The Montgomery Bus Boycott

In March 1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old Black schoolgirl in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in violation of the state’s Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation.

Local African American leaders wanted a mass protest against these laws, but decided to wait for a better case to pursue because this incident involved a minor. Later that year on December 1, Rosa Parks, a Black woman, refused to give up her front row bus seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus. Bus segregation was required by law in Montgomery, Alabama, which meant that the front half of city buses was for white people and the back half was for African Americans.

Parks was arrested and fined for breaking the city ordinance, but her decision and subsequent arrest led civil rights groups, such as the Women’s Political Council, the local NAACP, and Black community leaders to initiate a 1-day bus boycott. African Americans made up about three-quarters of the bus ridership in Montgomery. No one was quite sure what to expect. However, Black leaders organized ride-shares and a pick-up system described as comparable in precision to a military operation. On December 5th, Montgomery’s buses ran nearly completely empty as over 40,000 normal riders found other transportation.

The success of the boycott and the excitement of the mass meeting on the evening of that day, removed any doubt about the strong motivation to continue the boycott. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, "[t]he question of calling off the protest was now academic. The enthusiasm of these thousands of people swept everything along like an onrushing tidal wave."

The Montgomery Improvement Association was established with Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and others to work on continuing the boycott until demands were met. These included first-come, first-serve seating and respect from bus drivers. The city refused to meet these simple demands and the boycott continued.

The boycott proved extremely effective, with enough riders lost to the city transit system to cause serious economic distress. Car owners across the city volunteered their vehicles or themselves to drive people. When the city pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in the carpools, the boycott leaders arranged new policies at Lloyd's of London.

Black taxi drivers charged 10 cents per ride, a fare equal to the cost to ride the bus, in support of the boycott. When word of this reached city officials, the order went out to fine any cab driver who charged a rider less than 45 cents. In addition to using private motor vehicles, others hitchhiked biked, or even rode mules or horse-drawn buggies. During rush hour, sidewalks were often crowded.

Across the nation, black churches raised money to support the boycott and collected new and slightly used shoes to replace the tattered footwear of Montgomery's black citizens, many of whom walked everywhere rather than ride the buses and submit to Jim Crow laws.

The boycott continued for just over a year until a federal district court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that bus segregation violated the Constitution.On December 21, 1956, Montgomery’s buses were integrated. Though the boycott had brought about a significant legal victory and had also brought national attention to MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, the black community continued to face resistance to the idea of integration.