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Course: US history > Unit 8
- Introduction to the Civil Rights Movement
- African American veterans and the Civil Rights Movement
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
- Emmett Till
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
- "Massive Resistance" and the Little Rock Nine
- The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
- SNCC and CORE
- Black Power
- The Civil Rights Movement
- On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks , a black seamstress, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her bus seat so that white passengers could sit in it.
- Rosa Parks’s arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott , during which the black citizens of Montgomery refused to ride the city’s buses in protest over the bus system’s policy of racial segregation. It was the first mass-action of the modern civil rights era, and served as an inspiration to other civil rights activists across the nation.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. , a Baptist minister who endorsed nonviolent civil disobedience, emerged as leader of the Boycott.
- Following a November 1956 ruling by the Supreme Court that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional, the bus boycott ended successfully. It had lasted 381 days.
Rosa Parks’s arrest
Origins of the bus boycott, the boycott succeeds, what do you think, want to join the conversation.
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Montgomery Bus Boycott
By: History.com Editors
Updated: January 10, 2023 | Original: February 3, 2010
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a civil rights protest during which African Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregated seating. The boycott took place from December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956, and is regarded as the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation. Four days before the boycott began, Rosa Parks , an African American woman, was arrested and fined for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system, and one of the leaders of the boycott, a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. , emerged as a prominent leader of the American civil rights movement .
Rosa Parks' Bus
In 1955, African Americans were still required by a Montgomery, Alabama , city ordinance to sit in the back half of city buses and to yield their seats to white riders if the front half of the bus, reserved for whites, was full.
But on December 1, 1955, African American seamstress Rosa Parks was commuting home on Montgomery’s Cleveland Avenue bus from her job at a local department store. She was seated in the front row of the “colored section.” When the white seats filled, the driver, J. Fred Blake, asked Parks and three others to vacate their seats. The other Black riders complied, but Parks refused.
She was arrested and fined $10, plus $4 in court fees. This was not Parks’ first encounter with Blake. In 1943, she had paid her fare at the front of a bus he was driving, then exited so she could re-enter through the back door, as required. Blake pulled away before she could re-board the bus.
Did you know? Nine months before Rosa Parks' arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery for the same act. The city's Black leaders prepared to protest, until it was discovered Colvin was pregnant and deemed an inappropriate symbol for their cause.
Although Parks has sometimes been depicted as a woman with no history of civil rights activism at the time of her arrest, she and her husband Raymond were, in fact, active in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP ), and Parks served as its secretary.
Upon her arrest, Parks called E.D. Nixon, a prominent Black leader, who bailed her out of jail and determined she would be an upstanding and sympathetic plaintiff in a legal challenge of the segregation ordinance. African American leaders decided to attack the ordinance using other tactics as well.
The Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of Black women working for civil rights, began circulating flyers calling for a boycott of the bus system on December 5, the day Parks would be tried in municipal court. The boycott was organized by WPC President Jo Ann Robinson.
Montgomery’s African Americans Mobilize
As news of the boycott spread, African American leaders across Montgomery (Alabama’s capital city) began lending their support. Black ministers announced the boycott in church on Sunday, December 4, and the Montgomery Advertiser , a general-interest newspaper, published a front-page article on the planned action.
Approximately 40,000 Black bus riders—the majority of the city’s bus riders—boycotted the system the next day, December 5. That afternoon, Black leaders met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The group elected Martin Luther King Jr. , the 26-year-old-pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church , as its president, and decided to continue the boycott until the city met its demands.
Initially, the demands did not include changing the segregation laws; rather, the group demanded courtesy, the hiring of Black drivers, and a first-come, first-seated policy, with whites entering and filling seats from the front and African Americans from the rear.
Ultimately, however, a group of five Montgomery women, represented by attorney Fred D. Gray and the NAACP, sued the city in U.S. District Court, seeking to have the busing segregation laws totally invalidated.
Although African Americans represented at least 75 percent of Montgomery’s bus ridership, the city resisted complying with the protester’s demands. To ensure the boycott could be sustained, Black leaders organized carpools, and the city’s African American taxi drivers charged only 10 cents—the same price as bus fare—for African American riders.
Many Black residents chose simply to walk to work or other destinations. Black leaders organized regular mass meetings to keep African American residents mobilized around the boycott.
