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Rosa Parks: Bus Boycott, Civil Rights and Facts

Rosa Parks: Bus Boycott, Civil Rights and Facts

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Rosa Parks (1913—2005) helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. Her actions inspired the leaders of the local Black community to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Led by a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the boycott lasted more than a year—during which Parks not coincidentally lost her job—and ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Over the next half-century, Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation.

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Rosa Parks’ Early Life

Rosa Louise McCauley was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913. She moved with her parents, James and Leona McCauley, to Pine Level, Alabama, at age 2 to reside with Leona’s parents. Her brother, Sylvester, was born in 1915, and shortly after that her parents separated.

Rosa’s mother was a teacher, and the family valued education. Rosa moved to Montgomery, Alabama, at age 11 and eventually attended high school there, a laboratory school at the Alabama State Teachers’ College for Negroes. She left at 16, early in 11th grade, because she needed to care for her dying grandmother and, shortly thereafter, her chronically ill mother. In 1932, at 19, she married Raymond Parks, a self-educated man 10 years her senior who worked as a barber and was a long-time member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He supported Rosa in her efforts to earn her high-school diploma, which she ultimately did the following year.

READ MORE: Before the Bus, Rosa Parks Was a Sexual Assault Investigator

Rosa Parks: Roots of Activism

Raymond and Rosa, who worked as a seamstress, became respected members of Montgomery’s large African American community. Co-existing with white people in a city governed by “Jim Crow” (segregation) laws, however, was fraught with daily frustrations: Black people could attend only certain (inferior) schools, could drink only from specified water fountains and could borrow books only from the “Black” library, among other restrictions.

Although Raymond had previously discouraged her out of fear for her safety, in December 1943, Rosa also joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and became chapter secretary. She worked closely with chapter president Edgar Daniel (E.D.) Nixon. Nixon was a railroad porter known in the city as an advocate for Black people who wanted to register to vote, and also as president of the local branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union.

December 1, 1955: Rosa Parks Is Arrested

On Thursday, December 1, 1955, the 42-year-old Rosa Parks was commuting home from a long day of work at the Montgomery Fair department store by bus. Black residents of Montgomery often avoided municipal buses if possible because they found the Negroes-in-back policy so demeaning. Nonetheless, 70 percent or more riders on a typical day were Black, and on this day Rosa Parks was one of them.

Segregation was written into law; the front of a Montgomery bus was reserved for white citizens, and the seats behind them for Black citizens. However, it was only by custom that bus drivers had the authority to ask a Black person to give up a seat for a white rider. There were contradictory Montgomery laws on the books: One said segregation must be enforced, but another, largely ignored, said no person (white or Black) could be asked to give up a seat even if there were no other seat on the bus available.

Nonetheless, at one point on the route, a white man had no seat because all the seats in the designated “white” section were taken. So the driver told the riders in the four seats of the first row of the “colored” section to stand, in effect adding another row to the “white” section. The three others obeyed. Parks did not.

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” wrote Parks in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Eventually, two police officers approached the stopped bus, assessed the situation and placed Parks in custody.

READ MORE: The MLK Graphic Novel That Inspired Generations of Civil Rights Activists

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Although Parks used her one phone call to contact her husband, word of her arrest had spread quickly and E.D. Nixon was there when Parks was released on bail later that evening. Nixon had hoped for years to find a courageous Black person of unquestioned honesty and integrity to become the plaintiff in a case that might become the test of the validity of segregation laws. Sitting in Parks’ home, Nixon convinced Parks—and her husband and mother—that Parks was that plaintiff. Another idea arose as well: The Black population of Montgomery would boycott the buses on the day of Parks’ trial, Monday, December 5. By midnight, 35,000 flyers were being mimeographed to be sent home with Black schoolchildren, informing their parents of the planned boycott.

On December 5, Parks was found guilty of violating segregation laws, given a suspended sentence and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. Meanwhile, Black participation in the boycott was much larger than even optimists in the community had anticipated. Nixon and some ministers decided to take advantage of the momentum, forming the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to manage the boycott, and they elected Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–new to Montgomery and just 26 years old—as the MIA’s president.

