3. Montgomery Bus Boycott December 5, 1955-December 20, 1956
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, three amendments to the US Constitution were ratified between 1865 and 1870 making equality seem attainable. When Reconstruction ended and former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union, a new chapter in the fight for civil rights emerged. By the mid-twentieth century, Jim Crow laws implemented in the South stated that African Americans had to use accommodations marked “for colored only.” In northern states there were no laws forcing segregation. Instead, people used terror and intimidation to make sure that whites and blacks did not publically mix. Segregation was entrenched in American life regardless of laws on the books.
National City Lines operated the Montgomery Bus Line in Montgomery, Alabama. Roughly 75% of the city’s ridership was African American. Whites were given the first ten rows of seats on the bus, and blacks the back 10 rows. If there were more whites on the bus than blacks, they were required by law to give up their seat and stand. African Americans were often forced to pay their fare and then walk outside the bus and board at the back door. During peak times, bus drivers had no problem leaving before African Americans had time to board. Tired of their rights being ignored, a collection of men and women enacted a plan to challenge the segregation of Montgomery’s public transportation. Their protest began on December 1, 1955.
Rosa Parks was a seamstress and life-long civil rights activist. She was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At the end of the day, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person, which resulted in her arrest. Local activists printed and circulated a flyer through the black community of Montgomery proclaiming that, “Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate.”
The Montgomery Bus Boycott began on December 5, 1955. Major civil rights advocates participated including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. Bus lines throughout the country became boycott targets, adversely impacting their economic viability. When the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling in a civil case that proclaimed Alabama’s racial segregation laws on buses were unconstitutional, the City of Montgomery drafted a new ordinance that proclaimed blacks could sit anywhere they wanted to on buses. After 381 days, the boycott ended on December 20, 1956.
The victory of the civil rights movement was met with violent backlash. Whites attacked black riders as they left the bus, sometimes even firing shots into the buses. Whites who had supported the boycott had their homes shot at and black churches were set on fire. With violence erupting throughout the city, Montgomery officials suspended all bus service for several weeks until the violence subsided. When the bus service was restored and blacks could sit anywhere, Montgomery, and many other cities, remained segregated.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott made Rosa Parks a heroine of the civil rights movement as a defiant black woman seeking her legal rights under the law. Newspapers throughout the country and the world published images of the violence that followed the boycott. These images illustrated the horrors that accompanied daily life for African Americans as they worked toward equality. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the beginning of more vocal activism that was greeted with violence for the next decade.