Integration at Last
On June 5, 1956, a Montgomery federal court ruled that any law requiring racially segregated seating on buses violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution . That amendment, adopted in 1868 following the U.S. Civil War , guarantees all citizens—regardless of race—equal rights and equal protection under state and federal laws.
The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court , which upheld the lower court’s decision on December 20, 1956. Montgomery’s buses were integrated on December 21, 1956, and the boycott ended. It had lasted 381 days.
Bus Boycott Meets With Violence
Integration, however, met with significant resistance and even violence. While the buses themselves were integrated, Montgomery maintained segregated bus stops. Snipers began firing into buses, and one shooter shattered both legs of a pregnant African American passenger.
In January 1957, four Black churches and the homes of prominent Black leaders were bombed; a bomb at King’s house was defused. On January 30, 1957, the Montgomery police arrested seven bombers; all were members of the Ku Klux Klan , a white supremacist group. The arrests largely brought an end to the busing-related violence.
Boycott Puts Martin Luther King Jr. in Spotlight
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was significant on several fronts. First, it is widely regarded as the earliest mass protest on behalf of civil rights in the United States, setting the stage for additional large-scale actions outside the court system to bring about fair treatment for African Americans.
Second, in his leadership of the MIA, Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a prominent national leader of the civil rights movement while also solidifying his commitment to nonviolent resistance. King’s approach remained a hallmark of the civil rights movement throughout the 1960s.
Shortly after the boycott’s end, he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a highly influential civil rights organization that worked to end segregation throughout the South. The SCLC was instrumental in the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, and the March on Washington in August of that same year, during which King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech .
The boycott also brought national and international attention to the civil rights struggles occurring in the United States, as more than 100 reporters visited Montgomery during the boycott to profile the effort and its leaders.
Rosa Parks, while shying from the spotlight throughout her life, remained an esteemed figure in the history of American civil rights activism. In 1999, the U.S. Congress awarded her its highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.
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- Alabama Review
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Fall of the Montgomery City Lines
- Felicia Mcghee
- The University of Alabama Press
- Volume 68, Number 3, July 2015
- pp. 251-268
- View Citation
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Montgomery Bus Boycott
December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956
Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott was a 13-month mass protest that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) coordinated the boycott, and its president, Martin Luther King, Jr., became a prominent civil rights leader as international attention focused on Montgomery. The bus boycott demonstrated the potential for nonviolent mass protest to successfully challenge racial segregation and served as an example for other southern campaigns that followed. In Stride Toward Freedom , King’s 1958 memoir of the boycott, he declared the real meaning of the Montgomery bus boycott to be the power of a growing self-respect to animate the struggle for civil rights.
The roots of the bus boycott began years before the arrest of Rosa Parks. The Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of black professionals founded in 1946, had already turned their attention to Jim Crow practices on the Montgomery city buses. In a meeting with Mayor W. A. Gayle in March 1954, the council's members outlined the changes they sought for Montgomery’s bus system: no one standing over empty seats; a decree that black individuals not be made to pay at the front of the bus and enter from the rear; and a policy that would require buses to stop at every corner in black residential areas, as they did in white communities. When the meeting failed to produce any meaningful change, WPC president Jo Ann Robinson reiterated the council’s requests in a 21 May letter to Mayor Gayle, telling him, “There has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of buses” (“A Letter from the Women’s Political Council”).
A year after the WPC’s meeting with Mayor Gayle, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested for challenging segregation on a Montgomery bus. Seven months later, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger. Neither arrest, however, mobilized Montgomery’s black community like that of Rosa Parks later that year.
King recalled in his memoir that “Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history,” and because “her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted” she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community” (King, 44). Robinson and the WPC responded to Parks’ arrest by calling for a one-day protest of the city’s buses on 5 December 1955. Robinson prepared a series of leaflets at Alabama State College and organized groups to distribute them throughout the black community. Meanwhile, after securing bail for Parks with Clifford and Virginia Durr , E. D. Nixon , past leader of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), began to call local black leaders, including Ralph Abernathy and King, to organize a planning meeting. On 2 December, black ministers and leaders met at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and agreed to publicize the 5 December boycott. The planned protest received unexpected publicity in the weekend newspapers and in radio and television reports.
On 5 December, 90 percent of Montgomery’s black citizens stayed off the buses. That afternoon, the city’s ministers and leaders met to discuss the possibility of extending the boycott into a long-term campaign. During this meeting the MIA was formed, and King was elected president. Parks recalled: “The advantage of having Dr. King as president was that he was so new to Montgomery and to civil rights work that he hadn’t been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies” (Parks, 136).
