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Mon, 12.05.1955

The Montgomery Bus Boycott Begins

"United We Stood"

On this date in 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred. This was one of the pivotal starting points of the modern American Civil Rights movement.

In Montgomery, Alabama, segregation was a part of everyday life.  Blacks who lived there faced Jim Crow Laws in parks, schools, restrooms, theaters, and buses. The country's laws 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 among Montgomery Blacks of that era was the segregation law of the bus system.  Although Blacks were the majority, they were forced to adhere to oppressive bus conditions.  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 front of the bus and then walk to the back door to board the bus. Sometimes, bus drivers would take off before the passenger could get on, leaving their passengers 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 front of the bus, regardless of whether the seats were empty.

After Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, the news of this event spread to 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.  The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed, with King as its leader. The MIA adopted a plan of action for the protest that was officially to begin on December 5th.  The resolution stated three demands: 1) Blacks would not ride the buses until polite treatment by bus drivers was guaranteed. 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 by 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 into ending the movement. Reverend Robert Graetz, a white minister serving 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 made it almost impossible for the carpool system to take place. Eventually, the city filed suit against leaders of the movement, citing that the carpool 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.

Reference:

King Institute.Stanford.edu

History.com

Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History
Volume 1, ISBN #0-02-897345-3, Pg 175
Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, Cornel West

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