On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American woman
who worked as a seamstress, boarded this Montgomery City bus to go
home from work. On this bus on that day, Rosa Parks initiated a new
era in the American quest for freedom and equality.
She sat near the middle of the bus, just behind the 10 seats reserved
for whites. Soon all of the seats in the bus were filled. When a
white man entered the bus, the driver (following the standard practice
of segregation) insisted that all four blacks sitting just behind
the white section give up their seats so that the man could sit
there. Mrs. Parks, who was an active member of the local NAACP,
quietly refused to give up her seat.
Her action was spontaneous and not pre-meditated, although her
previous civil rights involvement and strong sense of justice were
obvious influences. "When I made that decision," she said
later, “I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with
was arrested and convicted of violating the laws of segregation,
known as “Jim Crow laws.” Mrs. Parks appealed her conviction
and thus formally challenged the legality of segregation.
At the same time, local civil rights activists initiated a boycott
of the Montgomery bus system. In cities across the South, segregated
bus companies were daily reminders of the inequities of American
society. Since African Americans made up about 75 percent of the
riders in Montgomery, the boycott posed a serious economic threat
to the company and a social threat to white rule in the city.
A group named the Montgomery Improvement Association, composed
of local activists and ministers, organized the boycott. As their
leader, they chose a young Baptist minister who was new to Montgomery:
Martin Luther King, Jr. Sparked by Mrs. Parks’ action, the
boycott lasted 381 days, into December 1956 when the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled that the segregation law was unconstitutional and the
Montgomery buses were integrated. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was
the beginning of a revolutionary era of non-violent mass protests
in support of civil rights in the United States.
It was not just an accident that the civil rights movement began
on a city bus. In a famous 1896 case involving a black man on a
train, Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court enunciated
the “separate but equal” rationale for Jim Crow. Of
course, facilities and treatment were never equal.
Under Jim Crow customs and laws, it was relatively easy to separate
the races in every area of life except transportation. Bus and train
companies couldn’t afford separate cars and so blacks and
whites had to occupy the same space.
Thus, transportation was one the most volatile arenas for race
relations in the South. Mrs. Parks remembers going to elementary
school in Pine Level, Alabama, where buses took white kids to the
new school but black kids had to walk to their school.
“I'd see the bus pass every day,” she said. “But
to me, that was a way of life; we had no choice but to accept what
was the custom. The bus was among the first ways I realized
there was a black world and a white world” (emphasis
Montgomery’s Jim Crow customs were particularly harsh and
gave bus drivers great latitude in making decisions on where people
could sit. The law even gave bus drivers the authority to carry
guns to enforce their edicts. Mrs. Parks’ attorney Fred Gray
remembered, “Virtually every African-American person in Montgomery
had some negative experience with the buses. But we had no choice.
We had to use the buses for transportation.”
Civil rights advocates had outlawed Jim Crow in interstate train
travel, and blacks in several Southern cities attacked the practice
of segregated bus
systems. There had been a bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,
in 1953, but black leaders compromised before making real gains.
Joann Robinson, a black university professor and activist in Montgomery,
had suggested the idea of a bus boycott months before the Parks
Two other women had been arrested on buses in Montgomery before
Parks and were considered by black leaders as potential clients
for challenging the law. However, both were rejected because black
leaders felt they would not gain white support. When she heard that
the well-respected Rosa Parks had been arrested, one Montgomery
African American woman exclaimed, “They’ve messed with
the wrong one now.”
In the South, city buses were lightning rods for civil rights
activists. It took someone with the courage and character of Rosa
Parks to strike with lightning. And it required the commitment of
the entire African American community to fan the flames ignited
by that lightning into the fires of the civil rights revolution.