That evening, at a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church , the MIA voted to continue the boycott. King spoke to several thousand people at the meeting: “I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong.… If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong” ( Papers 3:73 ). After unsuccessful talks with city commissioners and bus company officials, on 8 December the MIA issued a formal list of demands: courteous treatment by bus operators; first-come, first-served seating for all, with blacks seating from the rear and whites from the front; and black bus operators on predominately black routes.
The demands were not met, and Montgomery’s black residents stayed off the buses through 1956, despite efforts by city officials and white citizens to defeat the boycott. After the city began to penalize black taxi drivers for aiding the boycotters, the MIA organized a carpool. Following the advice of T. J. Jemison , who had organized a carpool during a 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge, the MIA developed an intricate carpool system of about 300 cars. Robert Hughes and others from the Alabama Council for Human Relations organized meetings between the MIA and city officials, but no agreements were reached.
In early 1956, the homes of King and E. D. Nixon were bombed. King was able to calm the crowd that gathered at his home by declaring: “Be calm as I and my family are. We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place” ( Papers 3:115 ). City officials obtained injunctions against the boycott in February 1956, and indicted over 80 boycott leaders under a 1921 law prohibiting conspiracies that interfered with lawful business. King was tried and convicted on the charge and ordered to pay $500 or serve 386 days in jail in the case State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr. Despite this resistance, the boycott continued.
Although most of the publicity about the protest was centered on the actions of black ministers, women played crucial roles in the success of the boycott. Women such as Robinson, Johnnie Carr , and Irene West sustained the MIA committees and volunteer networks. Mary Fair Burks of the WPC also attributed the success of the boycott to “the nameless cooks and maids who walked endless miles for a year to bring about the breach in the walls of segregation” (Burks, “Trailblazers,” 82). In his memoir, King quotes an elderly woman who proclaimed that she had joined the boycott not for her own benefit but for the good of her children and grandchildren (King, 78).
National coverage of the boycott and King’s trial resulted in support from people outside Montgomery. In early 1956 veteran pacifists Bayard Rustin and Glenn E. Smiley visited Montgomery and offered King advice on the application of Gandhian techniques and nonviolence to American race relations. Rustin, Ella Baker , and Stanley Levison founded In Friendship to raise funds in the North for southern civil rights efforts, including the bus boycott. King absorbed ideas from these proponents of nonviolent direct action and crafted his own syntheses of Gandhian principles of nonviolence. He said: “Christ showed us the way, and Gandhi in India showed it could work” (Rowland, “2,500 Here Hail”). Other followers of Gandhian ideas such as Richard Gregg , William Stuart Nelson , and Homer Jack wrote the MIA offering support.
On 5 June 1956, the federal district court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that bus segregation was unconstitutional, and in November 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Browder v. Gayle and struck down laws requiring segregated seating on public buses. The court’s decision came the same day that King and the MIA were in circuit court challenging an injunction against the MIA carpools. Resolved not to end the boycott until the order to desegregate the buses actually arrived in Montgomery, the MIA operated without the carpool system for a month. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, and on 20 December 1956 King called for the end of the boycott; the community agreed. The next morning, he boarded an integrated bus with Ralph Abernathy, E. D. Nixon, and Glenn Smiley. King said of the bus boycott: “We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So … we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery” ( Papers 3:486 ). King’s role in the bus boycott garnered international attention, and the MIA’s tactics of combining mass nonviolent protest with Christian ethics became the model for challenging segregation in the South.
Joe Azbell, “Blast Rocks Residence of Bus Boycott Leader,” 31 January 1956, in Papers 3:114–115 .
Baker to King, 24 February 1956, in Papers 3:139 .
Burks, “Trailblazers: Women in the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” in Women in the Civil Rights Movement , ed. Crawford et al., 1990.
“Don’t Ride the Bus,” 2 December 1955, in Papers 3:67 .
U. J. Fields, Minutes of Montgomery Improvement Association Founding Meeting, 5 December 1955, in Papers 3:68–70 .
Gregg to King, 2 April 1956, in Papers 3:211–212 .
Indictment, State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr., et al. , 21 February 1956, in Papers 3:132–133 .
Introduction, in Papers 3:3–7 ; 17–21 ; 29 .
