In commemoration of the anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion, an intern in the National Archives History Office.
Sixty years ago, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black woman, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, public bus.
On December 1, 1955, Parks, a seamstress and secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was taking the bus home after a long day of work.
The white section of the bus had filled, so the driver asked Parks to give up her seat in the designated black section of the bus to accommodate a white passenger.
She refused to move.
When it became apparent after several minutes of argument that Parks would not relent, the bus driver called the police. Parks was arrested for being in violation of Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City Code, which upheld a policy of racial segregation on public buses.
Parks was not the first person to engage in this act of civil disobedience.
Earlier that year, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. She was arrested, but local civil rights leaders were concerned that she was too young and poor to be a sympathetic plaintiff to challenge segregation.
Parks—a middle-class, well-respected civil rights activist—was the ideal candidate.
Just a few days after Parks’s arrest, activists announced plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The boycott, which officially began December 5, 1955, did not support just Parks but countless other African Americans who had been arrested for the same reason.
E. D. Nixon, president of the local NAACP chapter, called for all African-American citizens to boycott the public bus system to protest the segregation policy. Nixon and his supporters vowed to abstain from riding Montgomery public buses until the policy was abolished.
Instead of buses, African Americans took taxis driven by black drivers who had lowered their fares in support of the boycott, walked, cycled, drove private cars, and even rode mules or drove in horse-drawn carriages to get around. African-American citizens made up a full three-quarters of regular bus riders, causing the boycott to have a strong economic impact on the public transportation system and on the city of Montgomery as a whole.
The boycott was proving to be a successful means of protest.
The city of Montgomery tried multiple tactics to subvert the efforts of boycotters. They instituted regulations for cab fares that prevented black cab drivers from offering lower fares to support boycotters. The city also pressured car insurance companies to revoke or refuse insurance to black car owners so they could not use their private vehicles for transportation in lieu of taking the bus.
Montgomery’s efforts were futile as the local black community, with the support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., churches—and citizens around the nation—were determined to continue with the boycott until their demand for racially integrated buses was met.
The boycott lasted from December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested, to December 20, 1956, when Browder v. Gayle, a Federal ruling declaring racially segregated seating on buses to be unconstitutional, took effect.
Although it took more than a year, Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a public bus sparked incredible change that would forever impact civil rights in the United States.
Parks continued to raise awareness for the black struggle in America and the Civil Rights movement for the rest of her life. For her efforts she was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given by the executive branch, and the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor given by the legislative branch.
To learn more about the life of Rosa Parks, read Michael Hussey’s 2013 Pieces of History post Honoring the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Copies of documents relating to Parks’s arrest submitted as evidence in the Browder v. Gayle case are held in the National Archives at Atlanta in Morrow, Georgia.