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For 381 days in 1955 and 1956, the Black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the city bus system. Black riders had been mistreated on public transit all over the country for decades, and the national coverage of the Montgomery Bus Boycott intensified the public conversation about Civil Rights. By the time the Supreme Court decided that discrimination on buses was a violation of the 14th amendment, boycott leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr were household names and the Civil Rights movements were on the national stage.

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Sources and References
Jo Ann Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987).
Jeanne TheoHarris, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. (Beacon Press, 2015)
Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, A Black Women’s History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2020).
Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom; the Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
https://www.nps.gov/articles/montgomery-bus-boycott.htm


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Hi, I'm Clint Smith and this is Crash Course: Black American History. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which took place from December 5th 1955 to December 20th 1956 was one of the most successful examples of mass non-violent resistance in US history. This boycott is regarded as being the first large scale U. S. demonstration against segregation with an estimated 40,000 participants.

It came on the heels of Brown V Board of Education in 1954, Which deemed "Separate But Equal" a violation of the 14th Amendment and therefore, unconstitutional. But Brown v Board only integrated public schools in the United States, segregation continued to run rampant in all other areas of society including: department stores, movie theatres, restaurants, and public transportation. As historian Jeanne Theoharis put it, "The arbitrariness of Segregation, the power and place it granted white people, was perhaps nowhere more evident than on the bus." Let's start the show.

INTRO. Before the Boycott, transportation laws in Montgomery directly  upheld white supremacy. The Montgomery City Code mandated that Black and white people were required to sit in separate sections on public transportation.

Furthermore, bus drivers were legally allowed to arrest passengers who violated the mandate and many of the drivers carried guns. Black patrons were assaulted, abused, arrested, ejected and sometimes even killed for refusing to give up their seats, talking back or even asking questions. Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat was the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was one of a long line of Black Americans who resisted the inequality of our public transport system. 


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For example, in Montgomery, eleven years before the boycott in 1944, a woman named Viola White was beaten and arrested for refusing to give up her seat. Thurgood Marshall recounted one case of two members of the Woman's Army Corps in 1945, and he described it as "one of the worse cases" he had ever seen. The two women refused to give up their seats and pointed out to the driver that there were seats available and they shouldn't have to move. But, the driver then physically and verbally assaulted the women.

In 1950, authorities took it a step further in the case of a man named Hilliard Brooks. Black passengers were supposed to pay at the front of the bus, then exit the bus, and board from the back straight into the 'Coloured' section.  Sometimes, after Black people paid and got off to go to the back, bus drivers would drive off before passengers could even make it to the back door. A World War II veteran, Brooks, refused to exit after paying his money.

When the police arrived, officer M. E. Mills beat Brooks with a club, then shot and killed him as he tried to escape.

Episodes of violence and humiliation like these were pervasive amongst Black Americans. And because many Black people did not own their own cars, many felt that they had nowhere else to turn. But sometimes, there is only so much that a person can take, and talks of a bus boycott danced around barbershops, cookouts, and churches.

Then in 1953, the Women's Political Council, or WPC, collected a formal list of around 30 complaints of abuse on Montgomery buses in efforts to petition the mayor. The WPC was a league of about 300 Black women in Montgomery founded in 1946 to develop strategies to combat community challenges in the face of Jim Crow laws. 


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And in 1954, under the leadership of President Jo Ann Robinson, the WPC wrote a letter to the mayor warning him that if the violence did not stop, the Black passengers would boycott. In the years before the boycott, Robinson worked arduously with the members of the WPC to create a plan. They strategised how they would notify the city's Black population if and when the time came. They didn't know when it would come, but they knew they needed to be ready when it did.

The December 1st arrest of Parks provided the perfect opportunity. As soon as word of the arrest reached Robinson, it was time to go to work. Let's go to the thought bubble.

It was a dark and stormy night— just kidding, it was a normal— very typical— Thursday evening as Rosa Parks boarded the bus home from work for her usual 15-minute commute. As always, she boarded in the 'Coloured' section and sat in her designated area. Then the whites-only section began to fill up.

When there were no more seats available, the driver instructed the four Black people who took up the next two rows, including Parks, to get up so that a white man could have their seat. Everyone got up, except her. See, this is how it usually worked: about 10 front seats were always reserved for white people, then 10 back seats were reserved for Black people.

The middle section wasn't reserved for either, but white people had priority. So if more white people got on the bus, and all the middle seats were filled, then Black people in the middle seats would have to get up and stand. Contrary to the way the story is often told, Rosa Parks was not asked to directly give up her seat for a white passenger.