As appeals and related lawsuits wended their way through the courts, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Montgomery Bus Boycott engendered anger in much of Montgomery’s white population as well as some violence, and Nixon’s and Dr. King’s homes were bombed. The violence didn’t deter the boycotters or their leaders, however, and the drama in Montgomery continued to gain attention from the national and international press.

On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional; the boycott ended December 20, a day after the Court’s written order arrived in Montgomery. Parks—who had lost her job and experienced harassment all year—became known as “the mother of the civil rights movement.”

READ MORE: Rosa Parks’ Life After the Bus Was No Easy Ride

Rosa Parks's Life After the Boycott

Facing continued harassment and threats in the wake of the boycott, Parks, along with her husband and mother, eventually decided to move to Detroit, where Parks’ brother resided. Parks became an administrative aide in the Detroit office of Congressman John Conyers Jr. in 1965, a post she held until her 1988 retirement. Her husband, brother and mother all died of cancer between 1977 and 1979. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, to serve Detroit’s youth.

In the years following her retirement, she traveled to lend her support to civil-rights events and causes and wrote an autobiography, “Rosa Parks: My Story.” In 1999, Parks was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor the United States bestows on a civilian. (Other recipients have included George Washington, Thomas Edison, Betty Ford and Mother Teresa.) When she died at age 92 on October 24, 2005, she became the first woman in the nation’s history to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol.

Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1st of 1955 for not giving her seat up to a white passenger on a Montgomery Alabama city bus the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the first major non-violent civil-rights protest against racial segregation in the United States. This important event in black history would ignite the civil rights movement and prompt numerous other protest that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 making racial segregation illegal.

Click here for a great selection of Amazon.com books about the Montgomery bus boycott.

In 1955 racial segregation was the norm in the southern United States. White people and black people had separate water fountains, sections of movie theatres, lunch counters, bus seats, and separation in other public places. This separate but equal policy was considered legal and its legality had been supported by the courts. However this policy fostered inequality and racial discrimination.

On this page we list interesting facts about the Montgomery Bus Boycott including who the protesters were, why it was successful, and how it thrust a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr into the spotlight of the fight for civil rights. This information is written for kids who may be writing Black History Month reports and for adults wanting to learn more about this important and famous event in black history.

Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement

On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American seamstress and civil rights activist living in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to obey a bus driver who had ordered her and three other African American passengers to vacate their seats to make room for a white passenger who had just boarded.

Parks had been sitting just behind the whites-only section of the bus (the first 10 seats), but under a Montgomery city ordinance the driver was responsible for keeping white and black passengers separate and possessed “the powers of a police officer…for the purpose of carrying out” the required segregation. Upon Parks’s refusal, the driver summoned the police, who arrested her for violating the city code. Her arrest and trial galvanized Montgomery’s African American community, which organized a crippling boycott of the city’s bus system (most of its regular passengers were African American) that lasted more than a year and drew international attention to the ugly reality of Jim Crow in Montgomery and elsewhere in the South.

Rosa Parks Wasn’t the Only Person Arrested

Nine months prior to Rosa Park’s arrest, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested when she refused to surrender her seat to a white woman on the bus. Civil rights organizers didn’t regard Colvin as a movement figurehead at first, but they later revisited her case, and she became one of five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle. This federal court case ultimately overturned segregation laws on Montgomery buses and ended the boycott on December 20, 1956. Parks wasn’t one of the plaintiffs, but several other local women were, including Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith.

On This Day in History: Rosa Parks Ignites Bus Boycott

O n December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to comply with the bus segregation law in Montgomery, Alabama and was arrested. Her bold act of resistance inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the largest and most successful movements against racial segregation in history. The boycott led to the desegregation of the Montgomery bus system and inspired countless other actions of civil disobedience that ultimately led to the dismantling of segregation in America. As the patron of the modern-day civil rights movement, Parks remains an international icon of freedom and liberty.

Rose Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a carpenter. From an early age, she experienced deep seated racism, attended a segregated school system, witnessed the KKK march past her house, and was often bullied by the white children in her rural neighborhood.

