On 1 December 1955 a 42-year-old African American woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama public bus.
While others had resisted the segregation of Montgomery’s buses in similar ways and been arrested for it, Park’s single act of civil disobedience against the state’s racist laws attracted the special attention of prominent civil rights activists, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and sparked an organised boycott of the Montgomery public bus network.
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
Similar protests to Parks’ include that of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old high school student in Montgomery, who was arrested less than a year earlier, and famous ground-breaking athlete Jackie Robinson, who, while serving in the US Army in Texas, was court-martialled, but acquitted, for refusing to move to the back of a military bus when told to by a fellow officer.
Several activist groups in Alabama, and Montgomery in particular, had already petitioned the mayor, but previous political actions and arrests had not sufficiently mobilised the community to engage in a large enough boycott of the city’s bus system to produce meaningful results.
But there was something special about Rosa Parks that galvanised Montgomery’s black population. She was considered ‘beyond reproach’, had displayed dignity in her protest and was known as a fine member of her community and a good Christian. Already a long-time NAACP member and activist and the secretary for its Montgomery branch, her act catapulted her into the limelight and a life of political involvement.
There was also something special about Martin Luther King, who local NAACP president ED Nixon chose — subject to a vote — as the leader for the bus boycott. For one thing, King was new to Montgomery and had not yet faced intimidation or made enemies there.
On 5 December 1955, just 4 days after Parks’ arrest, 90% of Montgomery’s black community participated in the boycott. That evening at the Holt Street Baptist Church, the recently formed Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) voted to continue the action.
Martin Luther King addressed the crowd of several thousand present:
And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.
—Martin Luther King Jr.
The city would not back down and the boycott continued through 1956, with the authorities penalising black taxi drivers and the African American community responding with a well-organised carpool system, which was subsequently stopped via legal injunction.
On 22 March of ’56, King was convicted of organising an ‘illegal boycott’ and fined $500, a conviction which was changed, upon his lawyers’ announced intention to appeal, to a 368-day prison sentence. The appeal was rejected and King later paid the fine.
The federal district court ruled on 5 June 1956 that the segregation of buses was unconstitutional, a ruling which was affirmed the following November by the US Supreme Court. Bus segregation came to an end on 20 December 1956 and the next morning, along with fellow activists, Martin Luther King boarded an integrated bus in the city of Montgomery.
A major event in the history of American civil rights, the Montgomery Bus Boycott stands as a testament to the power of organised civil disobedience in the face of state opposition and illegal oppression.