Jack to King, 16 March 1956, in Papers 3:178–179 .
Judgment and Sentence of the Court, State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr. , 22 March 1956, in Papers 3:197 .
King, Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott, 20 December 1956, in Papers 3:485–487 .
King, Stride Toward Freedom , 1958.
King, Testimony in State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr. , 22 March 1956, in Papers 3:183–196 .
King to the National City Lines, Inc., 8 December 1955, in Papers 3:80–81 .
“A Letter from the Women’s Political Council to the Mayor of Montgomery, Alabama,” in Eyes on the Prize , ed. Carson et al., 1991.
MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, 5 December 1955, in Papers 3:71–79 .
Nelson to King, 21 March 1956, in Papers 3:182–183 .
Parks and Haskins, Rosa Parks , 1992.
Robinson, Montgomery Bus Boycott , 1987.
Stanley Rowland, Jr., “2,500 Here Hail Boycott Leader,” New York Times , 26 March 1956.
Rustin to King, 23 December 1956, in Papers 3:491–494 .
Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Written by: Stewart Burns, Union Institute & University
By the end of this section, you will:.
- Explain how and why various groups responded to calls for the expansion of civil rights from 1960 to 1980
Use this narrative with the Jackie Robinson Narrative, The Little Rock Nine Narrative, The Murder of Emmett Till Narrative, and the Rosa Parks’s Account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Radio Interview), April 1956 Primary Source to discuss the rise of the African American civil rights movement pre-1960.
Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery bus boycott when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. The boycott proved to be one of the pivotal moments of the emerging civil rights movement. For 13 months, starting in December 1955, the black citizens of Montgomery protested nonviolently with the goal of desegregating the city’s public buses. By November 1956, the Supreme Court had banned the segregated transportation legalized in 1896 by the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. Montgomery’s boycott was not entirely spontaneous, and Rosa Parks and other activists had prepared to challenge segregation long in advance.
On December 1, 1955, a tired Rosa L. Parks left the department store where she worked as a tailor’s assistant and boarded a crowded city bus for the ride home. She sat down between the “whites only” section in the front and the “colored” section in the back. Black riders were to sit in this middle area only if the back was filled. When a white man boarded, the bus driver ordered four African American passengers to stand so the white passenger could sit. The other riders reluctantly got up, but Parks refused. She knew she was not violating the segregation law, because there were no vacant seats. The police nevertheless arrived and took her to jail.
Parks had not planned her protest, but she was a civil rights activist well trained in civil disobedience so she remained calm and resolute. Other African American women had challenged the community’s segregation statutes in the past several months, but her cup of forbearance had run over. “I had almost a life history of being rebellious against being mistreated because of my color,” Parks recalled. On this occasion more than others “I felt that I was not being treated right and that I had a right to retain the seat that I had taken.” She was fighting for her natural and constitutional rights when she protested against the treatment that stripped away her dignity. “When I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen.” She was attempting to “bring about freedom from this kind of thing.”
Perhaps the incident was not as spontaneous as it appeared, however. Parks was an active participant in the civil rights movement for several years and had served as secretary of both the Montgomery and Alabama state NAACP. She founded the youth council of the local NAACP and trained the young people in civil rights activism. She had even discussed challenging the segregated bus system with the youth council before 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat the previous March. Ill treatment on segregated city buses had festered into the most acute problem in the black community in Montgomery. Segregated buses were part of a system that inflicted Jim Crow segregation upon African Americans.
In 1949, a group of professional black women and men had formed the Women’s Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery. They were dedicated to organizing African Americans to demand equality and civil rights by seeking to change Jim Crow segregation in public transportation. In May 1954, WPC president Jo Ann Robinson informed the mayor that African Americans in the city were considering launching a boycott.
The WPC converted abuse on buses into a glaring public issue, and the group collaborated with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to challenge segregation there. Parks was bailed out of jail by local NAACP leader, E. D. Nixon, who was accompanied by two liberal whites, attorney Clifford Durr and his wife Virginia Foster Durr, leader of the anti-segregation Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF). Virginia Durr had become close friends with Parks. In fact, she helped fund Parks’s attendance at a workshop for two weeks on desegregating schools only a few months before.
The Durrs and Nixon had worked with Parks to plot a strategy for challenging the constitutionality of segregation on Montgomery buses. After Parks’s arrest, Robinson agreed with them and thought the time was ripe for the planned boycott. She worked with two of her students, staying up all night mimeographing flyers announcing a one-day bus boycott for Monday, December 5.
