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1955: moving to the Front of the bus: during the Montgomery bus boycott, blacks used their wallets as weapons in the struggle for civil rights.

On Dec. 1, 1955, a black seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her seat for a white passenger on a bus and was arrested. For Rosa Parks, 42, it was a simple act of defiance, but it had profound consequences: It ignited a yearlong bus boycott that would elevate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence and galvanize the emerging civil rights movement.

Parks's refusal--50 years ago next month--to comply with city and state segregation laws was a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle. It would culminate a decade after the Montgomery bus boycott in federal legislation aimed at guaranteeing equal rights to black Americans, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The legal grounds for challenging the South's system of Jim Crow laws and segregation had been laid the year before Parks took her stand, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate but equal" public schools for whites and blacks were unconstitutional.


In Montgomery, most of the bus company's customers were black and they had long resented having to board the bus in the back and give up their seats for whites. On the Cleveland Avenue bus Parks rode that day, 26 passengers were black and 10 were white. With the first four rows filled with whites and one white man left standing, the driver ordered Parks and three other black passengers in the fifth row to give up their seats. He was, he explained later, trying to "equalize" the seating arrangements. (Blacks and whites were not allowed to occupy the same row.)

When Parks, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and former secretary of the Montgomery chapter, refused, she was arrested and briefly jailed for violating a city segregation law. She was convicted and fined $14. In addition, she was later charged with disobeying a state law that empowers a bus driver to assign seating. At the time she said she was "just too tired" to move, but years later she said in an interview that what she was tired of was discrimination.


"When I declined to give up my seat, it was not that day or bus in particular. I just wanted to be free like everybody else," Parks said. "We did not wish to continue being second-class citizens."

The boycott that started four days after Parks's brave display of civil disobedience began with relatively modest goals. The group that had formed around King, then the 26-year-old pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, demanded that all riders be seated on a first-come, first-served basis, that black passengers be treated more courteously by the company's employees, and that the company hire at least some black drivers. But blacks would still board at the rear of the bus, with whites boarding in the front.

King, already a dynamic speaker, preached the passive resistance that had been practiced in India by Mohandas Gandhi during India's drive for independence from Great Britain in the 1940s. The boycott group organized itself as the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected King its president.

A "miracle" was how King described the spirit and the unity that the protest inspired among blacks. "The once dormant and quiescent Negro community," he would write later, "was now fully awake."


Instead of traveling by bus, tens of thousands of blacks walked to work or commuted in car pools. The bus company and white-owned businesses in downtown Montgomery suffered substantial economic losses. Ministers involved in the protest were indicted for conducting an illegal boycott. King and others were convicted and fined.

As the boycott continued, civil rights lawyers challenged Montgomery's segregation laws in the federal courts, representing four black bus riders who had been arrested after Parks for refusing to comply.

On Nov. 13, 1956, the Supreme Court came down on the side of the plaintiffs, voiding a Montgomery ordinance and an Alabama law that required racial segregation on intrastate buses. The Court's order was served on Montgomery officials on December 20, and the boycott ended the next morning, after 381 days.

Blacks returned to the buses--but through the front door. And they sat wherever they liked. Among the first riders was King, by then a national figure in the emerging civil rights movement. As he later recalled, "We decided to substitute tired feet for tortured souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery."


It would take a decade of protests and sacrifice to translate the gains won on the streets of Montgomery into broad legal guarantees of civil rights and voting rights. But David Halberstam, a former New York Times reporter who profiled the young people who led the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s in his book The Children, said that what happened in Montgomery was a key victory for the civil rights movement: After the integration of baseball in 1947 and the armed forces in 1948, the movement was beginning to gain momentum with the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown school-desegregation case.

In Montgomery, Halberstam wrote, "blacks had, using Gandhian tactics, stayed off the buses and walked to work or carpooled (or forced the middle-class white women for whom they worked as maids to drive over and pick them up each morning). The boycott had been stunningly successful and had brought the local bus line ... to its knees. Their protest, the dignified manner in which they had gained their victory, plus the eloquence of their young leader's words had captured the imagination of much of the country. It was their first successful assault upon the national conscience."

Rosa Parks later moved to Detroit, where she died in October at the age of 92. In 1999, when she was 86, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. "This will be encouragement," she said, "for all of us to continue until all people have equal rights."




The bus boycott provides a Lesson in the power of peaceful resistance to challenge injustice. Rosa Parks and her fellow boycotters ultimately helped to defeat "Jim Crow" taws that restricted blacks' access to buses, restaurants, rest rooms, drinking fountains, and fundamental, civil, rights like voting.


* Have a student read aloud the first paragraph of the 14th Amendment. You might also hand out photocopies.

* Reread the Last clause of that paragraph, which guarantees citizens "equal protection of the Laws."


* Discuss the power of an economic boycott. How would students define the "passive resistance" espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? How does passive resistance differ from active resistance?

* Would King's passive resistance work in a country where despots rule?


* Pretend you are a civil rights Leader. Write a 100-word essay in which you argue why the racial segregation taws in Alabama in 1955 should have been ruled unconstitutional


* Why do you suppose the group headed by King, while demanding better treatment for blacks, accepted that they should stilt enter buses from the rear? [Fruitful negotiations require that adversaries get something in return.]

* What would you tell a friend about Rosa Parks?


* Write "An idea whose time has come" on the board.

* Ask students why black people in Montgomery endured bus segregation for so Long, Does achieving social justice always require a spark to trigger needed change?,


* The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling barring racial segregation in public schools overturned an 1896 Supreme Court ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson, that permitted segregated public facilities.

WEB WATCH resources/bhm/bio/parks_ r.htm provides a biography of Rosa Parks through 2004.

Sam Roberts is urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:TIMES PAST
Author:Roberts, Sam
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1U6AL
Date:Nov 14, 2005
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