The Dec. 1, 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks for failure to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white male is often thought of as the spark for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, what took place that day at the intersections of Lee and Montgomery streets in Alabama’s capital city was likely the tipping point that brought to life an already-brewing effort to bring about long-overdue and lasting change.
Dr. Felicia Bell, director of Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum, says it is important to put Mrs. Parks’ arrest in context of the bigger picture of African American life in the South during the 1950s when contemplating the motives and methods of the 381-day boycott, which began 61 years ago this week.
“There had been several incidents leading up to Mrs. Parks’ arrest, so you really have to look at it beyond her arrest to fully understand what took place,” Dr. Bell said. “There were several other black women who had been harassed by the bus drivers, and months before Mrs. Parks’ arrest, Claudette Colvin had been arrested for not giving up her seat. Mrs. Parks, herself, had previously been harassed by the bus driver with whom she had the run in on Dec. 1 that led to her arrest. These women were taking the bus because a lot of the people in the African American community didn’t own cars, and thus, were dependent on public transportation to get around and get to and from work.”
The harassment didn’t begin or end with the Montgomery city buses.
“I think you also have to look at the plight of black women in the South at this time,” Dr. Bell said. “We know from Mrs. Parks that in the 1940s she was involved in the case of a black woman in Abbeville who was sexually assaulted by six white men. This was an epidemic going on throughout the South at the time. These men would either not face charges or be acquitted by the jury after only a few minutes. As a field secretary for the NAACP at the time, Mrs. Parks was active in seeking justice for these women, even to the point of petitioning the governor.”
Considering all that was occurring at the time, Dr. Bell says it becomes easier to understand not only Parks’ arrest but also what came next.
“I think a lot of times people get caught up in the simplicity of the arrest, but there are many layers to it,” Dr. Bell said. “After she was arrested, she was quickly bailed out by Fred Gray and E.D. Nixon. They began to meet to determine what action could be taken to turn this situation around and the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed. It is important to understand that they didn’t necessarily want an integrated bus; they just wanted to be treated fairly. They wanted black bus drivers, first-come, first-serve seating and to be treated with courtesy. Their list of demands didn’t include integration.”
Dr. Bell calls the idea of the boycott “brilliant.”
“They knew that there were policies in place that violated civil rights, but they also knew there was a system of capitalism in place,” Dr. Bell said. “You have the right and the power to stop paying for a product or service and it is a right that no one can take from you. They also knew that in order to have impact, there had to be full cooperation among the African American community; there had to be a complete withdrawal from riding the buses.”
Bringing together the African American community behind this common cause was made easier given Mrs. Parks’ arrest.
“Mrs. Parks was gainfully employed as a skilled worker. She was married and her husband was gainfully employed as a skilled worker,” Dr. Bell said.
“She was involved in her church to the point that she held the highest office available to a woman, a deaconess. She was a law-abiding adult who in appearance was thought to be of pleasant countenance. It was shocking news within the African-American community to hear that Mrs. Parks had been arrested. There was the sense of ‘if this can happen to Rosa Parks, this can happen to anyone.’”
All of the behind-the-scenes work to arrange transportation and notify the community of drop-off and pick-up locations and times required a great deal of coordination and helped to ensure that the boycott was successful. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered the integration of Montgomery buses, delivering a court order to city officials on Dec. 20, 1956, and the boycott ended the following day.
The Rev. Glenn Smiley, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and attorney Fred Gray provided reassurance to the local African-American community by boarding a city bus for a “Victory Ride.”
While the Montgomery Bus Boycott marked a pivotal point in the American Civil Rights Movement and brought rise to other efforts throughout the South, Dr. Bell noted that change continued to come about gradually. Within the coordinated efforts and willingness to face hardships presented by the boycott was a strength and perseverance that Dr. Bell fears is far less common today.
“I often wonder if we have the bravery, courage and the strength today to do what they did so many years ago,” Dr. Bell said. “And they had far less resources than we commonly have today. Still, they had that motivation and drive for freedom that led them to unite behind a common cause. Today, we can’t imagine being without an item we consider a necessity, such as our cell phones. There is a lesson in their determination and courage that is still important today.”