At first in ones and twos. Soon every person wasstanding 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 suddenlywhen we were in that church togetherrecalled Abernathy on how people leftthe church unafraid, but how they were uncertain on how the city’s white leaderswould 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 refuseda bus driver order to get off the bus and reboard from the rear. The mandemanded his dime back, and the police officer suddenly fired his gun, instantlykilling the man. The dreaded Montgomery police were already harassing blackswho were peacefully waiting for the taxis. Four days later the MIA, including King and attorney Fred Gray, met withthe city commissioners and representatives of the bus company. The MIApresented their three demands, with King making it clear that they were notseeking an end to segregation through the boycott.
The bus company’s manger, James H. Bagely and its attorney, JackCrenshaw frantically denied that the bus drivers were regularly discourteous toblack passengers. They rejected the idea of hiring black bus drivers and statedthat the proposed seating plan was in violation of the state statue and citycode. Attorney Gray responded by showing that the seating plan was in no way aviolation against the already existing segregation laws.
The seatingarrangements proposed was already in practice in another Alabama city, Mobil. The Mobil bus company was also run by the same bus company as the Montgomery busline. Attorney Crenshaw was adamant about the seating proposal. CommissionerFrank 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 thefirst to go along with it, but it just isn’t legal. The only way that it can bedone is to change the segregation laws. Commissioner Clyde Sellers who wasstaunchly opposed to segregation was not about to compromise. Crenshaw did nothelp the MIA in stating that If we granted the Negroes these demands, theywould