The Bus Boycott

Keeping a Seat,

Taking a Stand

Gail Short

On March 2, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., 15-year-old Claudette Colvin and three of her high school classmates climbed onto a city bus after school.

Because Colvin and her friends were Black, the city’s segregation law required that they sit in the back of the bus in the “colored” section, which they did.  

But when a white woman boarded the bus, the driver ordered Colvin and her classmates to get up and move several rows back to create more space between them and the white patron. 

Colvin’s classmates dutifully complied and relinquished their seats. 

Colvin, however, refused to budge, stating that she paid her fare and had a Constitutional right to be there. 

Nine months before Rosa Parks made history, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus; she was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested. (Photo credit: Alamy)

The driver called the police, who arrested Colvin and charged her with disorderly conduct, assault and battery, and violating a city ordinance. In juvenile court, a judge found her guilty and placed her on probation pending good behavior.

Nine months after Colvin’s arrest, on December 1, Rosa Parks, a Black, 42-year-old Montgomery resident and department store seamstress, took her seat on a city bus, in the “colored” section, after work.

When a white man boarded the bus, the driver moved the “colored” section sign several seats back and commanded that Parks switch to another seat behind the sign. 

Like Colvin, Parks refused to move. And, like Colvin, Parks was arrested for violating the Montgomery city code.

White bus drivers frequently abused Blacks verbally, hurled racial epithets, and even played cruel tricks on them…

But unlike Colvin, whose story would fade into obscurity, Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat propelled her into fame by setting off a citywide, 13-month bus boycott that became one of the most successful civil rights protests in U.S. history. 

During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Black citizens refused to ride public transportation until the city of Montgomery agreed to end racial segregation on public buses. The protest lasted from December 1955 to December 1956. 

“The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a direct action protest against discriminatory seating practices on Montgomery city buses,” says Howard Robinson, an Alabama State University archivist and professor of civil rights history. “The boycott was a way for the Black population, which was largely dependent on the buses, to withdraw their patronage from the buses and demand that the bus system and the city treat Black people as first-class citizens.”

An Abusive, Degrading System

Prior to the boycott, Black bus riders were forced to endure many indignities.

That is because Montgomery’s three-member commission gave the city’s bus drivers the authority of police officers to enforce racial segregation on public transit, says Robinson. Black riders, for example, had to pay their bus fare at the front of the bus but then board at the back of the vehicle.

The white bus drivers frequently abused Blacks verbally, hurled racial epithets, and even played cruel tricks just to frustrate Blacks, such as driving past their stops on purpose. 

Bus drivers even wore side arms, so the bus became a very confrontational place.

But one of the worst indignities for Black bus riders was being forced to relinquish their seats to white riders. In fact, a driver could at any time move the “colored” sign back several rows and thus expand the “whites only” section on the bus, forcing Black riders to give up their seats.

“There were a variety of abuses that Black people suffered under the bus system in Montgomery. And yet, they paid the same fares as their white counterparts. So Black people organized to oppose that system,” Robinson says.

Resisting the system could, for Blacks, result in beatings, arrests or worse. “Bus drivers even wore side arms,” says Robinson, “so the bus became a very confrontational place.”

Rosa Parks under arrest for her part in organizing the Montgomery bus boycott. (Photo credit: Alamy)

Following her arrest, Parks turned to a young, Black attorney and long-time friend, Fred Gray, for help. Gray had represented Claudette Colvin months earlier. 

While speaking at a Dec. 4, 2021 seminar at St. Paul AME Church in Montgomery to commemorate the bus boycott, Gray told the audience that after he agreed to represent Parks, the idea of launching a community response to her arrest came to him.

“I told her, ‘Mrs. Parks, as you know, there has been talk in this community for some time about getting the community involved.’ I said, ‘You have done your part. You decided that you would not get up. You didn’t tell anybody that you were going to do it. You didn’t know it was going to happen, and I think you have done what you need to do.’”

Gray recounted how he then talked to E.D. Nixon, a Black activist in Montgomery and founder of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters trade union. He asked Nixon how he felt about getting the Black community involved with voicing a response to the segregated bus system, a protest that would go well beyond the Parks court case.

Black riders made up about 70 percent of the city’s bus patrons—and 90 percent of Blacks honored the boycott that day.

