From Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King: the boycott that inspired the dream

A simple act of defiance more than 60 years ago triggered one of the most celebrated civil rights campaigns in history. John  Kirk examines how the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 launched the career of Martin Luther King, Jr and changed the face of modern America…

This article first appeared in the December 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine

Rosa Parks pictured riding on a newly desegregated bus in December 1956

Rosa Parks (centre) pictured riding on a newly desegregated bus in December 1956. (Photo by Time Life/Getty)

 

Rosa Louise Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress in a department store in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, boarded her bus home as usual after work on 1 December 1955. As the bus became crowded, white driver J Fred Blake told Parks and other black passengers to vacate their seats. Segregation laws dictated that white passengers had priority. The blacks duly moved. Except for Parks. She sat silently still. “If you don’t stand up, I’m going to call the police and have you arrested,” Blake shouted at her. “You may do that,” Parks calmly replied. Blake left the bus and returned with two policemen. “Why don’t you stand up?” one of the officers asked Parks. “Why do you push us around?” Parks answered.  “I do not know,” said the officer, “but the law is the law and you are under arrest”. She was taken off to the city jail.

Parks’s arrest would have major ramifications. It led to a 13-month boycott of city buses in one of the longest mass mobilisations of a black population ever witnessed in the United States. The boycott’s church-based community activism and ministerial leadership, together with its spirit of non-violence, would become hallmarks of the civil rights movement over the next decade. Moreover, by thrusting 26-year-old Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr into the national spotlight, it provided a new leader for a new era of black activism.

Parks’s act of defiance and the bus boycott were not without historical precedent. When segregation ordinances were passed in southern cities in the late 19th and early 20th century, a number of southern black populations, including Montgomery’s, had organised short-lived boycotts of public transport. Since the 1940s, the growing population of southern cities had increased the amount of inter-racial contact and conflict on city buses. In 1953, blacks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, boycotted buses for about a week until whites agreed to modify existing segregation practices. But the Parks case was different. It unfolded in the aftermath of a lawsuit brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1954, in which the US Supreme Court had handed down a landmark ruling. In Brown v Board of Education, the court outlawed segregation in schools and thereby undermined its legal legitimacy in other areas. The initiative swung decisively towards blacks. Yet southern whites were determined not to give in. Many vowed a campaign of massive resistance to desegregation through legal and even extra-legal measures. In August 1955, a 14-year-old black boy, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered by whites in Mississippi for allegedly answering 
back to a white woman. Till’s murder was indicative of the charged post-Brown racial climate and caused national outrage by graphically illustrating the terror and violence that underpinned segregation.

Brown polarised southern race relations. In the past, there had been limited room for manoeuvre and negotiation over segregation practices at a local level. Brown largely put an end to that by raising the stakes. To blacks, it signalled that the time was right to press their case for racial reform. To whites, it signalled the need not to concede one inch of the segregated order. It was within this changing context of race relations that the Montgomery bus boycott unfolded.

Two people in Montgomery’s black community were responsible for the bus boycott. One was Edgar Daniel (ED) Nixon, a train porter, union leader, and social and political activist. He had been a friend of Parks’s for a number of years and he was the one who arranged to bail her out of jail. The other was Jo Ann Robinson, a college teacher and head of the city’s Women’s Political Council. Nixon and Robinson agreed to organise a one-day bus boycott to protest Parks’s treatment. Robinson took charge of publicising the boycott and Nixon arranged a mass meeting to rally support.

 

A reluctant host

Martin Luther King was drawn into developments when Nixon requested the use of his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church for the meeting. Yet, initially, the man who was to become arguably the most celebrated civil rights leader of the 20th century, was reluctant to become involved. He had been pastor at Dexter for little over a year, his wife Coretta had just had their first child, Yolanda Denise, and becoming embroiled in a controversial protest risked putting his family in harm’s way. So, at first, he told Nixon he would think it over. Soon after, Rev Ralph Abernathy, another young black pastor, called King to seek his help. When Nixon phoned back, King agreed to host the meeting.


The dream-maker: Martin Luther King, Jr speaking in  1962, seven years after the bus boycott that launched his career. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

King’s involvement quickly snowballed. When black leaders in the city sought a leader for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) – an organisation they had established to orchestrate the bus boycott – King quickly became their first choice. Some candidates feared incurring the wrath of angry whites and drew back; others were willing to serve, but existing black leaders did not want to see any of their rivals take such an important position. King’s relative youth, inexperience, and newcomer status, made him the perfect man for the position. Under pressure of nomination, he agreed to take the job.

King’s position as a church minister played a vital role in his choice. Ministers were among the few blacks whose jobs were not financially dependent on whites. They were therefore economically less vulnerable to reprisals. Black churches provided crucial community focal points and information networks as they were among the few institutions entirely owned and controlled by blacks. Black churches formed bases for mass meetings and added religious sanction and resolve to collective action.

With the NAACP increasingly becoming the focus of a white backlash after the Brown decision and branch membership declining under sustained white harassment, the emergence of black church leadership in Montgomery was a timely new development. Just as the momentum was moving its way, local NAACP branches were at their weakest, and so the responsibility of sustaining the movement now fell to the clergy. Following the bus boycott, King became president of a new civil rights organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), whose aim it was to combine and co-ordinate black church networks across the South.

 

The rift grows

When King and MIA leaders met with white officials they were disappointed. The MIA issued only three modest demands: a modified system of segregation on buses, which meant that black passengers would not be forced to stand; better treatment from white bus drivers; and the hiring of black bus drivers on predominantly black routes. White officials rejected their proposals outright. From that point the boycott spiralled. As blacks became more determined not to concede their demands, whites became even more determined not to give in to them.