In 1932, she married Raymond Parks, a barber and active member in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their union signaled the beginning of her lifelong dedication to the civil rights movement. In 1943, she joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and became leader E.D. Nixon’s secretary. Prior to Parks’ bold move on December 1, 1955, other activists had already refused to acquiesce to bus segregation rules, beginning with Bayard Rustin in 1942. Members of the 1956 lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, were also unsuccessful. The NAACP believed that Parks would be an ideal citizen to also challenge the discriminatory Montgomery law.

When Parks boarded the bus in downtown Montgomery after a long day’s work as a department store seamstress, she had recently attended civil disobedience training. She took a seat in the first several rows of the section designated for “colored” passengers. The Montgomery city code stated that bus drivers had police officer power to enforce the public segregation laws. So, when the bus driver noticed that several white passengers did not have seats, he requested that Parks and three other black passengers stand up so that the white passengers could sit. Parks refused to move. Upon her refusal, the driver summoned the police, who arrested her for violating the city code. She was later taken to police headquarters and released on bail. Four days later at her trial, Parks had to pay a fine of $10 plus $4 in court costs when she was found guilty of disorderly contact and violating a local ordinance.

Her arrest and trial galvanized Montgomery’s African American community, which organized a widespread boycott of the city’s bus system that lasted more than a year and drew international attention to the ugly reality of Jim Crow in Montgomery and elsewhere in the South.

The boycott ended victoriously in December 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a district court decision that had declared Montgomery’s system of segregated seating unconstitutional. Parks’ courage and quiet dignity were widely admired, and her example inspired others to undertake similar nonviolent resistance to legal discrimination against African Americans throughout the country, earning her the title “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

In her autobiography, My Story, Parks explained her decision to defy racial segregation: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was too 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 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks stood up for African Americans—by sitting down.

Although Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation granted slaves their freedom, for many years Black people were discriminated against in much of the United States. In southern states, for instance, most Black children were forced to attend separate schools from white kids in classrooms that were often rundown, with outdated books. African Americans also couldn’t eat at the same restaurants as white people and had to sit in the back seats of public buses. Segregation—the separation of races—was enforced by local laws.

Rosa Parks was born on February 4, 1913. On December 1, 1955, she boarded a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama and sat in the middle, where Black passengers in that city were allowed to sit unless a white person wanted the seat. As the bus filled with new riders, the driver told Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger. She refused. The driver called police, and Parks was arrested.

Her arrest sparked a major protest. For more than a year, most Black people in Montgomery stood together and refused to take city buses. (One of the leaders of the boycott was a young local pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr.) Public vehicles stood idle, and the city lost money. Still, the Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t end until a 1956 Supreme Court decision ended racial segregation on public transportation throughout the United States.

Parks died on October 24, 2005. But throughout her life, her refusal to give up her seat inspired many others to fight for African-American rights and helped advance the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Rosa Parks

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Rosa Parks, née Rosa Louise McCauley, (born February 4, 1913, Tuskegee, Alabama, U.S.—died October 24, 2005, Detroit, Michigan), American civil rights activist whose refusal to relinquish her seat on a public bus precipitated the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, which became the spark that ignited the civil rights movement in the United States.

Who was Rosa Parks?

Rosa Parks was an American civil rights activist whose refusal to give up her seat on a public bus precipitated the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, which became the spark that ignited the civil rights movement in the United States. She is known as the “mother of the civil rights movement.”

Why is Rosa Parks important?

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus for white passengers in 1955, she was arrested for violating the city’s racial segregation ordinances. Her action sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, led by the Montgomery Improvement Association and Martin Luther King, Jr., that eventually succeeded in achieving desegregation of the city buses. The boycott also helped give rise to the American civil rights movement.

Was Rosa Parks the first Black woman to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus?

Rosa Parks was not the first Black woman to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus, though her story attracted the most attention nationwide. Nine months before Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had refused to give up her bus seat, as had dozens of other Black women throughout the history of segregated public transit.

What did Rosa Parks write?

In 1992 Rosa Parks published Rosa Parks: My Story, an autobiography written with Jim Haskins that described her role in the American civil rights movement, beyond her refusal to give up her seat on a segregated public bus to white passengers.

