On this date in 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred. This was one of the pivotal starting points of the modern civil rights movement in America.
In Montgomery, Alabama, segregation was a part of everyday life. Blacks who lived there faced segregation in places such as parks, schools, restrooms, theaters, and buses. The laws of the country made it hard for Blacks to register and participate in elections. The justice system discriminated against them, unjustly jailing and prosecuting many, while banning them from holding public office. One particular area of bitterness amongst Montgomery Blacks of that era was the segregation law of the bus system. Although Blacks were the majority of, they were forced to adhere to oppressive conditions on buses. The bus drivers, all of whom were white, treated Blacks with racist and abusive attitudes, often calling their passengers derogatory names such as “nigger,” “Black cow,” and “Black ape.”
They often required blacks to pay their fares in the front of the bus, and then walk to the back door to board the bus. Sometimes, though, bus drivers would take off before the passenger could get on, leaving their passenger behind. While this practice often angered Blacks, the practices of “White-only” seating angered them even more. The law stated that Blacks could not sit in the front of the bus, regardless of whether the seats were empty or not.
After Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, the news of this event spread through the Black community. Community members decided that a boycott of the bus system was long overdue. Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Committee began to organize a one-day protest. When the word spread about the protest, several other Black leaders wanted to convene.
Under the leadership of E.D. Nixon, former chair of the NAACP of Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, H.H. Hubbard, and Ms. A.W. West an organized movement got underway. To resourcefully carry out this goal, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed, with King as their leader. The MIA adopted a plan of action for the protest that was officially to begin on December 5. The resolution stated three demands: 1) Blacks would not ride the buses until polite treatment by bus drivers was guaranteed to them. 2) Segregation must be abolished on buses and a first-come first-served policy adapted and 3) Black bus drivers must be employed. Deciding that they could no longer fight the county of Montgomery, Black leaders filed a federal lawsuit against Montgomery’s segregation laws, because they were not in accordance with the 14th amendment.
On May 11, 1956, the case was heard before a three-panel federal court. About three weeks later in a two to one decision, the court decided that the segregation laws were indeed unconstitutional. The Montgomery County lawyers immediately appealed the decision in the Supreme Court. While the boycotters were waiting for the Supreme Court to rule, the protest continued.
During that time, incidents continued to try to intimidate the leaders to end the movement. Reverend Robert Graetz, a white minister, who served a predominately Black church, had his house bombed. The mayor denounced the incident as a publicity stunt by Blacks and reiterated that whites did not care if the boycott lasted forever. Harassment by cops increased and insurance policies continued to be canceled. The law was making it almost impossible for the carpool system to take place and eventually the city filed suit against leaders of the movement, citing that the car pool was a “public nuisance” and an illegal “private enterprise.” On November 13, 1956, leaders readied to face one of the darkest days of the movement, knowing that without the car-pool system people might be forced to ride the buses.
While in Montgomery waiting for the decision about the carpools, King received a message from the federal court. It simply stated that “the motion to affirm is granted and the judgment is affirmed,” meaning that the Supreme Court supported the decision that segregation on the buses was illegal. The next night the official boycott was called to a conclusion, but it was soon revealed that the order would not reach Montgomery for about a month. Faced with the obstacle of not being able to participate in carpools, a “share a ride” system was worked out and the buses remained empty for another 30 days.
On December 20, 1956, the mandate came to Montgomery. The next day, King, Abernathy, and Nixon were the first to integrate the buses. The boycott was over.