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How women led and won the Montgomery bus boycott

Published Feb 13, 2005 8:38 PM

By Monica Moorehead

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the launching of the historic Montgomery bus boycott. The following are excerpts from an article that appeared in Workers World on Feb. 16, 1995.

The Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott is usually credited with giving birth to the civil rights movement. And rightfully so. It came right on the heels of the historic 1954 Supreme Court ruling proclaiming that separate but equal schools were unconstitutional.

Participants in the bus boycott.

The history books fail to record the boycott's root cause in more intricate detail. What were the conditions facing the 50,000 African Americans who rode these once segregated buses?

What was the role of the organizations--especially those involving women--in this heroic boycott that won an important political concession from the KKK-like White Citizens Council?

For many years, African Americans were the victims of harassment, brutality and degradation due to the segregationist policies of the Montgomery City Council.

This was especially true of the buses. African Americans were forced to ride in the back even when the white-only seats were empty.

Jo Ann Gibson Robinson would become one of the most prominent leaders of the boycott. In her 1987 book "The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It" (University of Tennessee Press), she talks about the daily humiliations Black people faced riding the buses.

Black people accounted for 75 percent to 80 percent of the ridership. There were many incidents when Black riders were arrested for "disorderly conduct" when white bus drivers said they had "talked back" or "didn't have the correct change."

Black people visiting from the North were arrested, harassed--and even shot dead--for refusing to move to the back of the bus. In one case, police killed a man named Brooks because he did not put "his money in the meter box." There were other cases when Black women were beaten and even dragged from the doors by racist bus drivers.

Robinson's book also points out how the horrors of racist oppression affected the daily lives of the Black population. She writes: "Bus incidents could often lead to domestic violence in Negro families, or to juvenile delinquency. ... Grown men frequently came home on particular evenings, angry from humiliating experiences on buses, to pick fights with their wives or children. ...

"They needed a target somewhere, a way to relieve internal conflict. In 1956, the superintendent of a local hospital ... told a reporter that since the boycott began, the hospital had had fewer patients."

Women take action

The Women's Political Council, led by Robinson, received more than 30 complaints against the Montgomery City Lines bus company as far back as 1953.

The WPC was founded in 1946 by a group of African American women college professors at Alabama State College, a predominantly Black school. The group claimed a membership of 300 women.

The WPC had frequently discussed the idea of calling a boycott, but people felt the timing was not right. That began to change--beginning on March 2, 1955, when a 15-year- old Black student named Claudette Colvin rode the bus.

Claudette Colvin did not take a seat reserved for whites; she sat down two rows from the back of the bus. But on this particular day, the bus was so crowded that the bus driver asked her to give up her seat for a white person.

When she refused to give up her seat, the bus driver radioed ahead to the police--who handcuffed the outspoken student and physically dragged her off the bus to jail. She was charged with misconduct, resisting arrest and violating the city's segregationist laws.

News of the arrest spread throughout the Black community. The idea of initiating a boycott was reopened.

The WPC had already drawn up a leaflet to announce the boycott; only the day and time had to be added. In the meantime, financial and moral support for Claudette Colvin started pouring in from all over the country.

She was, however, found guilty of all charges and released on probation. Another young woman, Mary Louise Smith, was arrested in October 1955 and found guilty on similar charges.

The straw that broke the camel's back for the Black community came on Dec. 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested on the same charges.

The WPC went into action. Its members reproduced 50,000 fliers that read: "The Women's Political Council will not wait for Mrs. Parks' consent to call for a boycott of city buses. On Dec. 2, 1955, the women of Montgomery will call for a boycott to take place on Monday, Dec. 5."

Mass meetings were held in Black churches to galvanize the Black community into action. The Montgomery Improvement Association was created for the express purpose of organizing every aspect of the boycott.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was elected the president. Although most of the MIA's major offices were held by other prominent ministers, women were responsible for the important day-to-day tasks of holding the organization together.

Jo Ann Gibson Robinson and others started the MIA newsletter, which grew from four to eight pages. This newsletter was viewed as an important organizing weapon for the success of the boycott.

Hardships and victory

The MIA transportation committee organized one of the most effective volunteer campaigns in U.S. history. An estimated 325 private vehicles picked up thousands of passengers daily from 43 dispatch stations and 42 pick-up sites.

Passengers were picked up as early as 5 a.m. and taken home as late as 8 p.m. Thousands of dollars poured in from all over the country for the transportation efforts.

A great majority of these passengers were domestic workers forced to work for privileged white families. These Black women were a source of cheap labor, very similar to those in South Africa.

Domestic workers in Montgomery received as little as $2 a day and worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Many of these women worked for the boycott in the evenings after returning from work and taking care of their families. They had depended heavily on taking the bus before the boycott.

The racist White Citizens Council made many attempts to sabotage the boycott. One effort was to enforce a policy of having the police arrest any group of Black people waiting at pick-up stations along with those who volunteered to drive people to their destinations.

Another terrorist tactic was for racist whites to random ly telephone Black people and threaten them. The callers could distinguish Black people in the phone books because, unlike whites, it was the local phone company's policy not to use "Miss" or "Mrs." before the names of Black women.

After negotiations between representatives of the Black community and the WCC broke down, the MIA brought a lawsuit against the City of Montgomery including the mayor, city commissioner, police chief and other officials in order to integrate mass transportation.

Up until late January 1955, Black people were not trying to abolish the segregationist policy but to modify it in order to come up with a more satisfactory seating arrangement on the buses. They also wanted the city to hire Black bus drivers.

But when the WCC refused to meet their demands and at the same time tried to undermine the boycott, the Black community became more angry--and more determined to sweep away Jim Crow in the area of mass transit.

On Feb. 21, 1956, a grand jury of 17 whites and one Black declared the boycott illegal. One hundred fifteen boycott leaders--including Robinson--were arrested. None of the white officials was arrested.

On Jan. 31, Dr. King's home was firebombed.

The arrests were appealed, and on June 5 a three-judge federal court ruled by a two-to-one vote to strike down the segregationist transportation laws in Montgomery.

The WCC refused to abide by the ruling until Dec. 20. U.S. marshals served the Supreme Court's orders on the WCC.

After 13 months of tremendous organizing and self- sacrifice, the Black community had won a historic victory that laid the basis for many years of civil rights struggles. In the spring of 1960, students at Alabama State College took part in sit-ins at the Montgomery County courthouse snack counter.