February 22, 2011

Feb 22 – Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Freedom Walkers

Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On February 22, 1956, eighty-nine African-American, Montgomery, Alabama residents were indicted under a 1921 law “prohibiting conspiracies that interfered with lawful business”. What was their ‘criminal conspiracy’? Boycotting the city buses. Among those indicted were: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson, Mr. Edgar Nixon and Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Almost three months earlier, on December 1, 1955, a 42-year-old Rosa Parks left her job at the Montgomery Fair department store, and boarded the Cleveland Avenue #2857 bus to go home. As was the custom, on segregated buses, there was a ‘White Section’ and a ‘Colored Section’ – but they were ‘movable’ sections. As more White passengers boarded the bus, the sign would have to be moved further back to accommodate them. As the Colored Section filled up, even if there were empty seats in the White Section, the African-Americans would have to stand up in their section, at the back of the bus. The other custom, for African-American passengers, was that they pay their fare upfront, then get off the bus and re-board the bus through the rear door, so that they did not ‘offend’ the White passengers by walking through their section. Often, the bus drivers would drive off after the Colored passengers had paid, but before they could re-board onto the back of the bus.

Montgomery Fair department store

Cleveland Avenue #2857 bus
Segregated bus with 'White Section' sign

The bus driver, that night in 1955, was James F. Blake. Thirteen years earlier, Rosa had boarded James’s bus; and he demanded that she board through the rear door, after paying her fare. So flustered, Rosa dropped her purse at the front of the bus and sat down for a moment in the White section to gather the contents of her purse. James was so enraged that as soon as she stepped off the bus to re-board at the rear, he drove off and left her standing in the dark and in the rain. Rosa had vowed that she would never ride one of his buses again. However, she did not notice that James was the driver, in 1955, until he got up and moved the section sign behind her and said to four Black passengers, including her, “Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.”  Three of the passengers complied. Rosa did not. Recalling that moment years later, Rosa said, “I was tired of giving in; and when that White driver stepped back toward us; when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” This was the conversation that next took place:

James Blake: "Why don't you stand up?"
Rosa Parks: "I don't think I should have to stand up.”
J.B.: “Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.”
R.P.: “You may do that.”

So Rosa was arrested, and she knew, in that moment, that “it [would be] the very last time that [she] would ever ride in humiliation of this kind.” Rosa was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code, even though she technically had not taken up a White-only seat—she had been in a Colored section. Rosa was bailed out of jail the next day, by the head of the local NAACP, Edgar Nixon; and ordered to pay a fine of $14.00, including court costs.

Police Report of Rosa's arrest

Rosa's Police Booking Report
Bus diagram of where Rosa was sitting on the bus
Rosa being fingerprinted

Rosa's fingerprint card
News coverage of Rosa's arrest and fine

For years, African-Americans had been complaining about the treatment they received on the Montgomery city buses – especially since they comprised 75% of passengers. Their complaints fell on deaf ears. Several other people had been arrested prior to Rosa’s arrest, but hers was the catalyst to motivate the African-Americans of Montgomery. Rosa was active in her local NAACP , a rare, registered voter and highly-respected in the community. The night that she was arrested, Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Women’s Political Council, typed up a flyer telling people of the arrest and encouraging the Black community to not ride the buses the next Monday. 35,000 of the leaflets were hastily distributed across town.  That Sunday, a church meeting and a new committee – the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) – were organized, led by a 26-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the meeting, it was proposed that a citywide, one-day boycott of public transit take place, with the demand of a fixed dividing line for the segregated sections of the buses. This would mean that if the White section of the bus was oversubscribed, White passengers would have to stand; Black passengers would no longer be forced to give up their seats to White passengers. This proposal was considered to be one that might be accepted by city leaders versus a proposal to entirely desegregate the buses. At that meeting, Dr. King said, “We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.” Click here and here to see very short interviews with Rosa Parks and Dr, King, about the boycott.