Instead, her entire front row was cleared so one white passenger could sit down. Parks thought about the racial injustices her family faced, and about the tragic murder of Emmet Till just one year earlier,


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And she decided she had enough. She later wrote in her autobiography, "My Story", quote: "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true... The only tired I was, was tired of giving in." Thanks, Thought Bubble. After Parks was arrested and word spread, Jo Ann Robinson and the WPC immediately went to work, partnering with community leaders had proved ineffective in the past, so they decided to call a one-day boycott by themselves.

Instead of going home that night, Robinson went to work at Alabama State where she taught English. She stayed all night using a mimeograph machine to make leaflets announcing the boycott. Roughly 20 women assembled to deliver them, and over the next four days, they distributed tens of thousands of leaflets through as many barbershops, bars, or places of work that they could.

Robinson was determined to get this show on the road, because like many other community members, she felt like Park's arrest was a moment where a boycott could finally take hold. But here, we also have to stop and ask ourselves, why Rosa Parks became the person that many civil rights leaders wanted to rally around. I mean she wasn't the first.

That same year, two other women, in Montgomery, had already been arrested after refusing to give up their bus seats. One of those people was Claudette Colvin, detained in March of 1955, who was a 15-year-old high school student at the time of her arrest. Even though her arrest happened before Parks', many believed that E.

D. Nixon and other civil rights leaders did not feel compelled to publicise her arrest because she was young, poor and dark-skinned. Furthermore, after the arrest, she got pregnant, and with that , any chance she had of becoming the public face of the boycott was gone. 


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But Rosa Parks, these leaders believed had the right background and the right look. And her history of activism within the NAACP— that helped too. She fit the profile of the type of person the civil rights movement wanted as its face. Born Rosa McCauley in 1913, and raised on her grandparents' farm in Alabama, Parks had to walk to school because, at the time, Jim Crow laws prevented her from riding the school bus.

Initially aspiring to be a nurse, Parks had to drop out of school in the eleventh grade to take care of her ill grandmother. It wasn't until she married Raymond Parks in 1932 that she was ultimately able to go back and finish school. And with Raymond, she also began a life of activism.

Parks eventually came to work for the NAACP and was appointed the secretary in Montgomery. Decades of work in activist circles had given Parks all the connections she needed for the community to come together at the time of her arrest and agree that she was the person, and this was the moment. At first, the WPC held a one day boycott, and it was a success.

Feeling the momentum, they decided to keep it going. Those with cars, carpooled, and contributed to what was virtually a 1950s Uber system, without the surge pricing. Those who walked rotated in groups so no one had to walk alone and be subjected to violence.

It was a community effort, and the community was all in. Local leaders elected a young, 26-year-old preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. to serve as the public face of the movement. With King as President, they established the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to oversee the organisation and maintain the boycott.

Jo Ann Robinson, from the Women's Political Council, chose not to take an official position within the MIA. 


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But she was part of the Executive Board and edited the weekly newsletter. Together, the WPC and MIA created and maintained a mean, lean, boycotting machine. One of the main reasons the boycott was so successful is that Black Americans made up most of the passengers on the bus, 75% in fact. And without Black riders or Black dollars, the city suffered financially.

On June 5th 1956, a Montgomery federal court ruled bus segregation a violation of the 14th amendment. The town still tried to appeal to the U. S.

Supreme Court, but it upheld the lower court's decision on December 20th 1956. On December 21st, the buses were integrated and the boycott came to an end— lasting a total of 381 days. This movement was a culmination of a long struggle against discrimination in the public sphere.

It also served as a gateway to the extensive activism of the civil rights movement. But as successful as the boycott was, it was not all sunshine and rainbows. Like many Black Americans who have stood for equality at any point in time, boycotters faced violence and intimidation tactics from the surrounding white community.

Boycotters risked losing their jobs, having to walk to work increased their chances of being late, and some faced heckling and torment by white citizens. Others had more trying experiences. Dr.

King and E. D. Nixon's home was bombed just days apart in 1956.

In February of that year, 89 members of the MIA were arrested under an old ordinance designed to prevent people from boycotting. King was tried, found guilty, and made to pay a $500 fine and $500 in court fees. By December, the KKK had taken to burning crosses in the yards of protesters, and the bus yards. 


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This type of violence would become characteristic of the Civil Rights Movement. Still, the bus boycott set a new precedent for nonviolent civil disobedience dedicated to upending Jim Crow. And as we'll soon see, these activists were only just getting started. Thanks for watching.

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