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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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The Montgomery Bus Boycott

December 1955 - December 1956

"...people wanted to continue that
boycott. They had been touched by
the persecution, the humiliation...
they voted for it unanimously..."
—Jo Ann Robinson, boycott organizer

Related Links:

  • Access a flyer circulated by the Montgomery Improvement Association on the eve of their victory.
  • Bernice Johnson Reagon explains the central role of singing at the Montgomery mass meetings.
  • Read a historian's comparison of the role of women in the civil rights movement with the roles women played in Marcus Garvey's movement.
  • See a map of civil rights hot spots, including Montgomery, Alabama.

Just a few months after Emmett Till's murder, a 43-year-old civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, refuses to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and is arrested. Parks' arrest inspires black leaders to mount a one-day bus boycott. With the help of Jo Ann Robinson of the Women's Political Council, 40,000 people are organized in just two days.

On the night of December 5, 1955, elated at the day's success in emptying the buses, boycotters assemble at the Holt Street Baptist Church and vote to keep the protest going. A main speaker is a new minister in town, 26-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Because he has no history with the town leaders, other ministers, including Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, persuade King to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association and the boycott. King delivers an inspiring speech, saying, "If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong."

The boycott lasts until December 1956. Boycotters walk and rely on volunteer drivers in a carpool system to get where they need to go, and gain strength in nightly mass meetings. The bus company suffers economically; violence erupts; bombs are thrown at organizers' homes; and the white Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan hold rallies. At last, a Supreme Court decision integrates the buses, and soon thousands of black riders are on the buses again -- sitting where they please.

Context

Other Events: 1956

Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev tells the West, "We will bury you!" The Soviet military crushes an uprising in Hungary.

"In God We Trust" is adopted as the official motto of the United States. President Dwight Eisenhower easily wins re-election.

In its Cold War-era advertisements, Douglas Aircraft says its polar DEW (Distant Early Warning) radar system "will stand between you and a sneak attack over the top of the world."

Popular singer Nat King Cole is attacked by six white men while performing in Birmingham, Alabama.

Harry Belafonte kicks off a calypso craze, and Elvis Presley appears three times on the Ed Sullivan Show, though in one performance he is only shown from the waist up.

Tupperware pioneers the lucrative phenomenon of home party selling, with sales incentives like an annual Florida Jubilee and prizes presented by the Wish Fairy.

One-time Milwaukee teacher Golda Myerson becomes Israel's prime minister and changes her last name to Meir.

Bill Russell begins playing for the Boston Celtics; he will later become the first African American coach in the NBA.

Press

The Washington Post, April 25, 1956

Montgomery Sticks to Bus Segregation

An order to stop segregation on city buses brought angry threats of reprisal today from city and state officials who vowed to keep the races apart as long as possible...

City and state officials insisted Alabama's segregation laws are still in effect despite the Supreme Court action of yesterday.

That applied directly only to South Carolina, and Alabama officials contended segregation laws here will remain intact until a court order is directed specifically at them.

Until the city and state laws are knocked down, Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers and other city officials and President Jack Owen of the Alabama Public Service Commission declared segregation will be rigidly maintained.

The City Commission, all three of whose members belong to the White Citizens Council, issued a statement saying it "does not consider that the Supreme Court construes Alabama laws or city ordinances by which we are governed." The council is dedicated to preservation of racial segregation...

...Sellers said he would order the arrest of any passenger or bus driver who permits or indulges in desegregation.

..."As far as I'm concerned, this damn thing (the Supreme Court action) applies only to South Carolina," Sellers said. "Until they tell us in this suit filed here that it applies to us, I'm going to enforce all city laws to maintain segregation."...

The New York Times, April 26, 1956

Plessy Nears Its End

...A succession of cases dealing with both transportation and education in recent years has brought the judicial doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson to its grave. Burial took place on May 17, 1954, when the decisions rejecting the constitutionality of "separate but equal" school facilities were handed down.

The tombstone was set when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond last July ruled against enforced segregation even on city buses, asserting that -- in the light of the school decision -- "we do not think the separate but equal doctrine ... can any longer be regarded as a correct statement of law."...

...This conclusion will come hard to some states and cities where segregation of public transport has been practiced for generations. "I hereby defy the ruling handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court," grandiloquently declared the president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, in whose state capital, Montgomery, a Negro boycott of segregated bus lines has been going on since December...

...Too much must not be demanded too soon. Friends of the Negro in the North will do him no service in the South by exacerbating what is already an extremely difficult situation. In a social upheaval of this magnitude it is neither wise nor just to issue hot-headed statements quivering with self-righteousness, as so many of us in this part of the world are wont to do when it comes to segregation. But the law must and will be enforced, though the process can be expected to take time.

The New York Times, December 22, 1956

Bus Integration in Alabama Calm
Montgomery Quiet on First Day -- Slapping of Negro Woman Only Incident

...For the first time in this "cradle of the Confederacy" all the Negroes entered buses through the front door. They sat in the first empty seats they saw, in the front of the buses and in the rear. They did not get up to give a white passenger a seat. And whites sat with Negroes....

...A Negro turned in one bus to ask a white passenger sitting behind him -- the mark of the new order -- what time it was and got a quick and courteous reply...

...Two white men in one bus today found themselves sitting behind a Negro, and one of the whites said, loudly: "I see this isn't going to be a white Christmas."

The Negro looked up, and smiled. He said, with good humor but firmness: "Yes, sir, that's right." Everybody in the bus smiled, and all rancor seemed to evaporate...

There was no mass turnout of Negroes today to exploit their victory. For the most part, only those who had planned already to go to town took the buses. They made nothing special of it, simply abandoned their year-long custom of walking, or joining in a car pool, and quietly boarded the bus.

The Birmingham Post-Herald, December 22, 1956

White Boycott Of Buses Talked

An Alabama Citizens Council leader proposed a white boycott of city lines buses today after lambasting two federal judges who ruled originally against segregated buses.

State Sen. Sam Engelhardt of Macon County, executive secretary of the Alabama Association of White Citizens Councils urged the "real white people of Alabama" never to forget the names "[Richard T.] Rives and [Frank M.] Johnson"...

"Nothing they can ever do would rectify this great wrong they have done to the good people of this state," said Englehardt. "Already more hate has been generated on this day than any day since the days of the carpetbag Legislature."

Engelhardt represents one of Alabama's heaviest Negro populated counties and site of famed Tuskegee Institute, in the state Legislature.

Music

We are Soldiers in the Army
Songwriter: Traditional, adapted by SNCC
Performed by: The Montgomery Improvement Association
Listen to the Music

The Montgomery Improvement Association organized the bus boycott in that Alabama town. Citizens involved in the boycott would gather in churches -- which could hold large numbers of people -- to share information, gather strength, hear from the movement's leaders, and raise their voices together in song.

Martin Luther King's wife, Coretta, remembered that songs were always part of the Association's meetings. "Someone would come and sing, without an instrument at all. Then they would have someone who played the piano or the organ, and they would start, just like they start at the church services. And they would sing the songs and the hymns of the church."

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

The Montgomery Bus Boycott
Duration: 1:53 min
Watch the Video

The clips begin with Reverend Martin Luther King describing the events that led to the boycott, including the arrest of Rosa Parks.

This is followed by footage of empty buses and African Americans walking to work.

Then Reverend Ralph Abernathy is shown addressing a church meeting about the boycott.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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