After completing his education at Crozer Theological Seminary and then starting work toward a doctorate at Boston University, Martin Luther King returned to the South in 1954 to begin a career in the ministry. He accepted a position as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon he found himself embroiled in what was to become a watershed event in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. This was the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
For decades Jim Crow laws and customs in the South had enforced a strict segregation between whites and African Americans, with terror and violence when necessary. One manifestation of this segregation and inequality was on public buses.
In Montgomery, which was fairly typical of the South, as whites entered a bus, they filled in the rows starting in the front. As African Americans entered the bus, they filled in the rows starting in the back. Once there were no rows left, and no seats left on a white row, if another white person entered the bus, the forwardmost row with African Americans would become a white row. The people seated in that row would be required to get up and move farther back, to squeeze in already occupied rows or to stand. Furthermore, often African American passengers were not even allowed to walk past the white people to get to their seats; they were required to pay in the front, get off the bus and walk to the back, and enter the rear door of the bus. Sometimes the bus drivers (who were all white) would drive off before an African American passenger could get back on through the rear door.
By 1955, E.D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was looking for the right case to challenge this practice. Early in the year the NAACP seriously considered two cases where African American passengers were arrested and fined for refusing to give up their seats on a bus and move to the back, but were wary that they might not be the best cases to publicize. (One was an unwed pregnant teen, for instance.)
Then on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat when ordered to by the bus driver, and was taken off the bus by police. The NAACP decided this was the right case. Nixon sprang into action, looking to involve leaders in the African American community in a protest.
He especially had his eye on young Reverend King, who as a newcomer to Montgomery had not had a chance to accommodate himself to the local ways. Indeed, many of the more established pastors hesitated to commit. But Nixon prevailed upon King to take a leadership role (a new organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed for this purpose) and soon the other pastors and the community were behind the effort.
Initially the goals of the new group were quite modest, falling well short of calling for desegregation of the buses. King and the Association called a one day bus boycott, and approached the city with their demands that African Americans be hired for some of the bus driver jobs, bus drivers cease addressing African American passengers disrespectfully and using the word “nigger,” bus drivers cease driving off after an African American passenger has paid but before he has reboarded the bus from the rear, and the practice be discontinued of requiring a row of African American passengers to get up and move further back to convert the row to a white row when there were no seats left up front for a white person. So even if all the demands were met, the basic system of segregation where whites fill in the bus gradually from the front and African Americans fill in the bus from the back would remain.
The Montgomery city officials dug in their heels however and insisted there would be no compromise of any kind. Parks was convicted and fined, and the case was appealed. Soon, under King’s leadership, the one day boycott was bumped up to an indefinite boycott, and the compromise proposals were replaced by demands that the system of segregation on the buses be done away with entirely.
As civil rights lawyers fought the segregated buses in the courts, the African American citizens of Montgomery waged their fight on the ground. It is estimated that over 90% of the African Americans who normally rode the buses honored the boycott. Because the bulk of the ridership on Montgomery buses was African American, this dealt a big blow to the revenue of the bus company.
The former bus riders found alternate means of getting where they needed to go. Many walked. (Churches took up collections of donated shoes to replace those that wore out.) Some formed car pools. Some African American cab drivers took to charging bus fare to drive their passengers where they used to go by bus. Some of the African Americans who had cars followed suit and used them as makeshift cabs. Some white employers picked up their African American employees, especially domestics, in their own cars.
In response, African Americans were attacked and beaten. The homes of King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy were bombed, as were four churches. Some people, including King himself, were arrested and imprisoned on the grounds that the boycott itself was an illegal interference with the bus company’s business. (King spent two weeks behind bars.) Drivers were fined for not abiding by the taxicab regulations.
The boycott remained in force for a full year, drawing publicity and support nationwide. Finally on December 20, 1956, the final appeals were exhausted and the courts ordered the Montgomery buses desegregated.
King urged calm and peaceful reconciliation, reminding the community that they had won this victory through nonviolence. He wrote a memo that was widely circulated in the community that read in part: “The whole bus is now for the use of all people. Take a vacant seat….If cursed, do not curse back. If pushed, do not push back. If struck, do not strike back, but only evidence love, and good will at all times….According to your own ability and personality, do not be afraid to experiment with new and creative techniques for achieving reconciliation and social change.”
Symbolically, King took the first bus ride to break the boycott on December 21, riding up front with a white minister named Reverend Glen Smiley, without incident. There were, however, incidents on subsequent days, including people being shot at while at bus stops (which remained segregated), and shots being fired into buses, one of which broke both legs of a pregnant passenger.
Almost immediately after the successful boycott, King met with other African American leaders to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which he used to organize and stage some of the most significant nonviolent direct actions of the Civil Rights Movement, firmly establishing himself as the face of the Movement.
Ultimately there were many more victories (and setbacks as well) for King and the Movement, but with King prevailing to the extent that today he is regarded as an American hero by many, and has even been honored with a federal holiday in his name. But it all began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott when he was a 26 year old beginning pastor.
Dave Hamilton, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott.” History Times.
Randall Kennedy, “From Small Beginnings: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.” University of Wisconsin Whitewater.
Horace Randall Williams, “A Short Essay on the Significance of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” U.S Troops Out Now!
“Montgomery Bus Boycott.” History.com.
“Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Holidays.net.