This church was the backbone of the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott--the first locally-initiated mass protest against racial discrimination and a "model" for other grass-roots demonstrations. The boycott proved how members of a black community could unite in resistance to segregation, and it heralded a new era of "direct action." The event also propelled Martin Luther King, Jr., into the national spotlight.
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, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks--a 42-year-old seamstress and NAACP member--refused to give up her seat on a crowded city bus to make room for white passengers. She was arrested and jailed.
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, where local black leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to spearhead a boycott and negotiate with the bus company. They named Dexter's new minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., president.
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, but the company reluctantly desegregated its buses only after November 13, 1956, when the Supreme Court ruled Alabama's bus segregation laws unconstitutional.