Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama

Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama
Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama

The bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, served as the most prominent example of effective grassroots activism within the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, while also demonstrating the limits of such activism in the absence of support from the federal government. The boycott centered on the Jim Crow laws that governed the Montgomery bus system.

The buses were segregated, with white riders allowed to sit in the front while black riders were limited to the back of the bus. The bus drivers, all of whom were white, were empowered to order black riders out of their seats to allow whites to sit if necessary.

The immediate catalyst for the boycott was the arrest of Rosa Parks, the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for refusing to vacate her seat to allow a white man to sit down. Parks’s arrest on Friday, December 5, 1955, became a rallying point for the African-American community.

A committee called the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed that weekend, and decided to boycott the bus system until a set of limited demands were met. The association chose the 26-year-old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as its primary spokesperson.

White leaders in Montgomery initially believed that the boycott would fizzle out due to the winter season and the fact that most of the African Americans in Montgomery utilized the buses to travel to work. The bus company desired a settlement.

City officials, on the other hand, with the support of racist organizations, decided to try to break the boycott through legal pressure, harassment, and intimidation. The city threatened to cancel the insurance of black-owned taxi companies, ticketed cars containing more than one passenger, and arrested the leaders of the association on felony conspiracy charges.

The NAACP, although somewhat critical of the boycott, led a legal challenge to Montgomery’s laws segregating public transportation. A federal district court ruled in the NAACP’s favor, leading to an appeal by Alabama officials to the Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the Court ruled that the segregation of public transportation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The buses were integrated within a month.

Despite this victory, the rest of the Jim Crow laws governing race relations in Montgomery remained intact, as did the segregation of transportation across most of the rest of the South. Furthermore, the response of Montgomery leaders provided an indication of the willingness of many whites to resist even limited African-American attempts to obtain civil rights.

The boycott did have some positive consequences. It demonstrated the potential effectiveness of nonviolent protest accompanied by aggressive legal action. It also launched the public career of Martin Luther King Jr., who shortly thereafter founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to continue to organize further peaceful grassroots protests across the South, setting up the more extensive and successful efforts of the 1960s.