King increasingly became the focus of attention. On 26  January 1956, he was arrested by city police for allegedly driving 30 miles per hour in a 25 miles per hour speed zone. Although he only spent a short time in jail before making bail, the arrest shook him. He had become a marked man. “Almost every day,” King recalled, “someone warned me that he had overheard white men making plans to get rid of me”. Later that night, unable to sleep, King went to his kitchen to make coffee. He prayed for the strength to continue. Then, he heard a voice telling him to, “Stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever”. The moment had a profound impact on King. His leadership was no longer just a matter of civic responsibility; it had become a religious calling.

King’s faith was tested a few nights later when segregationists bombed his home with his wife and baby daughter inside it. He rushed to the scene to find that no-one had been seriously injured. A growing crowd of angry blacks surveyed the scene, yet King eased tensions by telling them, “I want you to love your enemies… what we are doing is just. And God is with us”. Most observers agreed that only King’s words prevented a riot.

The day after the bombing the MIA filed a lawsuit demanding the desegregation of city buses in Montgomery. Withlittle sign of compromise the dispute had escalated from modest demands for reform to an all-out strike on segregation. As the dispute was played out in the courts, the boycott continued. Blacks were determined not to return to the buses until the courts ruled in their favour, and their stance began to attract national attention. The country’s newspapers and television stations were particularly intrigued with King and his championing of non-violent protest.

It’s true that, from an early stage, King insisted that the bus boycott would be a peaceful protest. However, his account of the “pilgrimage to non-violence” in his 1958 book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, was wildly exaggerated. To be sure, King had encountered the idea of non-violence in his academic studies prior to the boycott, yet as a representative from a national civil rights organisation reported at the time, King admitted to knowing “very little” about non-violent tactics. Another visitor to his home was shocked to find armed men standing guard and loaded weapons lying around.

 

United they sat

In truth, the Montgomery bus boycott was  just the beginning of King’s understanding of non-violence. Historian David Garrow has argued that this understanding evolved in two stages. After Montgomery and up until 1963, King’s focus was mainly on “non-violent persuasion” and trying to convince whites of the righteousness of the civil rights cause. However, beginning in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, King started to adopt a tactic of “non-violent coercion”. This placed pressure on segregation through direct action tactics such as sit-ins and demonstrations. King would continually develop the idea of non-violence and its practical uses throughout his life.

The legal process in the Montgomery case took almost a year to reach its conclusion. The US Supreme Court finally ruled an end to segregation on city buses in November 1956. After white city officials had exhausted the appeals process, they were served with papers to desegregate on 20 December. 

The next morning, King was one of the first passengers to board an integrated bus. “I believe you are Reverend King, aren’t you?” asked the white bus driver. King said that he was. “We are very glad to have you this morning,” came the reply.

The story did not end there. Whites waged a campaign of violence to try to dissuade black passengers from travelling on integrated buses. But blacks held firm. There was no going back. As one black janitor told a white northern reporter, “We got our heads up now and we won’t ever bow down again!”.

The end of the bus boycott was only the beginning of an embryonic civil rights movement. King may be remembered as an inspirational figurehead, but he looked upon his role with some trepidation. “People will be expecting me to pull rabbits out of the hat for the rest of my life,” he wrote to a family friend. Indeed, it would take time for King to become an experienced leader. It would take other leaders, other organisations, and the efforts of thousands of black people working for change in their own localities, to transform the segregated South.

But Montgomery was an important start. With its church-based mass mobilisation, its black ministerial leadership, its cultivation of the idea of non-violence, and its projection of Martin Luther King, Jr, onto the national stage, the Montgomery bus boycott provided the blueprint for what would follow. Not least, it proved that segregation could be overcome by black action, a fact that inspired many others. “Somewhere in the universe,” Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver later wrote, “a gear in the machinery had shifted”.

 

Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–68)

Born 15 January 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, King attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College before studying at two predominantly white northern institutions: Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania for his divinity degree and Boston University for his PhD. At Boston, King met his wife Coretta Scott.

After the Montgomery bus boycott, King helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and became its president. It was in Birmingham in 1963 that King and the SCLC made their distinctive contribution to the movement – the short-term mass mobilisation of a black population in non-violent direct action demonstrations. Such tactics soon became their hallmark.

King and the civil rights movement were most successful between 1963 and 1965. Mass demonstrations in various localities helped to forge a national consensus for racial change. This crystallised in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

From 1965 until his 1968 assassination, King’s attention moved from civil rights to human rights. He criticised US foreign policy in Vietnam and campaigned against poverty.

In the US, the third Monday in January is now recognised as the Martin Luther King, Jr National Holiday in his honour.

 

Rosa Louise Parks (1913–2005)

She was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Alabama in 1913 and her parents separated when she was a child. She moved to Montgomery with her mother. She married Raymond Parks and both became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In August 1955, Parks attended classes at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, including one on “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision”. Because of her role in the bus boycott, Parks was fired from her job and suffered death threats from whites in Montgomery. She moved to Detroit in 1957, working for black congressman John Conyers. Awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, the highest civilian award in the US, she lived in Detroit until her death on 24 October 2005. Parks will always be remembered as the mother of the civil rights movement.

 

Books
Martin Luther King, Jr by John A Kirk (Pearson Longman, 2005);
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story by Martin Luther King, Jr (Harper and Row, 1958, also available in various reprints); 

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Life of Rosa Parks by Douglas Brinkley (Viking Press, 2000)
 
Websites
The King Papers Project at Stanford University, California;
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee;
 
Dr John A Kirk is senior lecturer in US history at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book, Martin Luther King, Jr, was published in Pearson Longman’s Profiles in Power series in 2005
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