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  • Cary Donham

MONTGOMERY ALABAMA BUS BOYCOTT (Successful Non-violence Campaigns)

Updated: Jul 16, 2023


The June 29, 2023, Supreme Court decision inStudents for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, hearkens back to 1955, when African Americans, led in large part by women, organized a bus boycott against legally permitted discrimination that brought the city of Montgomery, Alabama to its knees.  While Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are the persons most often associated with this successful nonviolent movement, in fact there were many women who provided the foundation for the boycott.

​The Montgomery bus boycott began with Rosa Parks’ arrest on December 1, 1955. Ms. Parks had been a civil rights activist for two decades. A Montgomery ordinance required African Americans to sit in the back of buses, and also required them to give up their seats in the “colored” section if the front of the bus where white people sat was full.  Ms. Parks was seated in the first row of the “colored” section when the white section filled up.  The driver asked four African Americans to move to the back.  Three complied but Ms. Parks did not. She was arrested found guilty and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott.

​Ms. Parks’ encounter was not the first overMontgomery’s discriminatory bus ordinance.  In 1954, the Women’s Political Council (WPC) met with Montgomery’s Mayor Gayle to seek changes to the ordinance. The WPC’s president Jo Ann Robinson wrote Gayle advising him that 25 organizations were ready to support a bus boycott if changes weren’t made. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/montgomery-bus-boycott.  

A year later, nine months before Ms. Parks’ arrest, a 15-year-old woman, Claudette Colvin was arrested and jailed for opposing segregation on a bus, and seven months after Ms. Colvin’s arrest, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested when she refused to give her seat to a white person.  Neither of these arrests led to a boycott, however.  Perhaps it was because they were teenagers and considered not reliable, and also because Ms. Colvin became pregnant after her arrest, in what Ms. Colvin described as a non-consensual relationship.   https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/Colvin.htm.

​In contrast to teenagers Ms. Colvin and Ms. Smith, Dr. King wrote in his memoir: “Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history. . . her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted” and “she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community” (King, 44), quoted inhttps://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/montgomery-bus-boycott.

​At first, Ms. Robinson and the WPC called for a one-day boycott after Ms. Parks’ arrest.  Civil rights leaders then called for a December 2, 1955, planning meeting to be held at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where a 26-year-old Dr. King was the minister, and the one-day boycott was approved.

​On December 5, 90 percent of Montgomery’s black residents boycotted buses.  At a mass meeting that night, the newly formed MetropolitanImprovement Association (MIP), with Dr. King as its President, voted to continue the boycott.

​The subsequent success of the boycott, which lasted 13 months, was due to careful but quick planning, the participation of African American leaders in the community, widespread cooperation of the community and a variety of support methods to ease the disruption to the lives of the participants caused by staying off buses.  

​Women such as Frances Belser helped hand-write and deliver flyers supporting the bus boycott across the city.   Zecozy Williams gave rides to others who needed to work who were staying off buses five days a week on her way to her own job as a housekeeper. Georgia Gilmore organized clandestine women’s clubs to prepare meals and sell them to raise money for the boycott.  Jamila Jones, eleven years old when the boycott began, walked to school the entire 381 days of the boycott, so as not to take a seat in the carpools from an adult.  She also organized a singing group to raise money for the movement.https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2023/03/22/1161664788/the-women-behind-the-montgomery-bus-boycott.

​On January 23, 1956, while negotiations with the city were stalling and Mayor Gayle announced a get-tough policy, white supremacists bombed Dr. King’shome. Changing strategy, attorneys Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed a federal court civil lawsuit on February 1, 1956, with four women as plaintiffs:  Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith. (Ms. Colvin and Ms. Smith were the two teenagers arrested in 1955 for violating bus segregation ordinances).  The lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, challenged the Montgomery bus ordinances as unconstitutional under the 14thAmendment.

In June 1956, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and in December 1956 the Supreme Court affirmed, ruling that the ordinances were unconstitutional. Once the Supreme Court’s order arrived in Montgomery, the MIP voted to end the boycott on December 20, 1956, and at a mass meeting that night, Dr. King urged, “the Negro citizens of Montgomery to return to the busses tomorrow morning on a non-segregated basis.” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/statement-ending-bus-boycott.

​Like other successful nonviolent movements, the Montgomery bus boycott relied on broad support across the African American community.  In addition, the boycott was supported by a variety of measures, including carpools, leafletting, providing meals, raising money through singing and concerts (Mahalia Jackson, renowned gospel singer, appeared in Montgomery during the boycott and refused to accept a fee) and litigation.  The boycott also was the result of careful planning and strong leadership, not just by Dr. King but also by strong women who defied the discriminatory ordinances and then provided the network that allowed the boycott to continue for 381 days.  The successful boycott laid the groundwork for the later nonviolent civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.

 

 

 

 

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