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You are here -> HOME - RETROVILLE - 1955 - In The News - Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
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Welcome to Retroville! It's 1955!
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an educated woman with a background in civil rights matters, boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. At the time, the law was clear about blacks riding buses in Montgomery. Blacks were to occupy any row after the fourth row. All of the first four rows were reserved for whites only. With that in mind, Rosa Parks took her seat on the fifth row.

By the time the bus made several stops, the first four rows were completely taken. Rosa and the three other blacks on the fifth row were told to move so that the white man left standing without a seat could take a seat. Three of the blacks moved.  Rosa stayed put.

The busdriver parked the bus and got help.  The police arrived quickly and arrested Rosa Parks. When E.D. Nixon of the NAACP heard about the arrest, he contacted the police station. He was unable to get any useful information. At his behest, a sympathetic white attorney phoned the police and determined quickly that Rosa had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat. He relayed that information to Nixon.

Nixon, along with other organizers, made fliers up asking blacks to boycott the buses in Montgomery on Monday, the day scheduled for Rosa Park's trial. JoAnn Robinson, a local school teacher, and her students handed out fliers all weekend.

Nixon held an organizing meeting with several local ministers and other NAACP members. During the meeting, after much heated debate, it was agreed that the ministers would inform their congregations of the boycott during their Sunday services.

Martin Luther King, Jr., a minister from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, believed that just a 60% boycott could create quite a bit of pressure.  To his amazement and pride, bus after empty bus rolled past his home on Monday.

The group got together that evening (Monday) and determined that the first day had been a rousing success. It was agreed that the boycott should continue. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and appointed King to head up the new group.

Knowing full well that recent boycotts in other cities had not resulted in full desegregation on bus lines in major cities, the group agreed to continue the boycott for as long as it would take. History had proven, most recently in Baton Rouge, LA, that a temporary boycott would yield only partial results. In that city, a boycott resulted in partial desegregation of that city's buses, but they still maintained whites only and blacks only seating throughout most of the buses.

In a desperate move, the City Commissioners sat down with three black ministers, none of whom were MIA members, and negotiated a settlement.  The settlement laughably was that the blacks would end the boycott and the city would keep things the way they'd always been. The ministers readily agreed and the City leaked word to the local press.

When the MIA members learned of the "settlement," they visited local taverns, corner stores, and meeting places to tell the black community that the boycott was not, in fact, over. By Saturday afternoon, the day after the "settlement" had been reached, the three ministers who had agreed claimed to have misunderstood the deal. They explained, to King and the other MIA members that they had been duped.

The boycott continued.

The whites in Montgomery were enraged. Unknown assailants bombed King's home on January 30, and Nixon's home on February 1.

The boycott continued.

Next, whites turned to the law. On February 21, 89 blacks were indicted under an old law prohibiting boycotts. King was the first defendant to be tried. As press from around the nation looked on, King was ordered to pay $500 plus $500 in court costs or spend 386 days in the state penitentiary.

King paid the fine and the boycott continued.

In the ensuing weeks, whites attempted to shut down the black private taxi system that the various black churches had worked out to get blacks to and from work without using the city buses. The drivers were constantly harassed.  Insurance was cancelled over and over again.  Still, the private system was working.  Few blacks used the buses.

But blacks had already begun to fight to end the boycott in court. They would no longer settle for the moderate desegregation plan that they had first proposed. Now, they would accept nothing less than full integration. The city was fighting a losing battle. The blacks were armed with the Brown decision, less than two years old, which said that the "separate but equal" doctrine had no place in public education. Surely it must follow that the doctrine had no place in any public facilities. In addition, the city was not in the prejudiced local courts but in federal court, where even a black man could hope to have a fair trial. When the city defended segregation by saying that integration would lead to violence, Judge Rives asked, "Is it fair to command one man to surrender his constitutional rights, if they are his constitutional rights, in order to prevent another man from committing a crime?"

The federal court decided 2-1 in favor of the blacks, with the lone dissent coming from a Southern judge. The city, of course, appealed the ruling, but on November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal court's ruling, declaring segregation on buses unconstitutional. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was officially over.

Blacks continued, however, to stay off the city buses until the mandate from the Supreme Court arrived. During that time, MIA officials tried to prepare blacks as best they could for integrated buses. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr., noted wryly, "not a single white group would take the responsibility of preparing the white community."

On December 21, 1956, more than a year after it started, the boycott was officially over. There was some intermittent violence including shots fired through city buses, bombings of King's home, bombings of churches, fires, and the usual KKK nonsense, but, overall, the city buses of Montgomery, Alabama, had been successfully desegregated.

Because a woman had refused to give up her seat, the civil rights movement had gathered enough momentum to carry it forward for the next ten years.  The struggle for true equality still continues in many areas, though.  The work is not yet done.

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