Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Montgomery Bus Boycott from Chambers Dictionary of World History

The first major instance of black activism during the civil rights movement. It began after a black woman, Rosa Lee Parks, was arrested for sitting in the white section of a bus. Mobilized by Martin Luther King, the black community boycotted the bus service in Montgomery, Alabama, for 381 days until the bus company was persuaded by a 65 per cent drop in revenue, and a Supreme Court decision that declared bus segregation unconstitutional, to integrate its seating (21 Dec 1956). The event also marked the beginning of King's rise as a civil rights leader.


Summary Article: Montgomery Bus Boycott
from The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism
  • Israel
  • nationalism
  • Zionism

Many events took place in Alabama during the civil rights movement, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Its capitol, Montgomery, is the namesake of the bus boycott that brought national and international attention to a movement that had been fought by African Americans and others for generations. The Montgomery Bus Boycott (December 5, 1955–December 20, 1956) gave rise to significant leaders and institutions such as Mrs. Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery Improvement Association, forever imprinting them as iconic symbols of the movement.

African Americans, or blacks, represented 75 percent of those who used the Montgomery City Transit Lines, which were racially segregated. By law, the first ten rows of seats were reserved for European Americans, or whites, however, if buses were crowded, white passengers would have access to all, and blacks would be forced to give up their allotted seats. Blacks were subjected to verbal and physical abuse by bus drivers, such as paying double fare, taking a patron's money without allowing him/her to board the bus, and being called racist and sexist names. To no avail, they sent complaints about this treatment to the sixty-eight civic, social, and political organizations fighting to uplift and aid Montgomery's black community. Three organizations were the most prominent: the Progressive Democratic Association headed by E. D. Nixon, the Citizens' Steering Committee led by Rufus Lewis, and the Women's Political Council (WPC) led by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson.

Those three organizations requested meetings with the mayor, W. A. Gayle, the bus manager, J. H. Bagley, and other city officials. However, no action was ever taken regarding the complaints. After continuous ill-treatment, insurmountable complaints, and ineffective meetings, the clergy decided to support the black masses by forming the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA), and Robinson wrote a letter to Mayor Gayle on behalf of the WPC on May 21, 1954, threatening a boycott if there were not great improvements for African Americans on the city buses.

The three women whose refusal to give up their seats on the bus fueled the threat of a boycott were Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Rosa Parks. After Colvin's arrest, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was created as one large organization encompassing the sixty-eight existing ones. However, it was not until December 1, 1955, when Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat, that the boycott officially began.

During the night of Parks's arrest and release on bond until the next day, Robinson, two of her students from Alabama State College, and the WPC drafted and distributed leaflets asking black people to boycott the bus system for one day. Simultaneously, the IMA held a meeting that night to organize the boycott at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the pastor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was elected president of the MIA and named the leader of the boycott. At that meeting transportation committees were formed. People volunteered their cars and members mapped out routes. Because a black domestic worker gave a leaflet to her white employer, the boycott was announced to the media.

The boycott began on December 5, 1955, the day of Parks's trial. City buses were followed by two motor policemen to protect potential passengers. Yet, black passengers and the majority of white passengers did not use the buses. That evening a rally took place at Holt Street Baptist Church. The press was notified, which helped to publicize it. The clergy encouraged “passive resistance” (Robinson 1986: 56). The leaders gave a brief report of the effectiveness of the day's nonviolent and legal boycott. The assembled group agreed to continue the boycott. Dr. King, who initially was not seeking integration, contrary to the WPC, but fair treatment, and the MIA “pledged to protect, defend, encourage, enlighten, and assist the members of the Black community against unfair treatment, prejudice, and unacceptable subordination” (Robinson 1986: 64).

Despite a 75 percent loss of transit funds, merchants losing their customers and businesses, the bus line having to lay off workers and cease transportation during the Christmas holiday, and research by Bagley showing that integrated bus systems worked, the meetings between the City Commissioners, the Montgomery City Transit Lines, and the MIA were unsuccessful. The boycott continued, and blacks asked the MIA leadership to discontinue meeting with the Commissioners' Office. The MIA, however, met with Governor James Folsom, who suggested it end the boycott because the black community's point was proven. However, after consulting with black groups, the MIA decided to continue the boycott.

Still, some boycotters were weary and disillusioned. On January 30, 1956, Dr. King's house was bombed, which invigorated the masses. Attorney Fred Gray, the NAACP, and others filed a suit on behalf of five clients, including Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, against the City Commissioners and the segregation laws. Thus, the fight changed from boycotting the busses to the larger issue: social, economic, and political integration. Consequently, Nixon's house was bombed, and violence and terrorism against the black community ensued.

In February 1956, a grand jury convened to investigate the boycott. Attorney Gray was indicted, black citizens were subpoenaed, and an investigation of MIA records was conducted. White businessmen met with the MIA leadership on February 13, 1956, to stop the boycott, but there was no agreement. Thereafter, the grand jury stated the boycott was illegal, and 115 boycott leaders were charged. The MIA treasury received funds to help with legal expenses from people around the world, who questioned the hypocrisy of segregation.

On March 19, 1956, Dr. King, whose trial was set before others, was found guilty of boycotting buses. Therefore, the MIA's lawyers took the case to the federal court. On June 5, 1956, Judges Richard T. Rives and Frank M. Johnson ruled two to one that segregation on Montgomery's city buses was unconstitutional. In November 1956, the US Supreme Court issued a brief order to uphold the ruling. The City Commissioners tried to postpone it and asked the courts for reconsideration. The court rejected their request on December 20, 1956. After thirteen months of dedication and sacrifice, the boycotters won. On December 21, 1956, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Ralph Abernathy were the first to ride in the front of the bus.

SEE ALSO: Civil Rights Movement

REFERENCES

  • Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson. 1987. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of JoAnn Gibson Robinson, edited by Garrow, David J. . University of Tennessee Press Knoxville.
  • FURTHER READING
  • Banks, Mary Fairbanks. 1990. “Trailblazers: Women in the Montgomery Boycott.” In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941-1965, edited by Vickie L. Crawford; Jacqueline Anne Rouse; Barbara Woods, 71-83. Indiana University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis.
  • SASHA R. JOHNSON-COLEMAN
    Norfolk State University USA
    Copyright © 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    Related Articles


    Full text Article Montgomery Bus Boycott
    Encyclopedia of African American Society

    Mass protest that led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision declaring segregation on buses to be unconstitutional. The Montgomery bus boycott also...

    Full text Article Montgomery Bus Boycott
    Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice

    One of the most effective tools of nonviolent resistance, the economic boycott, was demonstrated by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began in...

    Full text Article Martin Luther King Jr: Montgomery Bus Boycott, December 5, 1955
    Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches

    (1929–1968) There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. Like African-American...

    See more from Credo