Lessons from the Montgomery Bus Boycott

The fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the year long Montgomery Bus Boycott will be celebrated this December. According to the official version of the Boycott it was started by Rosa Parks on the evening of December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.

That was the day when the Black population of Montgomery, Alabama, democraticly decided that they would boycott the city buses until they could sit anywhere they wanted, instead of being relegated to the back when a white boarded. It was not, however, the day that the movement to desegregate the buses started. Perhaps the movement started on the day in 1943 when a black seamstress named Rosa Parks paid her bus fare and then watched the bus drive off as she tried to reenter through the rear door, as the driver had told her to do. Perhaps the movement started on the day in 1949 when a black professor Jo Ann Robinson absentmindedly sat at the front of a nearly empty bus, then ran off in tears when the bus driver screamed at her for doing so. Perhaps the movement started on the day in the early 1950s when a black pastor named Vernon Johns tried to get other blacks to leave a bus in protest after he was forced to give up his seat to a white man, only to have them tell him, “You ought to knowed better.”

The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is often told as a simple, happy tale of the “little people” triumphing over the seemingly insurmountable forces of evil. The truth is a little less romantic and a little more complex. As the 50th anniversary of the boycott approaches, Claudette Colvin’s name and act of courage remain almost unknown — a lost footnote to Rosa Parks’ more famous defiance on a city bus that same year. But Colvin, a 15-year-old high school student at the time, refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman nine months before Parks took her stand. And it was a federal court suit involving Colvin that eventually led to a Supreme Court order outlawing segregated buses.

Tuskegee and Montgomery attorney, Fred Gray, who represented Parks in the boycott case, also represented Colvin in the days following her arrest.

“I’ve probably been a one-person crusader,” he told The Associated Press. “Every time I make a speech about the Montgomery bus boycott, I talk about Claudette Colvin because if there had not been a Claudette Colvin, there may very well have never been a Mrs. Rosa Parks as we know her today.

“Gray said Colvin was coming home from school on March 2, 1955, when she got on a Capital Heights bus downtown at the same place Parks boarded another bus months later. Colvin was sitting about two seats from the emergency exit when four whites boarded and the driver ordered her, along with three other blacks, to get up. She refused and was removed from the bus by two police officers, who took her to jail.

“The bus was getting crowded and I remember him (the bus driver) looking through the rearview mirror asking her to get up out of her seat, which she didn’t,’ said a classmate at the time, Annie Larkins Price. ‘She didn’t say anything. She just continued looking out the window. She decided on that day that she wasn’t going to move.'” 1

Gray described Colvin as a persuasive and determined young person who had been a part of Parks’ Youth Council in the NAACP. Gray talked with civil rights activists Edgar Daniel (E.D.) Nixon Nixon and Jo Anne Robinson, who joined him in meetings with the bus company and city about Colvin’s case. They discussed the possibility of a boycott by blacks.

Gray said he told Parks and other Montgomery leaders that he thought Colvin’s arrest was a good test case to end segregation on the buses, but the black leadership thought they should wait.

Actually I believe that the movement started with the “Compromise of 1876” and the Police and Ku Klux Klan illegal force and violence (Terrorism), along with the Democratic Party and non-radical Republicans restoring the rights to property of the former slave owners, that laid the basis for the overthrow of Black Reconstruction (“40 acres and a mule”), after the Civil War, and the institutionalization of Jim Crow (legal segregation) in the South.

The subsequent lynchings and rule of terror that followed for the next 80 years, Led to a great fear for Black People in the South should they “step out of place” and suffer the consequences.

It was only after the rise of the CIO and the large migrations to the North during World War II to work for the “War Effort,” Black people began to gain self-confidence as a people as they became part of the workforce and ardent defenders of the gains of the CIO, when it had become a social movement.

After the desegregation of the armed forces lead by A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porter union, blacks were drafted into the army during the Korean War to fight for “freedom.” This led to more self-confidence as they learned how to use machinery and weapons during the war. When the soldiers returned home, after serving in Korea, they wanted some of that “freedom” they were supposed to be fighting for in Korea.

Concurrently, the post World War II rise of the African Liberation Movement against colonialism was another major factor that led to self confidence, self respect, by the American Negro.

The leaders of the United States had great difficulty getting African Liberation Movement Leaders to support American democracy and capitalism due to how Black people were treated in the United States. These were the main reasons why the United States Supreme Court came out with its “BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION” decision in 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools in 1954.


