The Union victory in the American Civil War put an end to slavery in the United States, but in the decades that followed, white southern Democrats established Jim Crow laws that legally mandated racial segregation throughout much of what had been the Confederacy.1 In most of the southern (and western) United States, it was illegal for black people and white people to attend the same schools, use the same train cars or trolley cars, or eat in the same room in a restaurant. This legally mandated racial discrimination was bolstered by the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the nation’s highest court ruled that state-mandated segregation that resulted in “separate but equal” facilities for different races was constitutional.
This decision would not be challenged for another half century—and then only in regard to public schools. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Integrating schools took years, and in most respects, discrimination went on unchanged; the law treated black people themselves as “inherently unequal” with whites in practically every respect. Many black Americans had little hope that this situation would change anytime soon.
That was until December 1, 1955, when a forty-two-year-old black woman living in Montgomery, Alabama kindled a movement that would end these atrocious injustices. Rosa Parks was seated in the first row of the middle section of a public bus when the driver, James Blake, noticed that the “white section” had filled, leaving several white people standing. The rules stipulated that black passengers had to vacate seats in the middle section for whites, and Blake demanded that Parks and several other black people give up their seats. The others did, but Parks refused. The driver summoned the police, and Parks was arrested.
Parks was not the first black person to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus. Nonetheless, her arrest angered many people (mostly black but also some white), and her courage inspired them. One of them was Jo Ann Robinson, an Alabama State professor who had herself once been yelled at by a bus driver for sitting in the white section of a public bus. The evening of Parks’s arrest, Robinson met with attorney Fred Gray and several leaders of the activist group Women’s Political Council, of which she was president. They decided to call for a boycott of Montgomery’s public buses on the following Monday, the day of Parks’s trial. Robinson spent the night mimeographing tens of thousands of handbills, which read as follows:
Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person.
It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped.
Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother.
This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grownups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.2
Robinson and a few of her students distributed these handbills at local schools. Given that they were asking people to inconvenience themselves voluntarily and significantly, they were not greatly optimistic that many would stay off the buses.
Monday, December 5, the day of Parks’s trial, a group of ministers met and discussed the need for an organization to coordinate such efforts among the community. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and selected as their president a young minister who had moved to Montgomery just the year before: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
That day, Parks was found guilty of violating segregation law—as her lawyers had expected. What no one expected, however, was the overwhelming success of the bus boycott. One thing that helped was that the city’s black taxi drivers had agreed to charge black customers only ten cents—the standard bus fare—instead of the normal cab fare of forty-five cents. Parks recalled:
Most black people had finally had enough of segregation on the buses. They stayed off those buses. They waited at the bus stops for the black-owned cabs to come along. Or they walked or got a ride. As a result, the Montgomery city buses were practically empty. . . .
Never before had black people demonstrated so clearly how much those city buses depended on their business. More important, never before had the black community of Montgomery united in protest against segregation on the buses.3
Not only did black people stay off the buses on Monday, but they continued to boycott throughout the week. King and other MIA members soon met with bus company and city officials to ask, among other things, that black passengers be treated with common courtesy and that seating within the middle section be first come, first served. But only frustration came from these meetings. So MIA and others friendly to the cause urged people to continue the bus boycott indefinitely. Montgomery ministers kept their communities motivated, and what initially was planned as a one-day boycott stretched on, week after week.
Pressure to break the boycott was intense and ever escalating. Many supporters of the boycott, including Parks and her husband, were fired from their jobs. Parks received regular death threats. The homes of several boycott leaders—including King—were bombed. In February 1956, some lawyers dug up an old law that apparently criminalized boycotts. Parks, King, and dozens of other ministers and MIA leaders were indicted. Only King was tried. He was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine, but he appealed the decision and it was overturned.
Not only did the boycott leaders not back down, they devised a further market-based means of protesting: They raised money through their churches, amassed a fleet of more than thirty vehicles, hired drivers and dispatchers, and arranged regular transportation routes throughout Montgomery. As Parks recounted:
After a while, quite a sophisticated system was developed. There were twenty private cars and fourteen station wagons. There were thirty-two pickup and transfer sites, and scheduled service from five thirty in the morning until twelve thirty at night. About 30,000 people were transported to and from work every day.4
When one insurance company after another began canceling policies on these vehicles, King contacted an insurance agent in Atlanta who sourced new insurance policies for these cars through Lloyd’s of London. Meanwhile, black cab drivers continued to accept a ten-cent fare.
Most likely due to an oversight by her lawyers, Parks’s conviction for violating segregation law was upheld on appeal. Fred Gray—who was actively involved with and represented MIA—filed another suit in federal district court that likewise challenged the constitutionality of state laws requiring segregation on buses, this time on behalf of five other female plaintiffs.
In June 1956, a three-judge panel ruled that laws requiring segregation on buses were unconstitutional, but Montgomery politicians appealed, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court determined once and for all that—like laws requiring segregation in schools—those requiring segregation on buses were unconstitutional. More than a month passed before the written order enforcing this decision arrived in Montgomery. But arrive it did.
On December 21, 1956—after sustaining the boycott for 381 days—Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and other boycott leaders celebrated victory by riding the first racially integrated buses in Montgomery. Parks boarded three different buses with reporters and photographers. By a strange twist of fate, the driver of one of these was James Blake—who had had her arrested a little more than a year earlier. They exchanged cool glances but did not speak.
Parks later wrote:
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.5
By refusing to give in to injustice, Parks sparked not only the Montgomery bus boycott but the American civil rights movement as such, which would go on to topple the legal support for racial discrimination in the United States. Thank you, Rosa Parks, for demonstrating the power of moral courage.
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Editor's note: In line with Parks's account, the original posting of this article stated that she was seated in the "colored section" of the bus. In fact, she was in the middle section. Black passengers could fill the middle section from back to front but had to vacate rows from front to back when the white section overflowed. Black and white passengers were not allowed to sit in the same rows.
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1. Racial segregation was common in the North as well, but by custom, not law.
2. Rosa Parks and James Haskins, Rosa Parks: My Story (New York: Dial Books, 1992); this selection is available in PDF format at http://fileserver.net-texts.com/asset.aspx?dl=no&id=1677.
3. Parks and Haskins, Rosa Parks, http://fileserver.net-texts.com/asset.aspx?dl=no&id=1677.
4. Parks and Haskins, Rosa Parks, http://fileserver.net-texts.com/asset.aspx?dl=no&id=1677.
5. Parks and Haskins, Rosa Parks, http://fileserver.net-texts.com/asset.aspx?dl=no&id=1677.