In 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, an African American woman found a seat in the “Colored Section” of the city bus. A few stops down, the bus driver told her to make room for white passengers and move further back. The woman refused and was arrested.
This story brings to mind Rosa Parks and her quiet defiance in the face of racial segregation. It also can describe a number of brave women who came before her and also took a stand against the inequalities they experienced on Montgomery city busses.
As we head into Black History Month, we recognize many well-known heroes who stand out as we learn about the Civil Rights Movement. And Rosa Parks is one of those heroes. Her courage in confronting racial prejudice sparked a 13-month protest that led to a Supreme Court ruling, the desegregation of the Montgomery bus system, and a pattern of non-violence Civil Rights leaders followed for the next decade.
That day, Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was riding home from her job as a seamstress. At the time, city bus drivers were authorized to enforce segregation laws on their vehicles, and every bus had clearly designated seating for white and black passengers. Parks sat in the front row of the designated “Colored Section,” but as passengers boarded, the designated section for white people filled to capacity.
The bus driver, James Blake, believing he was authorized to do so, instructed Parks and three other African American passengers to give their seats to white passengers. Parks refused. As a leader in the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she was active in protesting the unequal conditions of her local area.
“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,” she explained of that day in her book, Rosa Parks: My Story.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
City police arrested Parks, and local Civil Rights leaders gathered to strategize. Under the direction of Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, and Martin Luther King Jr., then-president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, black men and women boycotted the Montgomery busses Dec. 5, 1955. At first, it was meant to be a one-day boycott, but that evening, these leaders voted to continue the boycott until busses were desegregated.
As King said at the community meeting that evening, “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.”
History credits Parks as the spark for this momentous event in the Civil Rights Movement. But Montgomery Civil Rights leaders and others had been working to end the bus practice years before as well.
Black men and women made up the vast majority of bus riders in Montgomery, and frequently suffered prejudice and humiliation during these rides. Robinson suggested the possibility of a bus boycott in a May 21, 1954 letter to the city’s mayor, William Gayle. Her letter asked the Mayor to change city law to allow the following:
“1. … Negroes to sit from back towards front, and whites from front toward back until all the seats are taken.
“2. That Negroes not be asked or forced to pay fare at front end and got the rear of the bus to enter.
“3. That busses stop at every corner in residential sections occupied by Negroes as they do in communities where whites reside.”
The mayor ignored these requests, so Robinson and the WPC started planning a boycott.
Prior to Parks’ arrest, a few other African American women were also arrested while disobeying the bus segregation laws, including Aurelia Browder, Viola White, Geneva Johnson, Katie Wingfield, Susie McDonald, Epsie Worthy, Mary Louise Smith and Claudette Colvin. For various reasons, the WPC and the MIA did not choose them as the face of the bus boycott.
“Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history,” King said in his memoir, “[because] her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted,” and she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community.”
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was not only successful because of Parks and other Civil Rights leaders, but also because of many unsung heroes — mostly women — who stopped riding the bus. Mary Fair Burks of the WPC was one of many who worked behind the scenes to support the boycott. She attributed the boycott’s success to “the nameless cooks and maids who walked endless miles for a year to bring about the breach in the walls of segregation.”
Browder vs. Gayle
Montgomery city finally desegregated buses after the successful district court petition, Aurelia S. Browder v. William A. Gayle. Browder, McDonald, Colvin and Smith stood as plaintiffs for the case. The case traveled through the courts to the United State Supreme Court, where they struck down Montgomery’s segregation practice Dec. 17, 1956. The bus boycott ended Dec. 20, and busses were integrated the following day.
Of the boycott efforts, King said, “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.”
The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott set a precedent for the power of non-violent mass protest in overturning racist laws during the Civil Rights Movement.