Because of ministers’ leadership in the vibrant African American churches in the city, Nixon called on the ministers to win their support for the boycott. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a young and relatively unknown minister of the middle-class Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was unsure about the timing but offered assistance. Baptist minister Ralph Abernathy eagerly supported the boycott.
On December 5, African Americans boycotted the buses. They walked to work, carpooled, and took taxis as a measure of solidarity. Parks was convicted of violating the segregation law and charged a $14 fine. Because of the success of the boycott, black leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to continue the protest and surprisingly elected Reverend King president.
Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King Jr. in the background, is pictured here soon after the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
After earning his PhD at Boston University’s School of Theology, King had returned to the Deep South with his new bride, Coretta Scott, a college-educated, rural Alabama native. On the night of December 5, 1955, the 26-year-old pastor presided over the first MIA mass meeting, in a supercharged atmosphere of black spirituality. Participants felt the Holy Spirit was alive that night with a palpable power that transfixed. When King rose to speak, unscripted words burst out of him, a Lincoln-like synthesis of the rational and emotional, the secular and sacred. The congregants must protest, he said, because both their divinity and their democracy required it. They would be honored by future generations for their moral courage.
The participants wanted to continue the protest until their demands for fairer treatment were met as well as establishment of a first-come, first-served seating system that kept reserved sections. White leaders predicted that the boycott would soon come to an end because blacks would lose enthusiasm and accept the status quo. When blacks persisted, some of the whites in the community formed the White Citizens’ Council, an opposition movement committed to preserving white supremacy.
The bus boycott continued and was supported by almost all of Montgomery’s 42,000 black residents. The women of the MIA created a complex carpool system that got black citizens to work and school. By late December, city commissioners were concerned about the effects of the boycott on business and initiated talks to try to resolve the dispute. The bus company (which now supported integrated seating) feared it might go bankrupt and urged compromise. However, the commissioners refused to grant any concessions and the negotiations broke down over the next few weeks. The commissioners adopted a “get tough” policy when it became clear that the boycott would continue. Police harassed carpool drivers. They arrested and jailed King on a petty speeding charge when he was helping out one day. Angry whites tried to terrorize him and bombed his house with his wife and infant daughter inside, but no one was injured. Drawing from the Sermon on the Mount, the pastor persuaded an angry crowd to put their guns away and go home, preventing a bloody riot. Nixon’s home and Abernathy’s church were also bombed.
On January 30, MIA leaders challenged the constitutionality of bus segregation because the city refused their moderate demands. Civil rights attorney Fred Gray knew that a state case would be unproductive and filed a federal lawsuit. Meanwhile, city leaders went on the offensive and indicted nearly 100 boycott leaders, including King, on conspiracy charges. King’s trial and conviction in March 1956 elicited negative national publicity for the city on television and in newspapers. Sympathetic observers sent funds to Montgomery to support the movement.
In June 1956, the Montgomery federal court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that Alabama’s bus segregation laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equality and were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in November. In the wake of the court victories, MIA members voted to end the boycott. Black citizens triumphantly rode desegregated Montgomery’s buses on December 21, 1956.
A diagram of the Montgomery bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat was used in court to ultimately strike down segregation on the city’s buses.
The Montgomery bus boycott made King a national civil rights leader and charismatic symbol of black equality. Other black ministers and activists like Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Bayard Rustin, and Ella Baker also became prominent figures in the civil rights movement. The ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to protest white supremacy and work for voting rights throughout the South, testifying to the importance of black churches and ministers as a vital element of the civil rights movement.
The Montgomery bus boycott paved the way for the civil rights movement to demand freedom and equality for African Americans and transformed American politics, culture, and society by helping create the strategies, support networks, leadership, vision, and spiritual direction of the movement. It demonstrated that ordinary African American citizens could band together at the local level to demand and win in their struggle for equal rights and dignity. The Montgomery experience laid the foundations for the next decade of a nonviolent direct-action movement for equal civil rights for African Americans.
