The Montgomery Bus Boycott


The Montgomery Bus Boycott officially started on December 1, 1955. That was the day when the blacks of Montgomery, Alabama, decided that they would boycott the city buses until they could sit anywhere they wanted, instead of being relegated to the back when a white boarded. It was not, however, the day that the movement to desegregate the buses started. Perhaps the movement started on the day in 1943 when a black seamstress named Rosa Parks paid her bus fare and then watched the bus drive off as she tried to re-enter through the rear door, as the driver had told her to do. Perhaps the movement started on the day in 1949 when a black professor Jo Ann Robinson absentmindedly sat at the front of a nearly empty bus, then ran off in tears when the bus driver screamed at her for doing so. Perhaps the movement started on the day in the early 1950s when a black pastor named Vernon Johns tried to get other blacks to leave a bus in protest after he was forced to give up his seat to a white man, only to have them tell him, "You ought to knowed better." [2] The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is often told as a simple, happy tale of the "little people" triumphing over the seemingly insurmountable forces of evil. The truth is a little less romantic and a little more complex.


The simple version of the story leaves out some very important people, such as Jo Ann Robinson, of whom Martin Luther King, Jr., would later write, "Apparently indefatigable, she, perhaps more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest." [3] She was an educated woman, a professor at the all-black Alabama State College, and a member of the Women\'s Political Council in Montgomery. After her traumatic experience on the bus in 1949, she tried to start a protest but was shocked when other Women\'s Political Council members brushed off the incident as "a fact of life in Montgomery." After the Supreme Court\'s Brown decision in 1954, she wrote a letter to the mayor of Montgomery, W.A. Gayle, saying that "there has been talk from 25 or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of buses." By 1955, the Women\'s Political Council had plans for just such a boycott. Community leaders were just waiting for the right person to be arrested, a person who would anger the black community into action, who would agree to test the segregation laws in court, and who, most importantly, was "above reproach." When fifteen year old Claudette Colvin was arrested early in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat, E.D. Nixon of the NAACP thought he had found the perfect person, but Colvin turned out to be pregnant. Nixon later explained, "I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with." [4] Enter Rosa Parks.


Rosa Parks is probably the most romanticized personage in the Montgomery cast of characters. She is often portrayed as a simple seamstress who, exhausted after a long day at work, refused to give up her seat to a white person. While this is not untrue, there is more to the story. Parks was educated; she had attended the laboratory school at Alabama State College because there was no high school for blacks in Montgomery at that time, but had decided to become a seamstress because she could not find a job to suit her skills. She was also a long-time NAACP worker who had taken a special interest in Claudette Colvin\'s case. When she was arrested in December 1955, she had recently completed a workshop on race relations at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. And she was a well-respected woman with a spotless record.


On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a city bus and sat with three other blacks in the fifth row, the first row that blacks could occupy. A few stops later, the front four rows were filled with whites, and one white man was left standing. According to law, blacks and whites could not occupy the same row, so the bus driver asked all four of the blacks seated in the fifth row to move. Three complied, but