Last updated: September 21, 2022
Years before the boycott, Dexter Avenue minister Vernon Johns sat down in the "whites-only" section of a city bus. When the driver ordered him off the bus, Johns urged other passengers to join him. On March 2, 1955, a black teenager named Claudette Colvin dared to defy bus segregation laws and was forcibly removed from another Montgomery bus.
Nine months later, Rosa Parks - a 42-year-old seamstress and NAACP member- wanted a guaranteed seat on the bus for her ride home after working as a seamstress in a Montgomery department store. After work, she saw a crowded bus stop. Knowing that she would not be able to sit, Parks went to a local drugstore to buy an electric heating pad. After shopping, Parks entered the less crowded Cleveland Avenue bus and was able to find an open seat in the 'colored' section of the bus for her ride home.
Despite having segregated seating arrangements on public buses, it was routine in Montgomery for bus drivers to force African Americans out of their seats for a white passenger. There was very little African Americans could do to stop the practice because bus drivers in Montgomery had the legal ability to arrest passengers for refusing to obey their orders. After a few stops on Parks’ ride home, the white seating section of the bus became full. The driver demanded that Parks give up her seat on the bus so a white passenger could sit down. Parks refused to surrender her seat and was arrested for violating the bus driver’s orders.
Organizing the Boycott
Montgomery's black citizens reacted decisively to the incident. By December 2, schoolteacher Jo Ann Robinson had mimeographed and delivered 50,000 protest leaflets around town. E.D. Nixon, a local labor leader, organized a December 4 meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where local black leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA)to spearhead a boycott and negotiate with the bus company.
Over 70% of the cities bus patrons were African American and the one-day boycott was 90% effective. The MIA elected as their president a new but charismatic preacher, Martin Luther King Jr. Under his leadership, the boycott continued with astonishing success. The MIA established a carpool for African Americans. Over 200 people volunteered their car for a car pool and roughly 100 pickup stations operated within the city. To help fund the car pool, the MIA held mass gatherings at various African American churches where donations were collected and members heard news about the success of the boycott.
Roots in Brown v Board
Fred Gray, member and lawyer of the MIA, organized a legal challenge to the city ordinances requiring segregation on Montgomery buses. Before 1954, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision ruled that segregation was constitutional as long as it was equal. Yet, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawed segregation in public schools. Therefore, it opened the door to challenge segregation in other areas as well, such as city busing. Gray gathered Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith to challenge the constitutionality of the city busing laws. All four of the women had been previously mistreated on the city buses because of their race. The case took the name Browder v. Gayle. Gray argued their 14th Amendment right to equal protection of the law was violated, the same argument made in the Brown v. Board of Education case.
On June 5, 1956, a three-judge U.S. District Court ruled 2-1 that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. The majority cited Brown v. Board of Education as a legal precedent for desegregation and concluded, “In fact, we think that Plessy v. Ferguson has been impliedly, though not explicitly, overruled,…there is now no rational basis upon which the separate but equal doctrine can be validly applied to public carrier transportation...”
The city of Montgomery appealed the U.S. District Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and continued to practice segregation on city busing.
For nearly a year, buses were virtually empty in Montgomery. Boycott supporters walked to work--as many as eight miles a day--or they used a sophisticated system of carpools with volunteer drivers and dispatchers. Some took station-wagon "rolling taxis" donated by local churches.
Montgomery City Lines lost between 30,000 and 40,000 bus fares each day during the boycott. The bus company that operated the city busing had suffered financially from the seven month long boycott and the city became desperate to end the boycott. Local police began to harass King and other MIA leaders. Car pool drivers were arrested and taken to court for petty traffic violations. Despite all the harassment, the boycott remained over 90% successful. African Americans took pride in the inconveniences caused by limited transportation. One elderly African American woman replied that, “My soul has been tired for a long time. Now my feet are tired, and my soul is resting.” The promise of equality declared in Brown v. Board of Education for Montgomery African Americans helped motivate them to continue the boycott.
The company reluctantly desegregated its buses only after November 13, 1956, when the Supreme Court ruled Alabama's bus segregation laws unconstitutional.
Beginning a Movement
The Montgomery bus boycott began the modern Civil Rights Movement and established Martin Luther King Jr. as its leader. King instituted the practice of massive non-violent civil disobedience to injustice, which he learned from studying Gandhi. Montgomery, Alabama became the model of massive non-violent civil disobedience that was practiced in such places as Birmingham, Selma, and Memphis. Even though the Civil Rights Movement was a social and political movement, it was influenced by the legal foundation established from Brown v. Board of Education.
Brown overturned the long held practice of the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy. From then on, any legal challenge on segregation cited Brown as a precedent for desegregation. Without Brown, it is impossible to know what would have happened in Montgomery during the boycott.
The boycott would have been difficult to continue because the city would have won its challenge to shut down the car pool. Without the car pool and without any legal precedent to end segregation, the legal process could have lasted years. Those involved in the boycott might have lost hope and given up with the lack of progress. However, the precedent established by Brown gave boycotters hope that a legal challenge would successfully end segregation on city buses. Therefore, the influence of Brown on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement is undeniable. King described Brown’s influence as, “To all men of good will, this decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity. It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of colored people throughout the world who had had a dim vision of the promised land of freedom and justice . . . this decision came as a legal and sociological deathblow to an evil that had occupied the throne of American life for several decades.”