Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

04 December 2020

Ethnic Studies | History


Photograph of Rosa Parks at the police station, the day she was arresested. Public domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

This week marked 65 years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is now regarded as the first large-scale demonstration against segregation in the US. Primary sources in AM Digital resource Race Relations in America can begin to tell us about this story first hand.

On 1st December 1955, Rosa Parks was riding home from work on a City Line bus when she was asked by the driver to stand up, to allow for a white passenger to take her seat. During an interview conducted at Highlander Folk School in March 1956, Rosa describes the decision she made at this point, “It wasn’t at all pre-arranged. It just happened that the driver made a demand and I just didn’t feel like obeying his demand”.

Subsequently Rosa was arrested, and a trial date set. The Black community of Montgomery responded to Park’s arrest by calling for a day of protests of the city’s buses on 5th December, the day of Park’s trial. When the time came, the African Americans of Montgomery refused to ride. Instead, they walked, arranged carpools and took taxis. This continued for 381 days.

Rosa was asked during this interview why she thought her simple act of resistance sparked this successful boycott, after previous attempts in Montgomery for the community to stand together to make change. She considered the familiarity of her experience and humiliation, to be the resonating factor with others in Montgomery.

Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

During the early days of the 13 month boycott, The Montgomery Improvement Association was founded. Young, local, minister Martin Luther King was appointed leader and thrown into the spotlight to later become a national civil rights leader. Rosa believed that the involvement of ministers, like King, who “came together and made announcements from their pulpits” were responsible for the protest taking its passive stance. Backed up by interviewer Myles Horton who remarked, “as religious leaders the only way to protest is non-violently”.

Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

As the majority of passengers on city buses were African American, bus companies faced significant financial losses throughout 1956. However, Beulah Johnson also stated that in Montgomery, it was not only the buses that the community was boycotting. “Rosa didn’t tell you that you can go to Montgomery any day and find a parking space now. Not only are people not riding the buses but they are really not shopping. The people in Montgomery, particularly the Negroes, only buy what they have to.”

Image © Amistad Research Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

On December 21st 1956, following the US Supreme Court decision that racially segregated seating on buses was unconstitutional, Montgomery’s buses were integrated. It was the fight and determination of the African Americans in Montgomery that led to this decision, and so the boycott came to an end, 381 days after it began. Although the fight for civil rights was not over.

Martin Luther King eloquently summarized the events of Montgomery, during a panel discussion at the Institute of Race Relations in 1956, a few months before the end of the boycott. “The story of Montgomery is the story of 50,000 Negroes who are tired of oppression and injustice, and are willing to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk and walk until deciding walls of segregation have finally been crushed by the battering rams of historical necessity.”


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About the Author

Alice Hone

Alice Hone

I have been part of Adam Matthew's Editorial Development team since 2018. Since then I have worked on projects including Children's Literature and Culture, and the upcoming 2021 title The Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as well as many more that I look forward to becoming published collections. My academic background lies in film and television studies, with particular interest in the history of commemoration broadcasting.