1. All of the following are true of Rosa Parks except
- she served as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP
- she trained young people in civil rights activism
- she unintentionally challenged the bus segregation laws of Montgomery
- she was well-trained in civil disobedience
2. The initial demand of those who boycotted the Montgomery Bus System was for the city to
- hire more black bus drivers in Montgomery
- arrest abusive bus drivers
- remove the city commissioners
- modify Jim Crow laws in public transportation
3. The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed in 1955 primarily to
- bring a quick end to the bus boycott
- maintain segregationist policies on public buses
- provide carpool assistance to the boycotters
- organize the bus protest
4. As a result of the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. was
- elected mayor of Montgomery
- targeted as a terrorist and held in jail for the duration of the boycott
- recognized as a new national voice for African American civil rights
- made head pastor of his church
5. The Federal court case Browder v. Gayle established that
- the principles in Brown v. Board of Education were also relevant in the Montgomery Bus Boycott
- the Montgomery bus segregation laws were a violation of the constitutional guarantee of equality
- the principles of Plessy v. Ferguson were similar to those in the Montgomery bus company
- the conviction of Martin Luther King Jr. was unconstitutional
6. All the following resulted from the Montgomery bus boycott except
- the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
- the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national leader
- the immediate end of Jim Crow laws in Alabama
- negative national publicity for the city of Montgomery
Free Response Questions
- Explain how the Montgomery Bus Boycott affected the civil rights movement.
- Describe how the Montgomery Bus Boycott propelled Martin Luther King Jr. to national notice.
AP Practice Questions
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D. H. Lackey after her arrest in December 1955.
1. Which of the following had the most immediate impact on events in the photograph?
- The integration of the U.S. military
- The Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson
- The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education
- The integration of Little Rock (AR) Central High School
2. The actions leading to the provided photograph were similar to those associated with
- the labor movement in the 1920s
- the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century
- the work of abolitionists in the 1850s
- the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s
3. The situation depicted in the provided photograph contributed most directly to the
- economic development of the South
- growth of the suburbs
- growth of the civil right movement
- evolution of the anti-war movement
Burns, Steward, ed. Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Garrow, David J, ed. Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson . Nashville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
Greenlee, Marcia M. “Interview with Rosa McCauley Parks.” August 22-23, 1978, Detroit. Cambridge, MA: Black Women Oral History Project, Harvard University. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:45175350$14i
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 . New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks . New York: Penguin, 2000.
Rosa Parks Museum, Montgomery, AL. www.troy.edu/rosaparks
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 . New York: Penguin, 2013.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
In our resource history is presented through a series of narratives, primary sources, and point-counterpoint debates that invites students to participate in the ongoing conversation about the American experiment.
Montgomery bus boycott.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was one of the first successful mass actions of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The boycott is often understood in overly-simplified terms - the result of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. In this lesson, students build a more complex understanding of the causes and context of the boycott as they analyze four historical documents.
Image: Photo of Black residents walking during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. From BlackPast.org .
Civil Rights Movement in Context
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The montgomery bus boycott.
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.”
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Primary Sources: Civil Rights in America - Events: Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)
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- Brown v. Board of Ed. (1954)
- Central High (Little Rock, AK) 
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- March on Washington (1963)
- March on Washington Movement (1940s)
- Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike (1968)
- Mendez v. Westminster School District (1947)
- Miss America Protests (1968)
- "Mississippi Burning" Case (1964)
- Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)
- Osage Indian Murders (1920s)
- 16th St. Church Bombing (1963)
- Selma to Montgomery March (1965)
- Scottsboro (1931)
- Sleepy Lagoon & Zoot Suit Riots (1943)
- Slavery & Abolition This link opens in a new window
- The Southern Manifesto (1956)
- Suffrage - Women
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Online Sources: Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)
- An Act of Courage, The Arrest Records of Rosa Parks
- An African-American Woman Describes Segregated Buses in Montgomery, Alabama more... less... "During the Montgomery bus boycott, researchers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee visited Montgomery to learn more about the boycott and document it. Researcher Willie Lee interviewed an African-American woman who worked as a domestic, who described how black riders had been treated on the buses. She was interviewed at one of the several car pool stations established to transport the boycotters."
- African-American Women Threaten a Bus Boycott in Montgomery more... less... "This letter from the Women's Political Council to the Mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, threatens a bus boycott by the city's African Americans if demands for fair treatment are not met."
- Bayard Rustin Explains Car Pools in the Montgomery Bus Boycott more... less... "African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin advised Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the Montgomery bus boycott. In this excerpt from his diary, Rustin describes how the city's black residents found ways to get to and from work without using the buses."
- Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (M.D. Ala. 1956)
- Documents From the Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956 (CRMV)
- Interview with Rosa Parks (video) more... less... "Interview with Rosa Parks conducted for Eyes on the Prize I. Discussion centers on life in Montgomery, her decision to refuse to comply with segregation on the bus line, and the bus boycott."
- INVESTIGATE: Why did the boycott of Montgomery's buses succeed? more... less... Provides a selection of related primary sources.
- Local Activists Call for a Bus Boycott in Montgomery more... less... "This leaflet, produced by Jo Ann Robinson and others in response to Rosa Parks' arrest on December 1, 1955, called for all African Americans to stay off city buses on Monday, December 5. Robinson was president of the Women's Political Council, an organization of African-American professional women who worked for greater political influence from the Black community. She was later arrested for her role in the boycott."
- Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) [King Encyclopedia]
- Montgomery Bus Boycott (Civil Rights Digital Library)
- The Montgomery Bus Boycott: They Changed the World more... less... A website from the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper that includes photos, interviews, etc.
- Montgomery Improvement Association Advises on Integrated Bus Patronage more... less... "The U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended the Montgomery bus boycott introduced integrated public transportation to the city in December 1956. Anticipating mixed reactions to the boycott's success, the Montgomery Improvement Association distributed this pamphlet as an advisory guide to passengers reboarding the buses after a year of protest."
- The Other Rosa Parks: Now 73, Claudette Colvin Was First to Refuse Giving Up Seat on Montgomery Bus
- The Power of African American Women Disc 1 more... less... Part 1: "Commentary of a Black Souther Busrider" by Rosa Parks (April 1956 interview) Part 2: "We Want To Be Free" by Dorothy Dandridge (speaking at a Freedom Rally at Wrigley Field, 26 May 1963) Part 3: "The Negro In American Culture" by Lorraine Hansberry (From a panel on Black perceptions of the American setting in art. WBAI, 10 january 1961)
- The Power of African American Women Disc 8 more... less... "The Power Of African-American Women" Four part program which examines the work and impact of several African-American women: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rosa Parks.
- Rare 1956 Interview with Parks During the Montgomery Bus Boycott more... less... "Rosa Parks, interviewed in April 1956 by Pacifica radio station KPFA. The interview comes from the “”:In Pacifica Radio Archives."
- Reverend Abernathy Recalls the Montgomery Improvement Association's First Meeting more... less... "In the following excerpt, Reverend Ralph Abernathy remembers the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) at a local Baptist church on the first day of the boycott. After this, the MIA held regular weekly meetings until the boycott ended."
- Rosa Parks Papers (Library of Congress) more... less... "The papers of Rosa Parks (1913-2005) span the years 1866-2006, with the bulk of the material dating from 1955 to 2000. The collection contains approximately 7,500 items in the Manuscript Division, as well as 2,500 photographs in the Prints and Photographs Division. The collection documents many aspects of Parks's private life and public activism on behalf of civil rights for African Americans." Library of Congress
Book Sources: Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)
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(1955) martin luther king jr., “the montgomery bus boycott”.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott speech reprinted below is one of the first major addresses of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King spoke to nearly 5,000 people at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery on December 5, 1955, just four days after Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery city bus. That arrest led to the first major civil rights campaign in the Deep South in half a century. In this speech King urges the audience which has just voted to boycott the buses to continue that campaign until they achieve their goal of ending the humiliation and intimation of black citizens there and elsewhere in Montgomery or to use his words, “..to gain justice on the buses in the city.”
My FRIENDS, we are certainly very happy to see each of you out this evening. We are here this evening for serious business. We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.
But we are here in a specific sense, because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected. This situation is not at all new. The problem has existed over endless years. For many years now Negroes in Montgomery and so many other areas have been inflicted with the paralysis of crippling fears on buses in our community. On so many occasions, Negroes have been intimidated and humiliated and impressed-oppressed-because of the sheer fact that they were Negroes. I don’t have time this evening to go into the history of these numerous cases. Many of them now are lost in the thick fog of oblivion but at least one stands before us now with glaring dimensions.
Just the other day, just last Thursday to be exact, one of the finest citizens in Montgomery not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery-was taken from a bus and carried to jail and because she refused to get up to give her seat to a white person. Now the press would have us believe that she refused to leave a reserved section for Negroes but I want you to know this evening that there is no reserved section. The law has never been clarified at that point. Now I think I speak with, with legal authority-not that I have any legal authority, but I think I speak with legal authority behind me -that the law, the ordinance, the city ordinance has never been totally clarified.