Born to parents James McCauley, a skilled stonemason and carpenter, and Leona Edwards McCauley, a teacher, in Tuskegee, Alabama, Rosa Louise McCauley spent much of her childhood and youth ill with chronic tonsillitis. When she was two years old, shortly after the birth of her younger brother, Sylvester, her parents chose to separate. Estranged from their father from then on, the children moved with their mother to live on their maternal grandparents’ farm in Pine Level, Alabama, outside Montgomery. The children’s great-grandfather, a former indentured servant, also lived there he died when Rosa was six.

For much of her childhood, Rosa was educated at home by her mother, who also worked as a teacher at a nearby school. Rosa helped with chores on the farm and learned to cook and sew. Farm life, though, was less than idyllic. The Ku Klux Klan was a constant threat, as she later recalled, “burning Negro churches, schools, flogging and killing” Black families. Rosa’s grandfather would often keep watch at night, rifle in hand, awaiting a mob of violent white men. The house’s windows and doors were boarded shut with the family, frequently joined by Rosa’s widowed aunt and her five children, inside. On nights thought to be especially dangerous, the children would have to go to bed with their clothes on so that they would be ready if the family needed to escape. Sometimes Rosa would choose to stay awake and keep watch with her grandfather.

Rosa and her family experienced racism in less violent ways, too. When Rosa entered school in Pine Level, she had to attend a segregated establishment where one teacher was put in charge of about 50 or 60 schoolchildren. Though white children in the area were bused to their schools, Black children had to walk. Public transportation, drinking fountains, restaurants, and schools were all segregated under Jim Crow laws. At age 11 Rosa entered the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, where Black girls were taught regular school subjects alongside domestic skills. She went on to attend a Black junior high school for 9th grade and a Black teacher’s college for 10th and part of 11th grade. At age 16, however, she was forced to leave school because of an illness in the family, and she began cleaning the houses of white people.

In 1932, at age 19, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a barber and a civil rights activist, who encouraged her to return to high school and earn a diploma. She later made a living as a seamstress. In 1943 Rosa Parks became a member of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and she served as its secretary until 1956.

On December 1, 1955, Parks was riding a crowded Montgomery city bus when the driver, upon noticing that there were white passengers standing in the aisle, asked Parks and other Black passengers to surrender their seats and stand. Three of the passengers left their seats, but Parks refused. She was subsequently arrested and fined $10 for the offense and $4 for court costs, neither of which she paid. Instead, she accepted Montgomery NAACP chapter president E.D. Nixon’s offer to help her appeal the conviction and thus challenge legal segregation in Alabama. Both Parks and Nixon knew that they were opening themselves to harassment and death threats, but they also knew that the case had the potential to spark national outrage. Under the aegis of the Montgomery Improvement Association—led by the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr.—a boycott of the municipal bus company began on December 5. African Americans constituted some 70 percent of the ridership, and the absence of their bus fares cut deeply into revenue. The boycott lasted 381 days, and even people outside Montgomery embraced the cause: protests of segregated restaurants, pools, and other public facilities took place all over the United States. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision declaring Montgomery’s segregated bus seating unconstitutional, and a court order to integrate the buses was served on December 20 the boycott ended the following day. For her role in igniting the successful campaign, Parks became known as the “mother of the civil rights movement.”

Simplifications of Parks’s story claimed that she had refused to give up her bus seat because she was tired rather than because she was protesting unfair treatment. But she was an accomplished activist by the time of her arrest, having worked with the NAACP on other civil rights cases, such as that of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black youths falsely accused of sexually assaulting two white women. According to Parks’s autobiography, “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 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Parks was not the first Black woman to refuse to give up her bus seat for a white person—15-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested for the same offense nine months earlier, and dozens of other Black women had preceded them in the history of segregated public transit. However, as secretary of the local NAACP, and with the Montgomery Improvement Association behind her, Parks had access to resources and publicity that those other women had not had. It was her case that forced the city of Montgomery to desegregate city buses permanently.