Nixon was scheduled to be out of town for three days, but he encouraged the young attorney to consult with another local activist named Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council – an organization of professional Black women – to see what she thought about a large-scale protest. Robinson agreed that a community protest was in order, and so after Nixon returned to Montgomery, Nixon and Robinson set out to organize a one-day bus boycott to be held on December 5, 1955. 

At the time, Black riders made up about 70 percent of the city’s bus patrons—and 90 percent of Blacks honored the boycott that day, according to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Because of the success of the protest, Black leaders gathered at Mt. Zion AME Church later that day and made plans to continue the protest and keep pressure on city officials to end racial segregation on public transit. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and picked a young Montgomery minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as MIA chairman.

Attorney Fred Gray defended Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks and litigated the 1956 Browder v. Gayle case before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

The MIA listed several demands: first-come-first-served seating; courteous treatment from bus drivers; and the hiring of Black bus drivers. 

Word of the expanded protest spread, and Black residents continued to avoid the city buses, choosing to walk or carpool instead. 

“You could challenge white supremacy and the segregated bus system because you had the infrastructure of a Black community,” Howard Robinson says. “You had places downtown such as Black-owned stores, drugstores and other places where Black people could set up transportation networks and operate a parallel transportation system during the bus boycott. That allowed them to circumvent the white transportation system.”

Retribution and Determination

Robinson points out that the bus boycott began on the heels of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that forced public schools to desegregate. While the Brown ruling was a pivotal moment for civil rights movement, it failed to stop discrimination on public transit and other accommodations.

“The white South said, ‘No, we’re not going to recognize it. We’re going to push back in every way possible,’” Robinson says. “And so the bus boycott brings together the church, church leadership, masses of people, and litigation, all melded into one organized campaign to successfully challenge racial discrimination. A key component of that campaign is litigation—because for the first time after the Brown decision, Black people had the law on their side.”

Blacks in Montgomery who participated in the boycott drew the ire of many whites who threatened their jobs. Some employers even fired Black workers. On Jan. 30, 1956, King’s home was bombed. 

Then in February 1956, the city indicted more than 80 boycott leaders, including King and Parks, accusing them of violating a 1921 state anti-boycott law. 

Rosa Parks in her later years as “the mother of the modern-day civil rights movement.” (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

“The city decided that they were not going to negotiate and that they were going to get tough,” says Robinson. “But that backfired. Instead, it galvanized Black people. Instead of being fearful of going to jail, Black people started showing up at the police station saying, ‘I hear my name is on this list and I’m supposed to be arrested.’ It imbued in them a sense of fearlessness—that even incarcerating them was not going to deter them.”

Blacks’ determination to keep the boycott going month after month astonished not only the people of Montgomery, but the nation as well, Robinson says. “The length of the boycott caught the white and the Black community off guard. Many people believed that this was going to be a one-day boycott, and white folks believed that Black folks wouldn’t even adhere to it for that one day.”

Blacks’ determination to keep the boycott going month after month astonished not only the people of Montgomery, but the nation as well.

The Final Act

Then a major break came in November 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court made its ruling in the case of Aurelia Browder v. William A. Gayle. The plaintiffs, who included Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Claudette Colvin, argued that state and city ordinances upholding segregated city buses were unconstitutional. 

The Court ruled for the plaintiffs. It wrote: “We hold that the statutes and ordinances requiring segregation of the white and colored races on the motor buses of a common carrier of passengers in the City of Montgomery and its police jurisdiction violate the due process and equal protection of the law clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

The ruling forced the city of Montgomery to end segregated seating on its public buses, and on Dec. 20, 1956, King called for the end of the bus boycott. 

An article about the Montgomery Bus Boycott published in the Montgomery Advertiser on Dec. 6, 1955. (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

In the years following the boycott, Parks became famous. Dubbed “the mother of the modern-day civil rights movement,” She was the recipient of many accolades and honors. And when she died in 2005 at the age of 92, she became the first woman and the second Black person in U.S. history to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C.  

Colvin, on the other hand, lived largely in obscurity after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. But in 2021, the 82-year-old former nurse’s aide gained headlines again when she asked that a judge expunge her record as a juvenile delinquent. 

In December 2021, the judge, the Honorable Calvin Williams of the Montgomery Family Court, a Black man, granted her request.

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