Mrs. Rosa Parks is a fine person. And, since it had to happen, I’m happy that it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks, for nobody can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity. Nobody can doubt the height of her character nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment and devotion to the teachings of Jesus. And I’m happy since it had to happen, it happened to a person that nobody can call a disturbing factor in the community. Mrs. Parks is a fine Christian person, unassuming, and yet there is integrity and character there. And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested.
And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.
We are here, we are here this evening because we’re tired now. And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. We have never done that. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. That’s all.
And certainly, certainly, this is the glory of America, with all of its faults. This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a Communistic nation we couldn’t do this. If we were dropped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right. My friends, don’t let anybody make us feel that we are to be compared in our actions with the Ku Klux Klan or with the White Citizens Council. There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery. There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out on some distant road and lynched for not cooperating. There will be nobody amid, among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation. We only assemble here because of our desire to see right exist. My friends, I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city.
And we are not wrong, we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I want to say that in all of our actions we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour, and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire but which we justly deserve. And don’t let anybody frighten you. We are not afraid of what we are doing because we are doing it within the law. There is never a time in our American democracy that we must ever think we’re wrong when we protest. We reserve that right. When labor all over this nation came to see that it would be trampled over by capitalistic power, it was nothing wrong with labor getting together and organizing and protesting for its rights.
We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality. May I say to you my friends, as I come to a close, and just giving some idea of why we are assembled here, that we must keep-and I want to stress this, in all of our doings, in all of our deliberations here this evening and all of the week and while—whatever we do, we must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our actions. But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian face, faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.
The Almighty God himself is not the only, not the, not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, “I love you, Israel.” He’s also the God that stands up before the nations and said: “Be still and know that I’m God, that if you don’t obey me I will break the backbone of your power and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.” Standing beside love is always justice, and we are only using the tools of justice. Not only are we using the tools of persuasion, but we’ve come to see that we’ve got to use the tools of coercion. Not only is this thing a process of education, but it is also a process of legislation.
As we stand and sit here this evening and as we prepare ourselves for what lies ahead, let us go out with a grim and bold determination that we are going to stick together. We are going to work together. Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future somebody will have to say, “There lived a race of people a black people, ‘fleecy locks and black complexion’, a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.” And we’re gonna do that. God grant that we will do it before it is too late. As we proceed with our program let us think of these things.
But just before leaving I want to say this. I want to urge you. You have voted [for this boycott], and you have done it with a great deal of enthusiasm, and I want to express my appreciation to you, on behalf of everybody here. Now let us go out to stick together and stay with this thing until the end. Now it means sacrificing, yes, it means sacrificing at points. But there are some things that we’ve got to learn to sacrifice for. And we’ve got to come to the point that we are determined not to accept a lot of things that we have been accepting in the past.
So I’m urging you now. We have the facilities for you to get to your jobs, and we are putting, we have the cabs there at your service. Automobiles will be at your service, and don’t be afraid to use up any of the gas. If you have it, if you are fortunate enough to have a little money, use it for a good cause. Now my automobile is gonna be in it, it has been in it, and I’m not concerned about how much gas I’m gonna use. I want to see this thing work. And we will not be content until oppression is wiped out of Montgomery, and really out of America. We won’t be content until that is done. We are merely insisting on the dignity and worth of every human personality. And I don’t stand here, I’m not arguing for any selfish person. I’ve never been on a bus in Montgomery. But I would be less than a Christian if I stood back and said, because I don’t ride the bus, I don’t have to ride a bus, that it doesn’t concern me. I will not be content. I can hear a voice saying, “If you do it unto the least of these, my brother, you do it unto me.”
And I won’t rest; I will face intimidation, and everything else, along with these other stalwart fighters for democracy and for citizenship. We don’t mind it, so long as justice comes out of it. And I’ve come to see now that as we struggle for our rights, maybe some of them will have to die. But somebody said, if a man doesn’t have something that he’ll die for, he isn’t fit to live.
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Josh Gottheimer ed., Ripples of Hope Great American Civil Rights Speeches (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003).
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Analyzing The Efficacy of The Bus Boycott in Montgomery, United States
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Causes and Effects of The Montgomery Bus Boycott
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