In 1957 Parks moved with her husband and mother to Detroit, where from 1965 to 1988 she worked on the staff of Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Jr. She remained active in the NAACP, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference established an annual Rosa Parks Freedom Award in her honour. In 1987 she cofounded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to provide career training for young people and offer teenagers the opportunity to learn about the history of the civil rights movement. She received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996) and the Congressional Gold Medal (1999). Her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story (1992), was written with Jim Haskins.

Though achieving the desegregation of Montgomery’s city buses was an incredible feat, Parks was not satisfied with that victory. She saw that the United States was still failing to respect and protect the lives of Black Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been brought to national attention by his organization of the Montgomery bus boycott, was assassinated less than a decade after Parks’s case was won. Biographer Kathleen Tracy noted that Parks, in one of her last interviews, would not quite say that she was happy: “I do the very best I can to look upon life with optimism and hope and looking forward to a better day, but I don’t think there is any such thing as complete happiness. It pains me that there is still a lot of Klan activity and racism. I think when you say you’re happy, you have everything that you need and everything that you want, and nothing more to wish for. I haven’t reached that stage yet.”

After Parks died in 2005, her body lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, an honour reserved for private citizens who performed a great service for their country. For two days mourners visited her casket and gave thanks for her dedication to civil rights. Parks was the first woman and only the second Black person to receive the distinction.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Meg Matthias.

Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Use this narrative with the Jackie Robinson Narrative, The Little Rock Nine Narrative, The Murder of Emmett Till Narrative, and the Rosa Parks’s Account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Radio Interview), April 1956 Primary Source to discuss the rise of the African American civil rights movement pre-1960.

Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery bus boycott when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. The boycott proved to be one of the pivotal moments of the emerging civil rights movement. For 13 months, starting in December 1955, the black citizens of Montgomery protested nonviolently with the goal of desegregating the city’s public buses. By November 1956, the Supreme Court had banned the segregated transportation legalized in 1896 by the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. Montgomery’s boycott was not entirely spontaneous, and Rosa Parks and other activists had prepared to challenge segregation long in advance.

On December 1, 1955, a tired Rosa L. Parks left the department store where she worked as a tailor’s assistant and boarded a crowded city bus for the ride home. She sat down between the “whites only” section in the front and the “colored” section in the back. Black riders were to sit in this middle area only if the back was filled. When a white man boarded, the bus driver ordered four African American passengers to stand so the white passenger could sit. The other riders reluctantly got up, but Parks refused. She knew she was not violating the segregation law, because there were no vacant seats. The police nevertheless arrived and took her to jail.

Rosa Parks is pictured here being fingerprinted at the police station after her February 1956 arrest.

Parks had not planned her protest, but she was a civil rights activist well trained in civil disobedience so she remained calm and resolute. Other African American women had challenged the community’s segregation statutes in the past several months, but her cup of forbearance had run over. “I had almost a life history of being rebellious against being mistreated because of my color,” Parks recalled. On this occasion more than others “I felt that I was not being treated right and that I had a right to retain the seat that I had taken.” She was fighting for her natural and constitutional rights when she protested against the treatment that stripped away her dignity. “When I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen.” She was attempting to “bring about freedom from this kind of thing.”

Perhaps the incident was not as spontaneous as it appeared, however. Parks was an active participant in the civil rights movement for several years and had served as secretary of both the Montgomery and Alabama state NAACP. She founded the youth council of the local NAACP and trained the young people in civil rights activism. She had even discussed challenging the segregated bus system with the youth council before 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat the previous March. Ill treatment on segregated city buses had festered into the most acute problem in the black community in Montgomery. Segregated buses were part of a system that inflicted Jim Crow segregation upon African Americans.

In 1949, a group of professional black women and men had formed the Women’s Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery. They were dedicated to organizing African Americans to demand equality and civil rights by seeking to change Jim Crow segregation in public transportation. In May 1954, WPC president Jo Ann Robinson informed the mayor that African Americans in the city were considering launching a boycott.

The WPC converted abuse on buses into a glaring public issue, and the group collaborated with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to challenge segregation there. Parks was bailed out of jail by local NAACP leader, E. D. Nixon, who was accompanied by two liberal whites, attorney Clifford Durr and his wife Virginia Foster Durr, leader of the anti-segregation Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF). Virginia Durr had become close friends with Parks. In fact, she helped fund Parks’s attendance at a workshop for two weeks on desegregating schools only a few months before.