Jo Ann Robinson's leaflet encouraging a bus boycott

The community was mobilized and motivated, and on December 5, 1955, 90% of African-American passengers did not ride the buses. They walked, cycled and carpooled to work; and many of the buses rose around the city completely empty that day. However, their demands were not met.  That evening, several thousand people attended an MIA meeting and voted to continue the boycott until the demands were met. Regardless of the weather, walking, cycling, horse and mule-riding, hitchhiking and carpooling continued to be their modes of transportation. Often, they were followed by police and angry, White citizens, who tried to intimidate them back onto the buses.  They especially, intimidated the White sympathizers and friends of the MIA – many of whom eventually gave up helping because the scare tactics were too much for them to handle. Black taxi drivers were also only charging 10 cents per ride (versus the regular fare of 45 cents), which was the cost of a bus ride. This continued until city officials got wind of it, and fined the taxi drivers. Also, many of the women worked as domestic maids and nannies. Their female, White bosses began to secretly pick them up and take them home, out of both sympathy and necessity, as many did not know how to ‘cope without their help’. Their husbands were furious, when they found out.

Boycotters walking to work

Dr. King helping women into a carpool, as an empty bus drives by

Dr. King addresses the Dec. 5, 1955 MIA meeting

During this time, the local White Citizens' Council (WCC) doubled in size, and voted to absolutely refuse any demands being made by the Black community. Montgomery Mayor, W.A. Gayle, said of the boycott, “We are going to hold our stand. We are not going to be a part of any program that will get Negroes to ride the buses again at the price of the destruction of our heritage and way of life.” The WCC also bombed Black churches and the homes of Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy and Edgar Nixon, in January 1956. A few weeks later, on February 22, a Montgomery Grand Jury indicted 89 of the boycott leaders. Before they could be arrested, they peacefully turned themselves into the police.  They were booked and released on bond – not to be deterred. In fact, they were more encouraged and more motivated to win. Their cause was gaining national and international attention.

White Citizens' Council meeting
WCC Newsletter from Mississippi

Rev. Abernathy and Dr. King being booked by Lt. Lackey on Feb 22, 1956

Rosa Parks, Feb 22, 1956
Jo Ann Robinson, Feb 22, 1956

Edgar Nixon, Feb 22, 1956

Bus boycotters braving the rain

Bus boycotter hitching a ride
Also, early on in the boycott, it was decided that a Federal lawsuit would be brought forth; and the MIA sought the counsel of NAACP lawyers, Robert Carter and Thurgood Marshall (who eventually became a U.S. Solicitor General and a U.S. Supreme Court Judge, respectively). The case was Browder v. Gayle. (Browder was an African-American, Montgomery housewife, and there were three, additional plaintiffs). On June 5, 1956, the Federal District Courts ruled in the Plaintiffs’ favor, stating that the State’s bus segregation laws were no longer lawful, based on landmark Supreme Court case ruling in, Brown v. The Board of Education. But, the City of Montgomery appealed…and appealed…and the case escalated to the highest court.

MIA newsletter following the June 5, 1956 ruling

Finally, on November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unlawful anywhere in the country. However, in Montgomery, city officials were still trying to appeal, and had managed to legally end the carpool.  So, the boycott continued without carpools for a month.   By this time, the City of Montgomery had lost $1,000,000 (~$10,000,000 in 2011). On December 19, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the original Federal District Courts' ruling, which created an ordinance stating that Black passengers could sit anywhere they wanted on the buses. That same day, the MIA distributed suggestions to its members on how to successfully integrate the buses.  The next day, on December 20, 1956, Dr. King declared the end of the boycott; and he led Rosa Parks, Dr. Abernathy and others onto the front of the bus...and they sat at the front.

New coverage of the boycott victory
News coverage of the boycott victory
MIA integrated bus suggestions

Rosa boarding the first desegregated bus
Rosa sitting at the front of a desegregated bus, with a friend
African-American passengers sitting at the front of an integrated bus

It took 381 days, sheer determination, collaboration, empathy and faith to declare victory; but the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the true impetus for the Civil Rights Movement. In her lifetime, Rosa Parks was awarded many honors, for her courage, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, by President Bill Clinton. 

Rosa receiving a medal from President Bill Clinton

Google Doodle to honor the 55th Anniversary of Rosa refusing to give up her seat

Modern-day Montgomery bus

Let us never take for granted, or forget, what Rosa Parks and others did, not only for the African-American community; but also for American history and a much better way forward.

Sources: Wikipedia, America.gov, MontgomeryBoycott.com, Google Images, YouTube


  1. Today's culture needs to be reminded of this struggle

  2. I'm about to teach lessons to high schoolers on Martin Luther King. I thought I knew a lot, but now I know much more. Thank you for this excellent resource!

  3. The best collection of visual documents on a single site, and I have been teaching the topic for years, ESL I am going to use them in class this a m, I would have loved to get your permission, please reach me paoladotmendezatlapostedotnet