Eye on the Prize: Montgomery Bus Boycott Changes History

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"I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.

It was not pre-arranged. It just happened that the driver made a demand and I just didn't feel like obeying his demand. I was quite tired after spending a full day working." — Rosa Parks

In November of 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws allowing racial segregation on public buses. The battle to desegregate buses and other public facilities fueled the Civil Rights Movement and drew attention to the cause throughout the nation.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott was at the center of the movement. The campaign began in December 1955 when Rosa Parks (1915-2005), a seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and was arrested.

Approximately 40,000 people participated in the boycott within two days of Parks’ arrest.  Dr. Martin Luther King, 26, delivered an inspiring speech to supporters of the boycott. , "If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong." King was a highly visible figure during the boycott.

On Montgomery buses, white people who boarded the bus took seats in the front rows, filling the bus toward the back. Black people who boarded the bus took seats in the back rows, filling the bus toward the front. Eventually, the two sections would meet, and the bus would be full. If other black people boarded the bus, they were required to stand. If another white person boarded the bus, then everyone in the black row nearest the front had to get up and stand, so that a new row for white people could be created. Often when boarding the buses, black people were required to pay at the front, get off, and reenter the bus through a separate door at the back.

The boycott lasted until December 1956. The bus company suffered economically; violence erupts; bombs are thrown at organizers' homes; and the white Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan hold rallies.

"Mrs. Parks’ arrest was the precipitating factor rather than the cause of the protest," Dr. King wrote in his 1958 book, "Stride toward Freedom." The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices."

Rosa ParksRosa Parks was an active member in the Montgomery N.A.A.C.P. chapter, and she and her husband, Raymond, a barber, had taken part in voter registration drives.

She attended interracial leadership meetings in 1955, which she said, helped changed her perspective. She said she, "gained strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks but for all oppressed people."

However, the day she refused to give up her seat, she said was not planning on becoming "the mother of the civil rights movement," as many would later describe her. She had some important things to do in the evening and needed to get home."So it was not a time for me to be planning to get arrested," she said

"My resisting being mistreated on the bus did not begin with that particular arrest," she said. "I did a lot of walking in Montgomery."

In a strange twist of fate in1943, a driver named James Blake ejected Mrs. Parks from his bus. Believe it or not, he was driving the Cleveland Avenue bus on Dec. 1, 1955, on which Mrs. Parks stepped on.  He told four blacks give up their seats in the middle section so a lone white man could sit. Three were willing to so.

Recalling the incident for "Eyes on the Prize," a 1987 public television series on the civil rights movement, Parks said: "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.' "

Her arrest was the lynchpin to the boycott led by the local Women’s Political Council, which was set up in 1946 in response to the mistreatment of black bus riders.

The group’s demands seem simple today: that they be treated with courtesy, that black drivers be hired, and that seating in the middle of the bus go on a first-come basis.

According to The New York Times, “The boycott lasted 381 days, and in that period many blacks were harassed and arrested on flimsy excuses. Churches and houses, including those of Dr. King and (others), were dynamited.

“Finally, on Nov. 13, 1956, in Browder v. Gayle, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation on buses. The court order arrived in Montgomery on Dec. 20; the boycott ended the next day. But the violence escalated: snipers fired into buses as well as Dr. King's home, and bombs were tossed into churches and into the homes of ministers.”

Pressure increased across the country and on June 4, 1956, the federal district court ruled that Alabama's racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional. However, an appeal kept the segregation intact, and the boycott continued. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the district court's ruling, leading to a city ordinance that allowed black bus passengers to sit virtually anywhere they wanted. The boycott officially ended December 20, 1956, after 381 days. The Montgomery Bus Boycott resounded far beyond the desegregation of public buses; it stimulated the national civil rights movement and launched King into the national spotlight as a leader.

 

Visit your local library for these resources:

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
Jeanne Theoharis, (Jan. 2013).
The national narrative on Parks is that of a reluctant champion of civil rights whose single action was refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Historian Theoharis offers a complex portrait of a forceful, determined woman who had long been active before the boycott she inspired and who had an even longer career in civil rights afterward. Drawing on a decade of research, the historian chronicles Parks’ personal journey to resistance, her work in the South challenging segregation and promoting voter registration, and her continued efforts in Detroit to address racial restrictions that had ostensibly been resolved by civil rights legislation. —Excerpt of review by Vanessa Bush first published November 15, 2012 (Booklist).

       
At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power
Danielle L. McGuire, (2010).
Long before Rosa Parks became famous for resisting Jim Crow laws, she was engaged in advocating for social justice for black women who were the victims of sexual violence at the hands of white men. Historian McGuire aims to rewrite the history of the civil rights movement by highlighting sexual violence in the broader context of racial injustice and the fight for freedom. —Excerpt of review by Vanessa Bush first published September 15, 2010 (Booklist).

 

A History of Civil Rights in America (DVD)
Ronald C Meyer; Mark Reeder; Alphonse Keasley; Jane Simms Roche; David Arkenstone, (2011).
Beginning with the Founding Fathers, this well-structured, comprehensive eight-part program presents a chronological overview (1774 through 2010) of key figures and events that helped shape the civil rights movement. Host Tim Johnson reminds viewers that our nation was founded by wealthy, educated white men, and it took years before women, African Americans, and other minorities were allowed to vote. —Excerpt of review by Candace Smith first published October 5, 2011 (Booklist Online).

Parting The Waters: America In The King Years, 1954-63
Taylor Branch, (1988).

Pillar of fire : America in the King years, 1963-65
Taylor Branch, (1998).

At Canaan's edge : America in the King years, 1965-68
Taylor Branch, (2006).

Eyes on The Prize Civil Rights Reader: documents, speeches, and first hand accounts from the black freedom struggle
Clayborne Carson et al., editors, (1991). 

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
David J. Garrow, (1986).

The Origins Of The Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing For Change
Aldon D. Morris, (1984). 

 

Berg, Allison, “Trauma and Testimony in Black Women’s Civil Rights Memoirs: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, Warriors Don’t Cry, and From the Mississippi Delta,” Journal of Women’s History, 21 (Fall 2009), 84–107.

 

 

Images:

The National City Lines bus, No. 2857, on which Rosa Parks was riding before she was arrested (a GM "old-look" transit bus, serial number 1132), is now a museum exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum.

Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (ca. 1955)Source: Ebony Magazine

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