The Durrs and Nixon had worked with Parks to plot a strategy for challenging the constitutionality of segregation on Montgomery buses. After Parks’s arrest, Robinson agreed with them and thought the time was ripe for the planned boycott. She worked with two of her students, staying up all night mimeographing flyers announcing a one-day bus boycott for Monday, December 5.

Because of ministers’ leadership in the vibrant African American churches in the city, Nixon called on the ministers to win their support for the boycott. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a young and relatively unknown minister of the middle-class Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was unsure about the timing but offered assistance. Baptist minister Ralph Abernathy eagerly supported the boycott.

On December 5, African Americans boycotted the buses. They walked to work, carpooled, and took taxis as a measure of solidarity. Parks was convicted of violating the segregation law and charged a $14 fine. Because of the success of the boycott, black leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to continue the protest and surprisingly elected Reverend King president.

Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King Jr. in the background, is pictured here soon after the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

After earning his PhD at Boston University’s School of Theology, King had returned to the Deep South with his new bride, Coretta Scott, a college-educated, rural Alabama native. On the night of December 5, 1955, the 26-year-old pastor presided over the first MIA mass meeting, in a supercharged atmosphere of black spirituality. Participants felt the Holy Spirit was alive that night with a palpable power that transfixed. When King rose to speak, unscripted words burst out of him, a Lincoln-like synthesis of the rational and emotional, the secular and sacred. The congregants must protest, he said, because both their divinity and their democracy required it. They would be honored by future generations for their moral courage.

The participants wanted to continue the protest until their demands for fairer treatment were met as well as establishment of a first-come, first-served seating system that kept reserved sections. White leaders predicted that the boycott would soon come to an end because blacks would lose enthusiasm and accept the status quo. When blacks persisted, some of the whites in the community formed the White Citizens’ Council, an opposition movement committed to preserving white supremacy.

The bus boycott continued and was supported by almost all of Montgomery’s 42,000 black residents. The women of the MIA created a complex carpool system that got black citizens to work and school. By late December, city commissioners were concerned about the effects of the boycott on business and initiated talks to try to resolve the dispute. The bus company (which now supported integrated seating) feared it might go bankrupt and urged compromise. However, the commissioners refused to grant any concessions and the negotiations broke down over the next few weeks. The commissioners adopted a “get tough” policy when it became clear that the boycott would continue. Police harassed carpool drivers. They arrested and jailed King on a petty speeding charge when he was helping out one day. Angry whites tried to terrorize him and bombed his house with his wife and infant daughter inside, but no one was injured. Drawing from the Sermon on the Mount, the pastor persuaded an angry crowd to put their guns away and go home, preventing a bloody riot. Nixon’s home and Abernathy’s church were also bombed.

On January 30, MIA leaders challenged the constitutionality of bus segregation because the city refused their moderate demands. Civil rights attorney Fred Gray knew that a state case would be unproductive and filed a federal lawsuit. Meanwhile, city leaders went on the offensive and indicted nearly 100 boycott leaders, including King, on conspiracy charges. King’s trial and conviction in March 1956 elicited negative national publicity for the city on television and in newspapers. Sympathetic observers sent funds to Montgomery to support the movement.

In June 1956, the Montgomery federal court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that Alabama’s bus segregation laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equality and were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in November. In the wake of the court victories, MIA members voted to end the boycott. Black citizens triumphantly rode desegregated Montgomery’s buses on December 21, 1956.

A diagram of the Montgomery bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat was used in court to ultimately strike down segregation on the city’s buses.

The Montgomery bus boycott made King a national civil rights leader and charismatic symbol of black equality. Other black ministers and activists like Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Bayard Rustin, and Ella Baker also became prominent figures in the civil rights movement. The ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to protest white supremacy and work for voting rights throughout the South, testifying to the importance of black churches and ministers as a vital element of the civil rights movement.

