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Montgomery Bus Boycott: Definition, Summary, Facts & Timeline

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  • 0:01 Rosa Parks
  • 0:55 Bus Issues & the…
  • 3:01 From Protest to Movement
  • 4:08 Policy of Nonviolence
  • 5:45 Support & Victory
  • 7:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Freda Bradley

Freda holds a Master's Degree in History and teaches a variety of college history courses.

The Montgomery bus boycott began after the arrest of Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. This boycott lasted over a year and gave rise to the civil rights career of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rosa Parks

In Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955, an exhausted Rosa Parks remained seated on a city bus. This simple act precipitated a new period in civil rights.

Montgomery required segregation on city busses, but the method of segregation was left up to the company and its drivers. Most drivers insisted that no blacks could occupy even the same row of seats as whites even if empty seats separated them. Since empty seats were available in her row, Rosa Parks refused to move despite a direct order from the driver. She was arrested, and her arrest sparked one of the most famous boycotts in American history: the Montgomery bus boycott.

Bus Issues

The Montgomery bus boycott was the culmination of decades of poor treatment toward African Americans on the city bus system of Montgomery, Alabama. Although National City Lines owned the Montgomery municipal busses, they permitted the city and their drivers a great deal of authority, and this power was often abused.

In addition to seating issues, drivers usually required their black passengers to pay at the front of the bus, get off and reenter the bus by the rear door. Often, the driver would drive off without allowing them to reenter the bus even though their fare was paid. Also, many young black women were arrested and/or abused on the bus routes. Unfortunately, there wasn't a tangible method of redress for anyone who received this treatment. Attempts at compromise with city authorities were largely ignored.

The Boycott Begins

As many as 75% of all bus passengers in Montgomery were African American in 1955. If they ceased using the bus system, it would cost National City Lines dearly in revenue. Rosa Parks' arrest sparked the African American community to boycott the bus system on the day of her court appearance the following Monday.

Monday dawned, and black riders were scarce. To get to work, they walked long distances, rode mules, or drove horse-drawn wagons. A few rode in taxicabs operated by black drivers. Their absence was felt on the bus lines, and by Monday evening it was clear that this couldn't be just a one-time protest. The city officials had ignored the protest, believing it would blow over.

However, they were wrong. The night of the protest, a relatively unknown minister by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was chosen to lead a new Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). He was tasked with turning the short protest into a major boycott that would ultimately last a total of 381 days, and that boycott spurred an important chapter in the Civil Rights Movement.

From Protest to Movement

Dr. King had to be very careful. The one-day protest had cost the bus line a great deal of revenue, so this could close the bus line forever. The goal had never been to eliminate the bus line, so the MIA reached out to the city with a compromise that did assign seats, but did not include desegregation. The compromise was rejected by the city.

By the first weeks of 1956, it was apparent that the city was never going to compromise, so the MIA decided to take legal action. African American attorney Fred Gray filed a case against the city known as Browder v. Gayle in Federal Court for violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. There had been other recent cases settled by the United States Supreme Court in favor of the African American community. The MIA hoped that this, coupled with the massive publicity its movement was receiving, would push the case forward quickly. Although the movement gained publicity, those involved in the protests endured a period of retaliatory violence, threats, and harassment.

Policy of Nonviolence

On the night of June 30, 1956, a bomb exploded on Martin Luther King's porch. Anger broke out among the African American community. King, an avid admirer of Gandhi's policies of nonviolence, convinced the angry mob that it would make more of a point to continue a lawful nonviolent stance. King was right.

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