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How the Civil Rights Movement Worked


The Montgomery Bus Boycott and Desegregation
Rosa Parks, center, one of the most famous figures from the civil rights movement, helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Rosa Parks, center, one of the most famous figures from the civil rights movement, helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Don Cravens/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The Supreme Court had struck down the "separate but equal" precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson with their decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, making segregation illegal. But were states actually following orders?

Many people know the story of Rosa Parks. On Thursday, Dec. 1, 1955, after a long day at work as a seamstress, Mrs. Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery to go home. She sat in the fifth row with three other blacks, the farthest row forward blacks could legally occupy. As the bus filled up along the route, however, more whites entered the bus. Eventually, one white was left standing. According to Alabama law during the '50s, blacks and whites couldn't occupy the same row. When told by the bus driver to give up the row to the white man, three of the blacks left for the back of the bus, but Mrs. Parks simply refused. She was quickly arrested and sent to jail.

Rosa Parks remains one of the most iconic figures of the civil rights movement, and the steps she took changed American life. But her story isn't as improvised as it sounds. In fact, Mrs. Parks' arrest, which led to the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, was planned from the beginning. Parks was an NAACP member with interest in the segregation situation, and she had completed a workshop on civil disobedience before she was arrested. After hearing of the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, Jo Ann Robinson, a black woman and professor at the all-black Alabama State College, had decided the time was right to test the law.

Martin Luther King Jr. at his home in Montgomery, Ala., in May 1956.
Martin Luther King Jr. at his home in Montgomery, Ala., in May 1956.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After the arrest, Robinson and other prominent ministers and civil rights activists, including E.D. Nixon and the young minister Martin Luther King Jr., gathered to discuss a boycott. Handouts were made urging blacks to stay off of buses the following Monday.

The first day of the boycott was a huge success, with empty buses rolling through the streets of Montgomery. The group met again that night and quickly formed an organization, calling themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and electing King as president. After some discussion, the MIA agreed to continue the boycott, which would last for a little more than a year.

Whites tried every way possible to break up the boycott. First they tried nonviolent means. When black cab services began undercharging other blacks with a 10-cent fare, the city announced that any cab charging less than 45 cents would be stopped. Companies began canceling insurance policies on cars used for carpooling. Mrs. Parks was arrested for not paying her fine, and King was arrested several times, usually for minor traffic offenses. When these tactics didn't work, whites then turned to violence. Bombs went off in black homes, King's house was shot at and the Ku Klux Klan marched around to protest.

Martin Luther King Jr. outlines boycott strategies to his advise­rs and organizers including (from left to right) Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rosa Parks.
Martin Luther King Jr. outlines boycott strategies to his advise­rs and organizers including (from left to right) Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rosa Parks.
Don Cravens/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The city was beginning to suffer financially from the boycott, and news of the case made its way to the Supreme Court, which had recently declared segregation illegal in Brown v. Board of Education. The Court ordered full integration in November 1956, and by Dec. 21 of that year, blacks ended the boycott and started riding the buses again.

The boycott marked the first important involvement of the public in the civil rights movement and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. After success in Montgomery and gaining national attention, King soon became a major leader of the movement, moving to Atlanta and starting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). To learn about action King would take in the '60s, read the next page.

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