Today in History Dec. 5, 1955: Montgomery bus boycott

Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus on December 21, 1956, the day Montgomery’s public transportation system was legally integrated. Behind Parks is Nicholas C. Chriss, a UPI reporter covering the event

The Montgomery bus boycott, a seminal event in the Civil Rights Movement, was a political and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama. The campaign lasted from December 5, 1955—when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person—to December 20, 1956, when a federal ruling, Browder v. Gayle, took effect, and led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional.[1] Many important figures in the Civil Rights Movement took part in the boycott, including Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy.

After Parks’ arrest, Nixon called a number of local ministers to organize support for the boycott; the third man he called was Martin Luther King Jr., a young minister who was newly arrived from Atlanta, Georgia. King said he would think about it and call back. When King responded, he said that he would participate in the boycott and had already arranged a meeting of his church congregation on the issue. Nixon could not attend because of an out-of-town business trip; he took precautions to see that no one was elected to lead the boycott campaign until he returned. 

When Nixon returned to Montgomery, he met with Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Rev. E.N. French to plan the program for the next boycott meeting. They came up with a list of demands for the bus company, named the new organization the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), and discussed candidates for president of the association. Nixon recommended King to Abernathy and French because Nixon believed that King had not been compromised by dealing with the local white power structure.

E. D. Nixon

After a successful one-day bus boycott on December 5, 1955, Nixon met with a group of ministers to plan the larger boycott. But, the meeting did not proceed as he had envisioned. The ministers wanted to organize a low-key boycott that would not upset the white power structure in Montgomery. This was completely opposite of what Nixon and the other activists hoped to achieve. An exasperated Nixon threatened to publicly denounce the ministers as cowards. King stood and said that he was no coward. By the end of the meeting, he had accepted the MIA presidency and Nixon had become the treasurer. That evening, King delivered a keynote address to the full meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church.

Nixon shared his labor and civil rights contacts with the MIA, organizing financial and other resources to help manage and support the boycott. These were critical to its success.

What was expected to be a short boycott lasted 381 days, more than one year. Despite fierce political opposition, police coercion, personal threats, and their own sacrifices, the blacks of Montgomery held the boycott. They walked to work; the people with cars gave others rides. They gave up some trips. Bus ridership plummeted, as blacks were the majority riders in the system, and the bus company was on the verge of financial ruin. In late January a bomb was set off near the home of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and on February 1, 1956, a bomb exploded in front of Nixon’s home.

Attorneys Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed the petition in federal district court for it to review the state and city laws on bus segregation in the case that became known as Browder v. Gayle (1956). They filed on behalf of the five Montgomery women who originally refused to give up their seats on city buses: Claudette Colvin, Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatte Reese. (Reese withdrew from the case in February.)

On June 5, 1956, a three-judge panel of the US District Court ruled on Browder v. Gayle and determined that Montgomery’s segregation law was unconstitutional, violating the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. On November 13, 1956, the US Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. On December 17, 1956 the Supreme Court rejected appeals by the city and state to reconsider its decision.

Three days later, the Supreme Court issued its order for Montgomery to desegregate its buses. With that legal victory, the MIA organizers ended the boycott.

At a later rally at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Nixon talked about the symbolism of the boycott to an audience of supporters:

I’m from Montgomery, Alabama, a city that’s known as the Cradle of the Confederacy, that had stood still for more than ninety-three years until Rosa L. Parks was arrested and thrown in jail like a common criminal…. Fifty thousand people rose up and caught hold to the Cradle of the Confederacy and began to rock it till the Jim Crow rockers began to reel and the segregated slats began to fall out.

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