This past December 1, 2015 marked the 60TH Anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the year-long protest in Montgomery, Alabama, that electrified into action the modern American Civil Rights Movement and led to a 1956 United States Supreme Court decision that declared segregated seating on buses unconstitutional.
It was organized by the many forgotten Black women of the Womens’ Political Council and the many unsung women who worked to keep the boycott in effect for 381 days.
The fight against hateful sexist and racist mistreatment of Black women and girl passengers by White bus drivers was set into motion by the women a year before the arrest of Claudette Colvin and one-and-a-half years before Rosa Parks kept her seat on a segregated bus to a White man, the protest was first organized by the Women’s Political Council as a one-day boycott to coincide with the trial of Ms. Parks, who had been arrested on December 1, 1955.
The council, led by JoAnn Robinson, had printed 52,000 fliers asking Montgomery Black citizens to stay off the public transportation buses on December 5, the day of the trial. In the meantime, labor activist E.D. Nixon, who bailed Ms. Parks out of jail, contacted Rev. Ralph Abernathy, minister of the First Baptist Church, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the new minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, of Ms. Parks’s arrest. A group of about 50 Black leaders and one White minister, Rev. Robert Graetz, joined in support of the movement. The N.A.A.C.P., which had been looking for a test case for segregation, began preparing for the legal challenge.
Jo Ann Robinson
But forgotten are the women who started the boycott, the real power and force behind it. They were the foot soldiers who walked, offered rides, car-pooled and got the word out to stay off the buses. The WPC, founded in 1946, and originally concerned with voter registration, petitioned the mayor of Montgomery and the City Council to meet with them about segregation on the buses and to address the vicious maltreatment Black citizens, especially with the arrest of Claudette Colvin. Because she was pregnant, unwed, and part of the working class, leaders of the N.A.A.C.P. refused to use her for the test case. But, Ms. Colvin’s case led to the foundations of future protests. It was with the arrest with Ms. Rosa Parks, the N.A.A.C.P. found the candidate they wanted.
Ms. Rosa Parks was “the model plaintiff.” (1)
She was “married, God-fearing, nurse to her sick mother, and an industrious seamstress.” (2)
Black, and White, segregationists, and moderates would have a hard time finding character flaws against Ms. Parks.
Ms. Parks, as service secretary of the local N.A.A.C.P. was equipped to step into the role.
Pushed by WPC founders such as Alabama State College Professors JoAnn Robinson and Mary Fair Burks, and co-founders Irene West, Thelma Glass, Uretta Adair and Johnnie Carr, who produced thousands of flyers overnight, the male leadership agreed to promote the boycott.
Montgomery, Alabama was home to many Black women’s clubs whose members dedicated their lives and time to uplifting and improving their people’s welfare. The women mobilized, working in the background and on the sidelines of public meetings and discussions, they became invisible to eyes and minds to those who took over the bus boycott, and thus through their hard work, and through the decades, have never received the accolades and acknowledgements they should have received.
The gathering on that first afternoon of December 5, 1955, established the Montgomery Improvement Association to address the boycott’s needs. Much noteworthy in addressing conditions on the buses was the inhumane and brutal mistreatment Black riders faced on the segregated buses:
- Black citizens were forced to pay their fares at the front of the bus, then reboard the bus at the rear;
- they faced insulting and violently brutish harassment from White drivers, who would pull away before Black passengers could board the bus after paying fares;
- Black passengers were bullied, snubbed, and brutalized on a daily basis: drivers shortchanged Blacks,; kicked them off the bus if they asked for change;
- White drivers did not hesitate to use violence and sexualized gendered racism to degrade, humiliate, and insult Black women passengers to enforce segregation: exposing themselves to Black women passengers, hurling nasty insults their way, calling them “black niggers”, “black bitches”, “heifers”, and “whores”.
- in addition to insulting Black women and girl passengers, White drivers often slapped Black women who stood up for their dignity as human beings (2)
The White city leaders, including the mayor, William A. Gayle, announced their memberships in the pro-segregationist White Citizens’ Council. They refused to address the demands of their Black citizens.
But the boycott went on, and woe to the Black person who broke ranks with their fellow boycotters:
“One December day a very aged Black woman, who was struggling along on foot, walking with a cane, was overtaken by a bus with a lone black rider on it. The bus stopped at the stop sign just ahead of the old woman, to let the black passenger out. Seeing the situation, the crippled woman hobbled along faster toward the bus. The driver, thinking that the woman was hurrying to get on, seized the opportunity to show how courteous he could be to black people if they would only ride again. so he called out, in a very friendly tone, “Don’t hurry yourself, auntie. I’ll wait for you!”
With anger and scorn, the old woman pantingly, gaspingly called up to him as she hurried past the open bus door, “I’m not your auntie, and I don’t want to get on your bus. I’m trying to catch that nigger who just got off” Then she drew back her cane to strike the rider as he fled beyond her reach.” (3)
With negotiations ground to a halt, litigation was sought to end the boycott.
The MIA filed Browder vs. Gayle in federal court on February 1, 1956, challenging bus segregation. By the end of February, leaders of the boycott were indicted under Alabama’s anti-boycott law. In June, the federal district court found bus segregation unconstitutional and the city appeal went to the U.S. Supreme Court. On December 21, 1956, one year and three weeks after Rosa Parks’ arrest, the Supreme Court decision officially concurred with the federal court.
Throughout that year, amid the public drama played out in the courts, boardrooms, and mass meetings, it was the ordinary Black citizens, so many of them Black women, who struggled to support the boycott and get to work. Many of them beaten and arrested. Women, after full days working in the homes and businesses of the very men who sought to keep them defiled and segregated; women who walked long distances in all kinds of weather; women who car-pooled, returning home exhausted and late to their own children and domestic duties. Women from all walks of life who managed the upkeep of the boycott.
Black woman w. National Bohemian beer box loaded w. turnip greens balanced on her head, walking on sidewalk during bus boycott protesting policy of forcing African Americans to ride at the back of public buses.
Women who were there at its beginning, keeping track of details, finances, and the needs of the protestors.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott had implications that reached far beyond desegregation of public transportation buses.
The protest propelled the Civil Rights Movement into the national consciousness and Dr. King into the public eye.
In the words of Dr. King: “We have gained a new sense of dignity and destiny. We have discovered a new and powerful weapon–non-violent resistance.”
Women were the boycott’s backbone.
The women of the Women’s Political Council and the many women who held up the boycott through their resolve to never give an inch, through the violence perpetuated against their bodies and homes.
It was their courage and perseverance that stirred a nation and Black Americans elsewhere who were yearning to tear off the shackles of segregation.
May their devotion and involvement never be forgotten.
- Black Women in America: Second Edition, Volume 2, by Darlene Clark Hine. Published by Oxford University Press, 2005 The Montgomery Bus Boycott, pgs. 382-383.
- Black Women in America, page 383.
- The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started it: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Edited with a foreword by David J. Garrow. The University of Tennessee Press, 1987. pgs. 98-99.
- See also: Keys vs. Carolina Coach Company.
- A Letter Sent to Mayor Gayle.
- The Bus.
- Claudette Colvin.
- Sarah Keys.