“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come” – Victor Hugo

With all of these factors the time had finally come for the overthrow of Jim Crow. Or as Martin Luther King stated at a meeting, in San Francisco, Ca on June 27,1956, to gather support for the Boycott:

“With this new self-respect, this new sense of dignity on the part of the Negro, the South’s negative peace was gradually undermined. The tension which we witness in the southland today can be explained by the revolutionary change in the Negro’s evaluation of his nature and destiny, by his determination to stand up and struggle until the walls of injustice have crumbled. [applause] The Negro [figures it’s?] clear insanity, that feeling that he is inferior, everything would be all right down in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. But the Negro rightly feels that he is somebody now. [applause] [words inaudible]

“That is at bottom the meaning of what is happening in Montgomery. You can never understand the Montgomery story without understanding that there is a brand new Negro in the South, with a new sense of dignity and destiny. [applause] (“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” RS)

“Over the years the bus situation has been one of the sore spots of Montgomery. If a visitor had come to Montgomery prior to last December, he would have heard bus operators referring to Negro passengers as ‘niggers,’ ‘black apes,’ and ‘black cows.’ He would have frequently noticed Negro passengers getting on the front door and paying their fares, and then being forced to get off and go to the back doors to board the bus, and often after paying that fare he would have noticed that before the Negro passenger could get to the back door, the bus rode off with his fare in the box. But even more that visitor would have noticed Negro passengers standing over empty seats. I am sure that visitor would have wondered what was happening. But soon he would discover that the reserved section, the unoccupied seats, were for ‘whites only.’ No matter if a white person never got on the bus, the bus was filled up with Negro passengers, these Negro passengers were prohibited from sitting in the first four seats – which hold about ten persons – because they were only for white passengers. But it even went beyond this. If the reserved section for whites was filled up with white persons, additional white persons boarded the bus, then Negro passengers sitting in the unreserved section were often asked to stand up and give their seats to white persons. If they refused to do this, they were arrested.” 2


E.D. Nixon

E. D. Nixon was the organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. According to Adib Rashad :

“E. D. Nixon was a long time activist, outspoken organizer in the African American community, and a past president of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was also a Pullman porter who was greatly inspired by A. Philip Randolph. In fact, Randolph’s union leadership ability and articulatory skills enhanced Nixon’s will to fight more relentlessly for African American justice. . . .

“In the 1920s and 1930s, he worked closely with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph to organize fellow workers into the union. I hasten to add that Mr. Randolph was the first African American leader to organize a March on Washington; unfortunately, political circumstances impelled him to call it off.

“Mr. Nixon also assisted many other workers–African American and European American–organize to fight for union wages and better working conditions in Alabama. His uncontrollable courage was also manifested in 1944, when he led 750 African Americans in a march to the Montgomery County Courthouse where they tried to register to vote.

…… (He) “organized the historic Montgomery bus boycott. He was also chairman of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which was formed to organize the boycott. The MIA was the outgrowth of many previous struggles in Montgomery. Mr. Nixon made this comment:

“The Montgomery Improvement Association was not started just because someone came to town or someone felt it was the proper thing to do at this time. It was started because there had been a struggle of people for long years. It is fairly well known that it was Mrs. Rosa Park’s refusal to relinquish her bus seat to a Caucasian man that ignited the organized struggle against southern segregation. However, Mr. Nixon pointed out that Mrs. Parks had been the third person to be arrested for defying this customary Jim Crow practice; however, he knew that Mrs. Parks could be depended on for a test case–history would prove him correct.

“In 1951, several years prior to the bus boycott, a French journalist, Daniel Guerin, toured the South and met E. D. Nixon. In his book titled Negroes on the March, Guerin discussed the African American leadership hierarchy that emerged out of the labor battles of the previous decades.”

(Guerin made the following statement: “A living example of this evolution was presented to me by E. D. Nixon of Montgomery, Alabama, a vigorous colored union militant who was the leading spirit in this city of both the local union of sleeping Car Porters and the local branch of the NAACP. What a difference from other branches of the Association, which are controlled by dentists, pastors, and undertakers. Nixon has both feet on the ground. He is linked to the masses. He speaks their language. He has organized the work of race defense with the precision and method of a trade unionist.”)

“Guerin indicated he had a firm grip on the issue when he alluded to the organizational methods and evolving self-confidence acquired by African American workers in the union movement, which prepared them for key roles in leading and pushing forward the movement. Therefore, it was not happenstance that the civil rights movement began with Mrs. Parks, or that Mr. Nixon would lead and organize her defense and conceive the bus boycott tactic.

