Things I didn’t know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Parting the Waters

Taylor Branch’s tome Parting the Waters: American in the King Years 1954 – 63 has been on my bedside table for months, but this past weekend, I settled in for hours reading the chapters about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I’m still on only page 220 of the 1064 page book, but wanted to share some of the fascinating details about this historic event. Almost all the information included below was taken from Branch’s book.

First, I didn’t realize that before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith. On March 2, 1955, 15-year old high school student Claudette Colvin was riding a Montgomery bus. The white section was full, the black section was full and the “no man’s land” that was in the middle was occupied by black riders. When a group of white passengers boarded the bus, the driver ordered four black women from the “no man’s land” to give up their seats. Colvin “defended her right to the seat in language that brought words of disapproval from passengers of both races . . . [she] was crying and madder than ever by the time the policemen told her she was under arrest. She struggled when they dragged her off the bus and screamed when they put on the handcuffs” (p. 120). Local activists considered using Colvin’s legal case to attack segregation but a variety of factors – including Colvin’s unwed pregnancy – made them decide against it.

In October of that year, Mary Louise Smith was arrested in a similar case to Colvin’s, but her alcoholic father and impoverished home made one of the lead activist’s worry that her case wouldn’t survive media attention. Two months later it was Parks, seamstress and secretary of the local NAACP chapter, whose arrest sparked the bus boycott. Interesting note (that I learned about here): due to her appeal being tied up in Alabama’s state courts, Rosa Parks’ conviction was actually not used as part of the federal civil lawsuit that eventually resulted in the desegregation of the Montgomery bus system – but Colvin and Smith’s arrests were, along with the experiences of two other women: Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald. The case was called Browder v. Gayle.

Second, I hadn’t remembered just how long the boycott lasted. Rosa Parks was arrested on Thursday, December 1, 1955; the boycott began the following Monday, December 5th; it didn’t end until over a year later on December 20th, 1956. The logistics and morale required for such a feat are staggering. Some people walked to their jobs, but then there were those who needed vehicular transportation. At first the black cab drivers let passengers ride their taxicabs at the same rate as the bus fare. But then the police commissioner threatened the arrest of any drivers charging cut-rate prices. So Martin Luther King, Jr. used a strategy previously used by a 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge: the community created a car pool.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 Negro fares were being denied to the buses every day. Subtracting generously for walkers and for people who were simply staying at home, the car pool would have to supply 20,000 rides, which worked out to more than 130 rides a day for each of the volunteered cars. By herculean efforts, King knew, Jemison had kept his boycott going in Baton Rouge for two weeks before it fell apart.

p. 146

Eventually as the boycott case made national news, the Montgomery activists received more funds for more carpool vehicles. But carpool drivers were repeatedly pulled over by policemen for trumped-up reasons. King himself was arrested for supposedly speeding five miles over the limit.

One of my favorite stories about the boycott: when the news came that a number of activists would be arrested under a law “prohibiting boycotts ‘ without just cause or legal excuse'”, the initial reaction of fear was gradually overcome; one of the leaders, E.D. Nixon, turned himself in at the courthouse and was released on bond, and was soon followed in this action by many others, cheered on by a growing crowd.

Eventually the federal courts passed down the injunction for desegregation of the buses and the boycott ended. It was a celebrated moment in history, though it was followed shortly thereafter by the bombing of several of the black churches and homes, and several integrated buses were shot at, including one incident where a pregnant woman was wounded in her legs.

Branch does a great job of conveying the atmosphere of the times, and includes excellent details and anecdotes. I do forget at times who is who, but that’s what the index is for. I’ll end this post with a final anecdote that didn’t quite fit into the narrative above, about the Montgomery city librarian, Juliette Morgan. One of the few white liberals in the city, she wrote a letter to the newspaper shortly after the boycott where she compared the boycott to the actions of Gandhi and also said that “one feels that history is being made in Montgomery these days, the most important in her career” (p. 144). For her anti-segregationist views, Morgan – described as “reclusive” by Branch – was repeatedly harassed. She died in 1957 from an overdose of sleeping pills, presumed to be suicide. In 2005, Montgomery voted to name the central branch of its library after her.

For more about the life of Juliette Morgan:

For more about Claudette Colvin (who is still living):


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3 responses to “Things I didn’t know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott

  1. I just learned about Claudette Colvin recently as well; I’ve got a book here at hand ready to fill that gap, but I’m adding this one to my TBR as well. It sounds terrific. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    • Glad to have brought the book to your attention! I’ve been chatting up this book, or at least what I’ve learned, to a bunch of people this past week. It was a fantastic era of change and the details are fascinating.

  2. aartichapati

    I just bought a book on Rosa Parks this morning. I did not know about Colvin, but I DID know that Rosa Parks did way, way more than just the bus boycott. So I’m excited to learn more about her!

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