Montgomery Bus Boycott: What Happened and How Long Did It Last?
This story is published as part of Teen Vogue ‘2021 Economic security project scholarship.
On December 5, 1955, the black community of Montgomery, Alabama launched a boycott that would change history. For 13 months, community members refused to take the bus; they biked, joined coordinated carpools, or walked miles a day to keep the pressure on the city bus company, Montgomery City Lines, Inc., which was known to discriminate against black residents, in addition to its separate seats .
The boycott ultimately resulted in a Supreme Court ruling ordering the city to integrate its bus system, and the boycott’s endurance and success made it one of the crowning glory of the civil rights movement. But as UC Berkeley professor Ula Taylor explains Vogue teens, a protest lasting several months was not the original plan.
“It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to boycott for a year until all of these demands are met.’ Not at all, “says Taylor, a professor of African-American studies.” Initially, they weren’t even asking for the desegregation of the bus; they were asking for a more humane way of riding. At first, the mission was a boycott of a day, and when people saw the buses pass by with no one on board, it exposed in many ways their own collective power.
The city-wide boycott was a shining example of the power the working class can wield against big business by organizing to collectively withhold their money. Although the effectiveness of consumer boycotts is often debated today, it remains a popular option. Companies such as Wayfair, Everlane, Equinox, Exxon Mobil and Amazon have been the targets of boycotts in recent years. Labor strikes – including, over the past year, those of Wire cutter, Frito-Lay, Kellogg and Nabisco – sometimes include informal and union-sanctioned consumer boycotts as an escalation tactic during union struggles.
A closer look at the Montgomery bus boycott organization and strategy can show us what worked, why it lasted, and how working-class communities today could use boycotts to achieve great victories.
What was the situation in Montgomery before the boycott?
Montgomery’s black community had suffered separate sieges and other humiliations on city buses for years. Black passengers were not allowed to walk down the aisle in the white section, so they had to enter the front of the bus to pay for their ticket, then descend to enter the black section through the back doors. Sometimes the bus drivers would leave before they could get back up.
The Women’s Political Council (WPC), an organization based on a section of professional, middle-class black women, regularly collected complaints from bus riders and brought community concerns to city officials and Montgomery City. Lines several times in the early 1950s. In 1954, WPC President Jo Ann Robinson wrote a letter to the Mayor of Montgomery warning him that “25 or more local organizations” were ready to boycott. Two teenagers had previously been arrested for refusing to give up their seats to white passengers, and a woman’s boycott of the local bus system by civil rights organizer Lucille Times helped set the stage for a larger protest . But it was the arrest of Rosa Parks, a NAACP staff member, in December 1955 that was the long-awaited tipping point.
Turn a day of protest into 13 months of resistance
A boycott was organized for the day of Rosa Parks’ trial, set for December 5, 1955. The high turnout that day surprised even the boycotters and encouraged them to expand the protest further. That evening, 6,000 blacks attended a mass meeting at a local church to discuss the events of the day and plans for future action, according to Robinson’s memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. At the meeting, attendees voted to continue the boycott indefinitely and to appoint themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), with Dr Martin Luther King Jr., 26, as the first president.