There is an intricate and lengthy timeline of planned events that lead up the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I personally was always under the impression that: 1) Rosa Parks, just your everyday black woman, was arrested for not giving her seat to a white man. 2) Her refusal to kowtow to the twisted Jim Crow laws was the inspiration that the black community needed to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 3) Because of this boycott the city, as well as the whole nation, was more understanding and accepting of blacks.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong! I mean no disrespect to Rosa Parks, but this is not the case! (Keep reading, I promise I am not diving off the deep end with this entry.)
Not only does sticking by this story severely skew the historical accuracy of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but it steals from black history. It demeans the planning, organizational tactics, and determination of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. There is a long and rich list of events that lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that should not be ignored or forgotten.
Just to set up a baseline for the events that occurred before the boycott, let me say that the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement started on December 1, 1955, with the arrest of Rosa Parks. Now let’s back up just a little. In 1943, Rosa Parks joined the Montgomery, Alabama, branch of the NAACP and became the branch secretary, working under E.D. Nixon. Rosa Parks was also a sexual assault investigator for the NAACP; as such, she was highly involved in the gang rape investigation of Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama, on September 3, 1944. The news of the horrific events that surrounded the rape of Recy Taylor sparked outrage across the nation, from both whites and blacks. While no formal investigation was slated to take place, black activists across the nation gathered together, published the story in national newspapers, and wrote to the governor demanding an investigation. Their protests and cries for justice forced an investigation to take place. The seven men who were responsible for attacking Recy Taylor were arrested, but all charges were eventually dismissed. This was not only an atrocity, but a slap in the face to the judicial system and to the black community. Even though the results of the case were not in the favor of the black community, it did show the power of protesting and their ability to quickly mobilize, which would be valuable as a future weapon. This event proved important to the development of Rosa Parks (as an activist) and the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
I want to explain the segregation rules of the buses in Montgomery. As blacks made up 75% of the bus riders in the city, it didn’t make sense to give them their own “separate but equal” buses, so they just segregated the bus in half. Whites sat in the front and blacks in the back. There was a middle section that was available for both but if a white person needed a seat, any blacks in this section should move and stand in the back. This was a violation of the Jim Crow laws. Also, bus drivers would often make blacks pay, then force them off the bus making them go in the back entrance. In some cases, bus drivers would tell blacks to pay and go in the back door, just to drive off and leave them stranded on the street.
We don’t know for sure when the Montgomery Bus Boycott was planned, but it definitely was not in reaction to Rosa Parks arrest. The boycott was planned as early as March 2nd, but most definitely before this. On March 2, 1955, E.D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson, the two members of the NAACP most responsible for masterminding the boycott, heard about the arrest of Claudette Colvin. Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old student, was arrested for not giving her seat to a white person entering the bus. It was on this day that the boycott was planned to happen. It was with much dismay to E.D Nixon that this 15-year-old girl was pregnant and would not be perceived well with her unmarried, child pregnancy on her record. Nixon required someone of high morals–a member of the community perceived in a good light. So, for now, the boycott would wait until a later date.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was riding home on the bus and was seated in the middle section, the available section for whites and blacks. As whites were coming on the bus, the bus driver told Rosa Parks, along with three other passengers, to relinquish their seats and move to the back. When Rosa refused to move, the driver called for assistance from the police and Rosa was arrested for failing to obey the bus drivers assignment of seats. She was taken to the city hall and charged with violating segregation laws. (Even though she was sitting in a non-segregated part of the bus.) Once E.D. Nixon heard about Rosa Park’s arrest, he decided that she was the perfect person to serve as the poster child to the bus boycott. With her permission, E.D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson started the necessary steps to start the boycott. Jo Ann Robinson, with help from three other individuals, wrote and published a pamphlet calling for all black members of the community to boycott the buses on the following Monday. (While uncertain of the exact numbers, some estimate that 35,000 handouts were printed and distributed.) Throughout the community, Sunday church services also urged the community to boycott the buses on Monday; in fact, some started the boycott before Monday.
As Rosa Parks had served as a secretary under E.D. Nixon and was heavily involved in the NAACP, I cannot accept that she merely took a stand and didn’t know that the boycott was waiting on a poster child. I dare not take away from her legacy, because to do what she did was exceptionally courageous. She was a great heroine of the Civil Rights Movement, but it is important that everyone know the history leading up to her arrest.
Make sure you come back tomorrow, when we will discuss the actual events of the Montgomery Bus Boycott!