Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Favorite 

Date: 

Dec 1 1955

Location: 

Montgomery AL

In 1900, Montgomery, Alabama had passed a city ordinance to segregate bus passengers by race, and conductors were empowered to assign seats to achieve that goal. The first four rows of seats on each Montgomery bus were reserved for whites, and buses had "colored" sections for black people generally in the rear of the bus, although blacks composed more than 75% of the ridership. Black people could not sit across the aisle in the same row as white people, and, if white people were already sitting in the front, black people had to board at the front to pay the fare, then disembark and reenter through the rear door.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks rejected bus driver James F. Blake's order to relinquish her seat in the "colored section" of the bus to a white passenger, after the whites-only section was filled. Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws. Parks' prominence in the community and her willingness to become a controversial figure inspired the black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year, the first major direct action campaign of the post-war civil rights movement. Her case became bogged down in the state courts, but the federal Montgomery bus lawsuit Browder v. Gayle succeeded in November 1956.

Parks' act of defiance and the Montgomery bus boycott became important symbols of the civil rights movement, and she became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. She organized and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Edgar Nixon, president of the local chapter of the NAACP; and Martin Luther King Jr., a new minister in Montgomery who gained national prominence in the civil rights movement and went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize. She was also active in the Black Power movement and the support of political prisoners in the US.

The Montgomery bus boycott— a political and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama—the Monday after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to December 20, 1956, when the federal ruling Browder v. Gayle took effect, and led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws that segregated buses were unconstitutional.

* * *

Much less well known is the story of fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin. While riding a bus in Montgomery, Colvin refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, and was thrown off and arrested for her peaceful protest in almost identical circumstances. Her protest took place on March 2, 1955—nine months before Rosa Parks’s own.

Decades later, Colvin recalled: “We had been studying the Constitution in class. I knew I had rights . . . I was thinking: Why should I have to get up just because a driver tells me to, or just because I’m black?”

Colvin had been stirred by the inspiring lessons of women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, who fought against slavery a century earlier. She could not get these figures out of her mind when the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white woman. “My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up,” she later said.

Colvin became a key witness “in the court challenge that went to the Federal District Court of Alabama and then the U.S. Supreme Court, thus outlawing segregation on the buses forever. For Colvin, the courtroom appearance was daunting. She told Phillip Hoose, author of Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice :

“Sometimes I would imagine, ‘Claudette, you’re a Christian, and you’re about to get thrown to the lions and you have one speech to give to the Senate.’ In my imagination that courtroom seemed like the Colosseum, and it felt like I had one last speech. I was going to make the most of it.

“And so she did. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court—in a case in which Rosa Parks was personally uninvolved—affirmed that bus segregation was illegal. Montgomery preacher Martin Luther King Jr. declared Colvin a “brave young lady” for her defiance and testimony.

And yet, Colvin has been largely written out of history. She came from the wrong part of town. She had become pregnant by an older man (“statutory rape,” she said later) and was thus an unmarried teenage mother. The straight-A student—quiet, well-mannered, devout—wrongly began to be described as a mere teenage troublemaker. Her courage was ignored and forgotten.

Rosa Parks became famous as the woman whose case triggered the Montgomery bus boycott and thus changed history. Colvin, despite her historic role, did not.

Colvin worked for decades as a nursing assistant in the Bronx. In recent years, she has been publicly honored for the first time.

In 2005, half a century after her act of defiance, she was invited back to speak at her old school in Montgomery.

For Colvin, the issues revolving around her decision to stay seated were simple. She felt that it was essential not just to “not just to worry about injustice, but to confront it head-on. In a conversation with Phillip Hoose, she described her mind-set at that time: “As a teenager, I kept thinking, Why don’t the adults around here just say something?” she said. “You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’”

(Claudette Colvin part excerpted from: John Jackson and Steve Crawshaw. “Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World.”)

Posted by Molly on

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The project led to a lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, which succeeded in November 1956 and led to a Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated buses were unconstitutional.

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The project led to a lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, which succeeded in November 1956 and led to a Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated buses were unconstitutional.