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Ken Hare in Depth: 4 things to help you better appreciate the Montgomery Bus Boycott

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the seminal events in the Civil Rights Movement. The boycott boosted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into national prominence, made an international icon of seamstress Rosa Parks, established an important legal precedent in the fight for equal rights, and guaranteed that Montgomery would play a key role in the Civil Rights Movement in the coming decades.

Most Alabamians under 50 years of age learned that much about the boycott in an American history class, and those of us a good deal older than that followed boycott events in the newspapers at the time.

But when I set out to write a book about the boycott leading up to its 50th anniversary, I found out that there was much more to the boycott than what I had learned in college.

Here are four points to help you better understand and appreciate the importance of the Montgomery Bus Boycott:

The Importance of Buses

To grasp just how much that black Montgomerians risked by embarking on a boycott of the Montgomery bus system, one must first grasp just how crucial buses were to their everyday lives -- in fact, to most Montgomerians regardless of race -- in the 1950s.

Today, when public bus transport is little used, it is easy to forget that buses were by far the prime means of transportation then. Many poorer families did not have automobiles, especially in the black community. Even if a family had a car, it usually had just one, meaning that spouses and youths in the family still had to rely on buses to get to work or to shop.

Early in the boycott, some white employers helped to provide transportation for their black workers, but that soon dropped off under pressure from other whites. Later in the boycott, organizers developed an effective system of car pooling that provided an alternative to buses for many, but not all, blacks.

But most black Montgomerians simply walked instead of riding the buses. It was a tremendous personal sacrifice.

The Danger Factor

In calling for a boycott of Montgomery buses, civil rights leaders weren't just asking the black community to sacrifice convenience, but also to put themselves in very real danger.

As the boycott wore on and gained national prominence, opponents resorted to violence in unsuccessful attempts to intimidate boycotters.

The homes of boycott leaders were bombed, including the home of the Rev. King. Even after the boycott successfully ended and blacks returned to the buses, the violence continued, with a black woman being wounded when someone shot into a bus and four black churches and two homes being bombed.

The role of women

Everyone knows the central role that Rosa Parks played in the bus boycott, but except for her most of the history focuses on the male leaders of the boycott -- Rev. King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, for instance, or to a lesser extent activist E.D. Nixon.

But women other than Mrs. Parks also were essential to making the boycott a success.

For instance, the boycott initially was called not by those who later became the official leaders of the boycott, but by Alabama State University professor Jo Ann Robinson and friends. Robinson had been pushing for a bus boycott for months, and she saw the arrest of the highly respected Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat as the opportunity she needed.

While the male leaders talked and tried to build a consensus, Robinson sprang into action, putting together and distributing a flier calling for a one-day boycott. She essentially had made a boycott a fait accompli, and more conservative black leaders had little choice but to go along. They did decide to make the boycott a permanent one.

Robinson recalled later a note she made at the time: "The Women's Political Council will not wait for Mrs. Parks consent to call for a boycott of city buses."

Prior to Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white rider, at least two other black women had done so. Claudette Colvin, then 15, was arrested and convicted. Her case made it clear to the black community that fighting unequal treatment on buses through the legal system alone was unlikely to work. Mary Louise Smith, 18, also was arrested for refusing to give up her seat, and while her case did not gain much publicity at the time, it became important to the legal case that later was filed as part of the boycott.

Even though Rosa Parks became an icon for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, the widespread image of her as a quiet and unassuming seamstress who had a moment of courage and stubbornness also minimized her real impact.

Parks was, in fact, quiet and unassuming, and it did take courage to refuse to give up her seat. But she also had a two-decade history of working for civil rights before she set foot on that bus on Dec. 1, 1955. She had been secretary of a chapter of the NAACP. She and her husband had worked to save the Scottsboro Boys, eight blacks falsely convicted of rape.  She was an activist, not just a woman who had a moment of spontaneous courage.

Without women such as these, and those who drove in the car pools and walked to their jobs, the boycott not only would not have succeeded, it probably would not have happened.

The Legal Front

While the boycott of Montgomery city buses brought national attention to the unequal treatment of blacks on public transportation and pressured city officials into offering to compromise on the issue, it was a companion legal case that actually won the day and ended the boycott.

That case was Browder vs. Gayle (Browder was a Montgomery housewife; Gayle the mayor of the city).  Plaintiffs in the case were Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith, all black women who had received unfair and unequal treatment by the city bus system.

(Attorney Fred Gray, who defended Colvin and Parks and was one of the legal team that mounted the Browder vs. Gayle case, told me that the Parks case was not used as the basis of the court challenge largely for two reasons. As a criminal case, it would have had to be adjudicated through the state appeals process before it could be challenged in federal court, so state and local officials could have delayed the outcome for months or years. Second, even if the plaintiffs had won, it might simply have resulted in the case against Parks being vacated without any lasting impact on segregation of public transportation.)

On Dec. 17, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the city of Montgomery's appeal of the earlier ruling in the Browder vs. Gayle case, effectively desegregating Montgomery buses. A few days later, the boycott ended.

While the actual victory was achieved in court, it was the Montgomery Bus Boycott that helped to establish the notion of nonviolent protest as a means to achieve social change. It was the boycott that first established the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, and just as importantly, the boycott showed that a black-led local movement could achieve results. 

Ken Hare was a veteran newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at khare@wsfa.com.

Copyright 2015 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.

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