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The History of Montgomery Bus Boycott


The Montgomery bus boycott was one of the earliest and most high-profile episodes in the history of black civil rights struggles. In the early 1950s, the civil rights movement was still relatively weak to oppose White America’s political and economic institutions. However, the segregation laws that continued to operate in the United States had risen the level of anger and discomfort within the African-American community. Even before the Rosa Parks incident, there were cases of disobedience to the norms established by law, but the offenders were either acquitted or, in most cases, forced to pay a fine.

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On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black seamstress at a Montgomery department store and an activist of the civil rights movement was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. In those years, black people were subjected to severe segregation in public transport. Sometimes, African-Americans paid the fare at the entrance and were then forced to get off the bus only to get on again from the back platform. Even though there were empty seats on the bus, they had to stand as these seats were reserved only for white people. Also, they were not allowed to sit in the first four seats. Additionally, if all the seats reserved for whites were already occupied, and new white passengers entered the bus, the blacks sitting in the unreserved seats had to get up and make way for them. In case they do not follow this rule, they were to be arrested. In most cases, black people obeyed this rule without objection, yet there were those who refused to submit to such humiliation from time to time.

In the same year of 1955, five women and two children, not counting male offenders, were arrested for disobeying segregation rules on buses, and one black citizen was shot dead by a driver. Black residents of Montgomery made up at least 70% of all passengers in the local bus fleet. The arrest of Rosa Parks was the catalyst that prompted the black population to protest. Ed Nixon, the head of the local sleeper union, called on the African-American community for a one-day boycott of city transport in protest. December the 5, the first day of the boycott, was quite a success: the city buses did not have a single black passenger.

On the same morning, Rosa Parks was fined fourteen dollars for refusing to comply with the state of Alabama’s segregation law on city buses. According to Martin Luther King, this was the first time a black community representative was tried for refusing to comply with the segregation law. Previously, in such cases, black people were either released or charged with disorderly conduct. Thus, the arrest and admission of guilt of Mrs. Parks had a double meaning. It was an incident that forced the African-American community to take action. Moreover, it was a test of the legitimacy of the segregation itself. On the same day, representatives of the black community decided to extend the boycott of the lines until complete victory. The ultimate goal was to achieve equal rights for all bus passengers regardless of their skin color.

The city authorities expressed no intention to cooperate with the protesters. On the contrary, they argued that the actions of King and his supporters violated state laws. In the meantime, local bus companies suffered from heavy financial losses. The movement faced severe resistance – in an attempt to encourage whites to use buses and resist boycotts, local authorities formed the White Citizens’ Council. While the number of Council members grew rapidly, white police officers fined hundreds of car drivers for minor traffic violations, and arrested black citizens on fictitious grounds. After the first month of the boycott, its organizers received hate letters and phone calls with threats of violence. The homes of Martin Luther King and E.D. Nixon were bombed.

The reaction of the racists and the political system only sparked the movement further. At first, the protesters in Montgomery did not seek to abolish the segregation at once: they only wanted to gain equal rights in public transport. However, their original intentions may have changed due to the fierce resilience from the authorities. One may argue that the Montgomery boycott has inspired community leaders to think bigger and work collectively towards the destruction of the segregation system for good.

The leaders of the movement used the Christian formula of love as the basis of the boycott tactics: “Love your enemies”. King believed that a Christian should never be reconciled with an unjust order, but his heart should not be hardened because violence cannot be eliminated by violence. Therefore, Christian love in the civil rights movement came to be seen as the equivalent of ahimsa in Gandhism. It was explained to the movement’s participants that despite the repressions, it is necessary to consistently and consciously follow the principle of gospel love for all, awakening it in their opponents’ hearts.

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After six months of mass fighting, the US federal district court ruled that Alabama’s bus segregation law was unconstitutional. This decision was challenged, but each new judicial maneuver and each new attack by racists only strengthened African Americans’ determination to overcome their fears and increased the awareness of the joint power. Finally, after almost a year of struggle, in November 1956, the US Supreme Court upheld a decision to ban segregation on Alabama bus lines. Another month passed before the federal authorities forced the local government to abide by this decision.

As it was mentioned earlier, the Montgomery boycott was originally aimed at one form of segregation, rather than the entire system of “Jim Crow laws.” Nevertheless, when activists staged a boycott targeting private bus companies and won, their victory had ramifications far beyond one city’s bus system. It marked a historic turning point in the fight against segregation. Today, a similarly successful targeted boycott can once again help the oppressed gain confidence to struggle for fundamental change.


Legalized segregation, based on the ideology of white supremacy, was defeated by the civil rights movement, yet the institutionalized racism remained. The Black Lives Matter civil action’s growing support now shows promising potential for creating a strong mass movement against inequality. The Montgomery bus boycott has proved that society can achieve real change peacefully by establishing well-organized protests and movements that the authorities would not be able to ignore. Thus, the following two aspects can be distinguished: ideological and organizational. The movement must carry a resounding message that can attract supporters from different social backgrounds. At the same time, coordination and discipline play a key role in achieving the set demands. The Montgomery bus boycott had succeeded in both, and, therefore, it can be considered an outstanding historical example of a successful non-violent protest.

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