On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American seamstress, seated in a segregated bus, refused to give up her seat to a white man. It sparked the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott and resulted in an early and significant victory for the Civil Rights movement. It brought to national attention a 26-year-old recently appointed Baptist reverend by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Three years earlier, in 1952, the US Supreme Court declared that segregation on interstate railways was unconstitutional, and, two years later, also outlawed segregation on interstate buses. However, the practice was not barred on state-run bus services and persisted in many southern states.
White people entered the bus from the front, black people from the back. If the bus was full, and another white person boarded, then a black person was expected to give up their seat. Martin Luther King described the situation: ‘Negroes (were forced) to stand over empty seats reserved for “whites only”. Even if the bus had no white passengers, and Negroes were packed throughout, they were prohibited from sitting in the front seats.’
When, in December 1955, Rosa Parks, the local secretary of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, the bus driver insisted she moved. When she refused, he had no option but to call the police. Parks (pictured) was arrested.
The NAACP branch had been looking to stage a boycott of the city’s buses and now the opportunity presented itself. The boycott duly started on December 5, the day of Park’s trial. After a thirty-minute hearing, the court found Parks guilty and fined her $10, plus $4 costs.
Lasting over a year, the boycott caused the Montgomery blacks much hardship and inconvenience. Black taxi drivers, in a show of solidarity, started charging their black customers the same fee as a bus ride, a quarter of the usual fare. Donations came in from across the country – including shoes to replace the worn footwear of those who walked for miles rather than accept defeat and board a bus. Some were assaulted on the streets, and the home of King was firebombed as well as a number of Baptist churches. King reacted to the attack on his home with his usual magnanimity: ‘We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them.’ The black community held firm. The bus service suffered – 75 per cent of its passengers were black.
King was arrested for his part in the boycott and sentenced to over a year in prison. In the event, he served only two weeks and on being released, said, ‘I was proud of my crime. It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice.’
Do not boast
In June 1956, a federal court declared that bus segregation was unlawful but an appeal to the Supreme Court against the finding delayed implementation. On 13 November 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the local court’s decision and declared segregation on public transport to be unconstitutional. A month later, on December 21, stepping on board the first non-segregated bus in Montgomery was the Reverend King. ‘Do not boast! Do not brag!’ he told his followers, ‘Be quiet but friendly; proud but not arrogant’. The boycott had lasted 381 days.
See also “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Rosa Parks”
Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, a compelling tale set during the First World War, is now available.