By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“The Women’s Political Council will not wait for Mrs. Parks’ consent to call for a boycott of city buses. On Friday December, 2, 1955, the women of Montgomery will call for a boycott to take place on Monday, December 5.”
From Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: the Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Published 1987.
On Monday, December 5, 1955, Rosa Parks, an African-American woman who had been arrested on Thursday, December 1, 1955, was put on trial for refusing to give up her seat in the “Colored” section of a Montgomery City bus to a White man.
The White supremacist Jim Crow law demanded that African-Americans give up their seats in the “Colored” section of buses to White passengers if there were no vacant seats in the “White” section of buses. When a White man could not find a seat in the “White” section of the bus, the driver insisted that Parks and the other three African-American passengers give up their seats for the White man. The other three gave up their seats (at that point the White man had his choice of three seats) and Parks refused. The police were called and Parks was arrested.
The arrest of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) secretary Rosa Parks was the “last straw” and time for African-Americans to demand better treatment from bus drivers in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks was the third African-American woman arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus. On March 2, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old African-American, was dragged out of a Montgomery city bus and arrested for refusing to give up her seat in the “Colored” section of the bus to a White man who could not find a seat in the crowded “White” section of the bus. On October 21, an 18-year-old African-American woman, Louise Smith, suffered a similar fate.
Concerns were expressed by some of the religious and respectable members of the African-American leadership about supporting the two young African-American women. It was discovered that the teenage Colvin was pregnant and not married and it was mentioned by one of the fine upstanding religious African-American leaders that Smith’s father had been seen in a drunken state in his front yard. In chapter 3 of the 1999 published Gender in the Civil Rights Movement, addressing “Respectability, class and gender in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Early Civil Rights Movement”, there is this quote about the decision not to support 18-year-old Louise Smith: “When E.D. Nixon went to her house he reputedly ‘found her daddy in front of his shack barefoot and drunk.’ Nixon duly rejected Smith, not simply for her actual lower-class background, but because of her links, in Nixon’s view, with all manner of dissolute lower-class Black stereotypes – a drunken father, an unkempt house.”
E.D. Nixon, born Edgar Daniel Nixon on July 12, 1899, was the President of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and Rosa Parks was the secretary. When Parks was arrested, the leaders of the African-American community thought she was the ideal person to support in their fight to demand better treatment on the Montgomery City buses. Parks was middle-aged, employed, educated and married. There were no skeletons in her closet that the White media could use to criticize/denigrate the campaign.
Following Parks’ arrest, the Women’s Political Council (WPC) decided that they would organize a one-day boycott of the Montgomery city buses. The WPC included African-American women who were professors at the African-American Alabama State College and some African-American public school teachers. The WPC was founded in 1946 and the members had been involved in voter registration and lobbying city officials on issues affecting African-Americans. The group had met with city officials to complain about the ill treatment of African-Americans on city buses including: “Continuous discourtesies with obscene language, especially name calling in addressing Black patrons. Bus drivers’ requirement that Negro passengers pay fares at the front of the bus, then step down off and walk to the back door to board the bus. In many instances the driver drove away before the patrons who had paid at the front could board the bus from the rear.”
On Friday, December 2, 1955, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, the President of the WPC, drafted a flyer to distribute to the African-American community which read: “Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a White person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.”
There were 52,500 flyers made by 8:00 a.m. on Friday, December 2 to be distributed to African-Americans in Montgomery. To ensure that as many people as possible received the information the WPC members had to get the religious leaders on board. In Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, Robinson writes: “On Friday morning December 2, 1955, a goodly number of Montgomery’s Black clergymen happened to be meeting at the Hilliard Chapel AME Zion Church on Highland Avenue. When the Women’s Political Council officers learned that the ministers were assembled in that meeting, we felt that God was on our side. It was easy for my two students and me to leave a handful of our circulars at the church. Many of the ministers received their notices of the boycott at the same time, in the same place.”
On Sunday, December 4, 1955, African-Americans who had not received a flyer on Friday received notice of the planned boycott as they attended church. On Monday, December 5, 1955, the day of Rosa Parks’ trial, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. Rosa Parks was tried, convicted and ordered to pay a fine. African-Americans were united in their determination to stay off the city buses in protest. All day the buses were empty of African-Americans, who made up approximately 75 per cent of the passengers.
In Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, Robinson writes: “Before Monday was half gone Negroes had made history. Never before had they united in such a manner.”
On Monday, December 5, 1955, a meeting was held at Holt Street Baptist Church, the largest African-American church in Montgomery. Approximately 6,000 African-Americans attended that meeting to decide the next step after a very successful one-day boycott. In her book, Robinson writes: “Six thousand Black people along with local reporters packed Holt Street Baptist Church that night December 5, 1955 for the first mass meeting of the bus boycott. Before the meeting adjourned the masses organized themselves into a new association.”
That night, Martin Luther King Jr., the 26-year-old African-American minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was elected as President of the newly founded Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). King successfully led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for more than a year. At that time no one could have imagined the impact of that decision on the history of the U.S. and the Civil Rights Movement.
In spite of arrests and many cases of police brutality and physical injuries by White people who were determined to undermine the boycott, African-Americans stayed off the buses. King, as leader of the boycott, had his home firebombed but resisted the intimidation tactics. The boycott ended successfully because the bus company was on the verge of bankruptcy.
In his 2007 book: Let My People Go!: The Miracle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, African-American professor Robert J. Walker wrote: “The African American community was literally keeping the bus company in business and paying the salaries of bus drivers who were treating them as less than human.”
On December 20, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to segregation on city buses and on December 21, 1956, the buses of Montgomery, Alabama were officially desegregated.