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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 (1955-1956)
from The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia

Protest against racial segregation that led to a Supreme Court decision banning discrimination in intrastate transportation.

Angered by abusive bus drivers, leaders of the Montgomery, Alabama, African American community resolved to challenge the practice of reserving seats at the front of the bus for whites and, if additional whites boarded, forcing blacks to surrender their seats. Most bus patrons, about 80 percent, consisted of blacks. On December 1, 1955, police arrested Rosa Parks, an African American seamstress, for violating a local ordinance by declining to surrender her seat to a white man. Angered at the arrest, blacks called for a one-day bus boycott that proved a resounding success. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), led by Martin Luther King Jr., then asked all Montgomery residents to refrain from riding buses until the conclusion of an agreement between MIA and the city of Birmingham concerning fare reductions, employment for black drivers, and a policy reserving five seats instead of 10 for whites. Throughout the boycott, hundreds of people walked, while those with cars willingly served as chauffeurs. The MIA developed its own transportation service, hiring drivers and paying for the fuel used to transport people to work. Reluctant to lose household help, some white employers increased their employees’ transportation stipend to cover taxi fare, while others increased wages. Because the business community had shown little support for the boycott, many black Montgomery residents decided to buy only essentials until the boycott ended because of the difficulty of carrying large purchases home without transportation. Many boycotters decided to trade only with black business operators. Beset by reduced sales, some white-owned businesses began closing early or going bankrupt. The bus company discontinued lines and laid off drivers. Rates were cut for the few buses still in operation, and buses ran much less frequently than they had in the past. The boycotters eventually won when in 1956 the Supreme Court let stand without review an opinion of a lower court mandating integration. The Court case was the deciding factor that ended the boycott on December 21, 1956.

Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and fueled the civil rights movement, sits in the front of a bus on December 21, 1956. After the court ruling in NAACP v. St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (1955), the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation in public transit. (Library of Congress.)

See also: Volume One: Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968).

  • Garrow, David J., ed. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
  • Caryn E. Neumann
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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