December 1, 1955 – Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back section of a municipal bus. Her arrest resulted in a year-long boycott of the city bus system by African Americans and led to legal actions ending racial segregation on municipal buses throughout the South.
The 10 year period following the Civil War – an era known as “Reconstruction” – marked the high point for federal government assistance for its African-American population. For the first five years of the period the Radical Republicans in control of Congress passed a flurry of laws designed to protect the rights of African-Americans and integrate them into the social and political life of the country.
In the 1870’s, however, those efforts stalled. There were a number of factors which contributed: Southern Reconstruction governments were notoriously corrupt; Northern whites became politically tired of dealing with the issue; and extreme Southern white resistance to these efforts, both by the KKK and other organizations. By 1877, Reconstruction had ended, leaving the same white former slave-owners and Confederates in control of every southern state government.
Once back in control, these governments did everything in their power to deny their black citizens anything close to resembling political, economic or social equality. In the 1880’s every former Confederate state – and even some which had not been in the Confederacy – began passing laws which not only severely restricted the voting rights of African-Americans but also completely segregated the races in every aspect of public life. These segregation laws – known collectively as “Jim Crow” laws (named after a racist character invented by a white stage actor from the 1830’s named Thomas Rice, who performed in blackface) required that, in every aspect of public life, white and black citizens were to be separated.
By law, libraries, pools, restaurants, hospitals, hotels, theaters, and even cemeteries, insane asylums and schools for the blind were to be segregated. As public transportation became more widespread, laws were passed to segregate those as well. The coup-de-grace came in 1892, when the Supreme Court, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that such segregation laws were legal, under the “separate but equal” doctrine.
With the blessing of the Supreme Court, Southern governments extended Jim Crow laws to every conceivable aspect of public life. When busses replaced streetcars as the main form of urban transportation, Jim Crow rules were there as well: bus stations had to have separate ticket windows and waiting rooms, and the busses themselves had to be segregated. This meant that white people sat in the front of the bus – nearer the door and the driver – while black people had to sit in the back. In number of localities, such as Montgomery, Alabama, the rules went even further: if the bus was full, a black person had to give up his or her seat to a white person, regardless of age or physical condition.
In 1946, the US Supreme Court began to chip away at the Jim Crow laws allowed by its former ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. In the case of Morgan v. Virginia, the Court ruled that laws requiring segregation on busses that travelled between states (thereby making them “interstate”) were unconstitutional violations of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. While a small victory, most states simply ignored the ruling (since the US government was not yet ready to use its power to enforce the ruling), and the decision did not apply to city busses in any event, since they never crossed state lines.
In Montgomery, the rules were that white and black people would never sit next to one another on a bus. Specifically, the front rows were for whites, the back rows for blacks, and the middle rows were up for grabs; however, if the white section was full, white riders had priority over the middle rows. In that case, any black person sitting in a middle row had to give up his or her seat to a white rider and stand, making that row a “white” row, now off limits to blacks. While these rules were not “officially” written this way, the law gave the driver the authority to assign seats on the bus, and that’s how they were enforced, since failure to obey a bus driver’s command was punishable by arrest and fine.
Rosa Parks, a seamstress by profession, was also active in the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, acting as its secretary. The NAACP had been planning for some time to challenge the segregation of the Montgomery bus system in court, and had been looking for the right person to be arrested to become the test case. They thought they had their plaintiff when, in the spring of 1955, 15 year old Claudette Colvin had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. It turned out, however, that Colvin was pregnant, and so the NAACP waited for another, less controversial candidate.
When Parks boarded a bus on December 1, 1955, she had just finished her workday at a local department store. She sat down in the front row of the middle section with other black riders. Eventually the front “white” section filled up, and when a white man boarded the bus, the driver ordered all of the black people in Parks’ row to give up their seats. While the others in the row complied, Parks refused to do so. She was arrested, taken off the bus, and later fined 14$ for her refusal. She appealed her conviction and fine, and the NAACP had found its plaintiff and symbol.
Within a few days of Park’s arrest, local black ministers met at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church to discuss strategy. A general boycott of the Montgomery bus system was agreed upon, with King to lead it. On the night of Park’s arrest fliers had already been printed up and circulated amongst the black community asking all black citizens of Montgomery to boycott its bus system on the following Monday, December 5. Even before Monday came, some black citizens had already begun the boycott, and on Sunday the 4th the boycott message was spread in black churches all across town. By Monday, the boycott had the full support of Montgomery’s black community.
A substitute system of transportation for black citizens sprung up almost overnight. Besides walking and hitchhiking, carpools were organized with car owners loaning out their cars for free to be used. White housewives used their own cars to drive their hired help to and from their homes. Black taxi drivers dropped their fares for black riders to 10 cents a ride, the cost of a bus ticket.
The economic effect was dramatic. Black passengers had accounted for ¾ of the bus system’s ridership, and the loss of all that revenue put a severe strain on the entire system. City whites tried to fight back. The City ordered taxi companies to fine any driver who gave rides for 10 cents and tried to pressure local insurance companies to drop policies for any car used in a carpool. White membership in the local White Citizens Council (the political arm of the KKK) doubled.
As always, some whites tried to use violence to try to force black citizens back onto the busses. Some blacks were attacked while walking. Four black churches were firebombed, along with the homes of Dr. King and fellow minister Ralph Abernathy. King, true to form, demanded no retaliation of any king from Montgomery’s black population, insisting on non-violent resistance to the end.
As the boycott dragged on, and the bus company continued to hemorrhage money, the City tried to intimidate King and nearly 100 other boycott leaders by charging them with conspiracy to interfere with a business. They defiantly turned themselves in, were convicted and ordered to pay a fine or serve up to a year in jail. King served two weeks, and the move spectacularly backfired, as it brought full national attention to the situation in Montgomery.
As national pressure built up, the NAACP’s lawsuit was moving through the federal courts. In June the federal district court ruled Montgomery’s bus segregation laws to be unconstitutional. The City appealed, and the boycott continued. Finally, on November 13, 1956, the US Supreme Court upheld the district court ruling, and on December 20, 1956, after the City passed an ordinance allowing black passengers the right to sit anywhere they chose, the boycott was officially ended.
Not surprisingly, the city’s white racists were not about to give up. Following the passage of the ordinance eliminating seating restrictions, the violence continued. Shots were fired into busses, black passengers were attacked, a shotgun was fired through Dr. King’s front door, and five black churches were bombed (although several Klansmen were charged, they were all acquitted).
The city government passed laws to increase segregation in other arenas, including laws making it illegal for whites and blacks to play any kind of game together (really). Rosa Parks had to leave Montgomery as she was blacklisted from being hired anywhere. It would take the blood, sweat and tears of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s to finally force Montgomery to end its addiction to Jim Crow, and the fight against the legacy of segregation continues today.