The Montgomery bus boycott paved the way for the civil rights movement to demand freedom and equality for African Americans and transformed American politics, culture, and society by helping create the strategies, support networks, leadership, vision, and spiritual direction of the movement. It demonstrated that ordinary African American citizens could band together at the local level to demand and win in their struggle for equal rights and dignity. The Montgomery experience laid the foundations for the next decade of a nonviolent direct-action movement for equal civil rights for African Americans.

Review Questions

1. All of the following are true of Rosa Parks except

  1. she served as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP
  2. she trained young people in civil rights activism
  3. she unintentionally challenged the bus segregation laws of Montgomery
  4. she was well-trained in civil disobedience

2. The initial demand of those who boycotted the Montgomery Bus System was for the city to

  1. hire more black bus drivers in Montgomery
  2. arrest abusive bus drivers
  3. remove the city commissioners
  4. modify Jim Crow laws in public transportation

3. The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed in 1955 primarily to

  1. bring a quick end to the bus boycott
  2. maintain segregationist policies on public buses
  3. provide carpool assistance to the boycotters
  4. organize the bus protest

4. As a result of the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. was

  1. elected mayor of Montgomery
  2. targeted as a terrorist and held in jail for the duration of the boycott
  3. recognized as a new national voice for African American civil rights
  4. made head pastor of his church

5. The Federal court case Browder v. Gayle established that

  1. the principles in Brown v. Board of Education were also relevant in the Montgomery Bus Boycott
  2. the Montgomery bus segregation laws were a violation of the constitutional guarantee of equality
  3. the principles of Plessy v. Ferguson were similar to those in the Montgomery bus company
  4. the conviction of Martin Luther King Jr. was unconstitutional

6. All the following resulted from the Montgomery bus boycott except

  1. the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
  2. the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national leader
  3. the immediate end of Jim Crow laws in Alabama
  4. negative national publicity for the city of Montgomery

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how the Montgomery Bus Boycott affected the civil rights movement.
  2. Describe how the Montgomery Bus Boycott propelled Martin Luther King Jr. to national notice.

AP Practice Questions

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D. H. Lackey after her arrest in December 1955.

1. Which of the following had the most immediate impact on events in the photograph?

  1. The integration of the U.S. military
  2. The Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson
  3. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education
  4. The integration of Little Rock (AR) Central High School

2. The actions leading to the provided photograph were similar to those associated with

  1. the labor movement in the 1920s
  2. the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century
  3. the work of abolitionists in the 1850s
  4. the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s

3. The situation depicted in the provided photograph contributed most directly to the

  1. economic development of the South
  2. growth of the suburbs
  3. growth of the civil right movement
  4. evolution of the anti-war movement

Primary Sources

Burns, Steward, ed. Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Garrow, David J, ed. Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Nashville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

Greenlee, Marcia M. “Interview with Rosa McCauley Parks.” August 22-23, 1978, Detroit. Cambridge, MA: Black Women Oral History Project, Harvard University. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:45175350$14i

Suggested Resources

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks. New York: Penguin, 2000.

Rosa Parks Museum, Montgomery, AL. www.troy.edu/rosaparks

Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. New York: Penguin, 2013.

Why Was Rosa Parks so Important?

Rosa Parks was important because in December of 1955, her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., led to the Montgomery bus boycott. This brought Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. into more active involvement in the civil rights movement and helped bring the segregation of black people in the South to national attention.

In Montgomery in 1955, city buses were segregated, with whites sitting in the front half of the bus and blacks in the back. Rosa Parks, after a long day of work, boarded the bus and sat in the front row of the black section. When the bus filled up with white people, the driver ordered Parks and some other blacks to move back. The others obeyed, but Parks refused. In retaliation, the driver stopped the bus and had Parks arrested. On the day of Parks' trial in December, the local head of the NAACP asked black people to stay off the buses in protest, and as the boycott seemed to be effective, he extended it. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted for 381 days, and the case of discrimination on Montgomery buses went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a district court ruling that racial segregation was unconstitutional.

Rosa Parks became a symbol for the struggle for civil rights. Due to severe harassment by bigots, she and her family were forced to leave Alabama and move to Michigan, but she continued to promote civil rights for the rest of her life. She received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Watch the video: The real story of Rosa Parks -- and why we need to confront myths about black history. David Ikard (May 2022).