Russell Freedman's Freedom Walkers: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Kat Fleming

Kat has a bachelor's degree in English Literature and has taught workshops in creative writing and seminars in writing at the college level.

In this lesson, we will explore Russell Freedman's 'Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,' and examine how the story's events led to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jim Crow Laws

This story begins in 1949. Southern states had Jim Crow Laws, which were laws that were intended to keep blacks segregated from whites. It was believed, especially in the South, that whites were superior to blacks. These laws allowed black people to be treated as second-class citizens. Under these laws, black people were required to sit in the back of the bus, and they had to use separate restrooms and water fountains, if they were even allowed in at all. Black people were not allowed to go to the same schools, churches or even movie theaters as white people and if they attempted to, they faced arrest or harassment or violence. By 1949, the black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama had had enough and they were ready to protest for their equal rights. And, as the author states, 'it started on a bus'.

The Beginning

Jo Ann Robinson was an African American teacher who was thrown off a Montgomery city bus by a white bus driver because she sat in the front of the bus, which black people were not allowed to do. This section was for whites only. Robinson, along with an organization called the Women's Political Council, took the issue to city officials and asked for changes to the city bus service, including hiring more black drivers and insisting that white drivers stop mistreating black passengers. She warned the mayor that if the buses remained segregated, the Women's Political Council would plan a city-wide bus boycott. After their requests were ignored, the Women's Political Council was forced to move forward with the boycott plan.

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Rosa Parks Being Fingerprinted
Rosa Parks Being Fingerprinted

In late 1955, an NAACP activist named Rosa Parks was arrested, not for sitting in the whites-only section of the bus, but for refusing to give up her seat in the black section for a white passenger. This act of defiance would mark the beginning of the bus boycotts and lead to Parks becoming known as 'The Mother of the Freedom Movement'.

Once the boycotts started, many people walked to their destinations or accepted discounted rides from taxi drivers who were supporters of the movement. The boycott was the same day as Rosa Parks' trial. Parks was found guilty and fined $14. Later that day, a group of black leaders called the Montgomery Improvement Association, organized by an activist named E.D. Nixon, who was the founder and president of the local NAACP, held a meeting. At this meeting, Martin Luther King Jr., who had been named the group's president, gave a speech urging black people to continue to protest but to do so 'with dignity and Christian love', after which there was a unanimous vote for the boycott to continue.

The boycotters had 3 main objectives:

1) Civil treatment of black passengers

2) No requirement for black passengers to give up seats in the 'black section' for white passengers

3) Black bus drivers for black bus routes

These requests were denied by the city officials and the bus company so the boycott continued.

Backlash

This mass rebellion caused the bus company to almost go bankrupt in 1956. The mayor of Montgomery and other city officials were angry that the bus company and other businesses were suffering and they decided to retaliate. Dr. King received death threats, his house was bombed and he was arrested and thrown in jail for a traffic violation while transporting boycotters. City officials insisted the arrests and brutality would stop if the boycott was called off. Still, Dr. King preached non-violence to his followers and the boycott went on. Thankfully, the protesters would soon see a breakthrough.

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