“December 3,1955, was the day that the African American community in Montgomery issued the cry to stay off the buses as a one day protest on behalf of Mrs. Parks. The vast majority of African American riders did just that. Mrs. Parks was convicted and fined ten dollars. As a result of this blatant injustice, the African American community scheduled a mass meeting at one of the local churches. However, because of deep-seated fear, many of the ministers were reluctant to participate. Mr. Nixon expressed his outrage, I almost lost patience with them, he continued, I told them what I thought about and told them, unless you accept this program to continue this boycott this evening, there’ll be more than a thousand people at the church tonight. I’ll take the microphone and tell the people that we don’t have a program because you all are too cowardly to stand on your feet and fight.

“The reputation of Mr. Nixon as a strong, courageous community leader prevailed; thus, the ministers and more than five thousand people attended the meeting and unanimously voted to continue the boycott. Mr. Nixon also used his influence to encourage Dr. King, who also was hesitant, to get involved. Dr. King was later made chairman of the Montgomery Improvement Association.” 3

On December 13, 1965, on the tenth anniversary of the Montgomery Boycott, E.D. Nixon spoke at the Militant Labor Forum in New York City, since he was not invited to the tenth anniversary celebration in Montgomery. In his speech, he emphasized the value and role of the MIA in organizing and leading the day to day work of the yearlong boycott. He also explained that in organizing the MIA the first two people that he called and who gave support were Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. H.H. Hubard. The third person he called was Rev. Martin Luther King and King said: “Let me think about it for a while.” After calling fifteen other people, E.D. Nixon again called King, who then came on board. 4

There is no doubt that the Montgomery bus boycott was the pivotal point in the civil rights struggle; it was the first mass action movement of its kind. Inspirationally speaking, there were many others over the ten year period that eventually toppled the Jim Crow system. However, according to some political analysts, none was better organized. This can be attributed to the insightfulness and organizing talents of E.D. Nixon. Interestingly, Mr. Nixon never wanted national attention; he preferred to stay in the background and work.

E.D. Nixon did not have much formal education, and he was not always liked by his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he worked incessantly to bring about a change in Montgomery. He strongly believed that a man must stand for what is right, even if it meant standing alone. On February 25,1987, Mr. E. D. Nixon at the age of 87, died of a cardiac arrest. History must never forget this man and what he accomplished.


Rosa Parks

Another example of the new mood among blacks was Rosa Parks. The following review of her book “Rosa Parks,”5 Grace Lee Boggs, a lifelong Detroit activist, wrote, at the time of Rosa Parks’ death, we are given a picture of Rosa Parks that is not commonly known:

“Rosa Parks has become a symbol of courage for our time and for all time. All over the world, she ranks with Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the pantheon of 20th-century heroes and sheroes who have expanded our notion of what it means to be a human being.

“But in becoming an icon, Parks has been turned into a shadow of her real self. Few people are aware of her lifetime of struggle before and after that fateful day in 1955, when her refusal to give up her seat on an Alabama bus triggered the 13-month-long boycott that launched the modern civil rights movement.

“How many people know that, unlike Gandhi and King, she refused to rule out the righteous use of force? Not only did she admire Malcolm X, she flew down to Monroe, North Carolina, just a few years ago for the funeral of Robert Williams, the outspoken advocate of armed self-defense by the black community.

“One of the main virtues of this book is that it demolishes the myth that Rosa Parks was just a good-hearted, middle-aged seamstress who was simply too tired from working all day to give up her seat. Historian Douglas Brinkley, also the author of award-winning biographies of Jimmy Carter and Franklin D. Roosevelt, reveals the difficult decisions that educated Parks politically and empowered her not only to say ‘no’ on December 1, 1955, but to give permission for her ‘no’ to become the basis for a constitutional challenge to Montgomery’s bus segregation ordinance.

“Brinkley writes, ‘While the NAACP executives made dinner speeches and attended national conferences,’ Parks, as the local NAACP secretary, ‘balanced the ledgers, kept the books, and recorded every report of racial discrimination that crossed her desk. She also did field research, traveling from towns like Union Springs to cities like Selma to interview African Americans with legal complaints, including some who had witnessed the murders of blacks by whites in rural areas.

“As the mother of the Civil Rights movement, Rosa Parks received countless awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal. But most people see only the fame and not the enormous risks she took. In 1957, for example, the family was forced to leave Montgomery and move to Detroit, because continuing death threats were driving her husband to ‘near-suicidal despair,’ and also because Rosa’s celebrity status had made the couple unemployable by Montgomery’s white business community.”6

Additional insight about Rosa Parks, can be found in Diane McWhorter’s essay, Rosa Parks The story behind her sitting down. In this essay she wrote the following:

“My favorite image of Rosa Parks, who died Monday at the age of 92, is of the confrontation between her and a policeman on that auspicious afternoon of Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. After the officer had instructed her to ‘make it light on yourself’ and give up her seat to a standing white man, she later said, she asked him, ‘Why do you push us around?’ And he had given an honest answer: ‘I don’t know.’ But then he explained that he had to arrest her anyway (even though she was not in technical violation of the city’s segregation laws, but that’s a whole other tangent of this rich saga). And so did history turn. In support of Parks’ defiance, the black citizens of Montgomery boycotted the city buses until segregated seating was abolished, one whole year later. And so was born what is still known as the modern civil rights movement.

. . . . “It took a while for the general public-and perhaps even Parks herself-to catch onto the historic logic of her action. For years, she was seen as a woman without a context, a poor-but-proud broken-down seamstress who had refused to move simply because she was ‘tired,’ clueless of the implications. In fact, her life (and she was only 42) encompassed the preceding two decades of black liberation. She had met her husband, Raymond Parks, in the early 1930s when he was raising money for the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women on a freight train, who had become an international cause célèbre thanks to the legal and propaganda efforts of the American Communist Party. (Virtually alone in that era, the Communist Party advocated full equality for African-Americans, and even the term “civil rights” was considered left-wing jargon.) With her high-school diploma-a credential that required resourcefulness and commitment for a black female of her time – Parks had served for years as the secretary in the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She and E.D. Nixon, had already been discussing a way to protest that most demeaning daily feature of black life: the segregated bus ride to work and home under the watch of the city’s famously abusive bus drivers. Nixon’s day job was as a sleeping-car porter; his civil rights hero was A. Philip Randolph, the socialist intellectual who had turned the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters into the first significant black labor union.

“Nixon bailed Parks out of jail that December evening. Along with him were two white aristocratic Alabama renegades, Clifford and Virginia Durr, who had been prominent New Dealers (Cliff was an early Federal Communications Commission member*) and were among the seamstress’s private clients. Cliff, a skilled constitutional lawyer, became a behind-the-scenes adviser to Fred Gray. ….”who handled the class-action suit that pressed the legal brief against bus segregation at the same time the boycotters protested with their feet. In one of the ironies of the boycott story, Parks (Gray’s constant lunch companion) was not in fact a named plaintiff in the constitutional test case she had inspired. And yet it was that case, on which the Supreme Court ruled in November 1956, that ended up desegregating the buses. . . . .

. . . . “In fact, the boycott represented a quantum shift in black emancipation. It was the passing of the torch from the mandarins of the NAACP, whose lawyers had tried to dismantle segregation statute by statute, to the ordinary bus riders, the ‘little people’ now taking charge of their own destinies. By moving the struggle out of the courtroom and into the street, the droves of ‘walkers’ (Virginia Durr likened them to a daily black tide) presented a vivid moral witness that piqued the country’s imagination. And the boycott anointed Martin Luther King as the man of the very long ensuing hour, transforming the civil rights movement from a strategic offensive directed from New York to a spiritual uprising out of the black church. Rosa Parks not only launched this new paradigm but incorporated all those that preceded it: Old Leftism, New Deal liberalism, unionism, NAACP legalism and gradualism. She was an embodiment of the civil rights movement to that moment, even if the impression persists that she was a simple old lady with aching feet.

“Despite what the eulogies might suggest, Parks did not ride off into the sunset on the front of that bus. The boycotters’ organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association, split bitterly between Martin Luther King’s faction, with its bourgeois gloss and razzle-dazzle access to the national media, and the earthier locals like E.D. Nixon, who complained that King treated him ‘as a child.’ Nixon would remain vocally bitter about being overlooked as the father of the boycott, regretting that he had tapped King to be the protest’s leader (‘and, with that bad guess,’ he would write, ‘we got Moses’). Nixon’s ally, Rosa Parks, would quietly suffer her removal from the action, taking a job at Virginia’s Hampton Institute (the Upper South version of Tuskegee Institute) within months of the boycott’s end, since her notoriety prevented her from finding work in Montgomery. Birmingham’s firebrand civil rights leader, Fred Shuttlesworth, chewed out the MIA leadership for not recognizing her symbolic importance to the struggle and finding a way to support her.” 7

I took the time to elaborate the roles of E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks in order to give the readers an understanding of the individuals who initiated the boycott and the quality of their leadership. There were also many more people who played the initial leadership and organizational roles in this struggle for justice.



The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which was founded in Montgomery on 5 December 1955 was primarily organized by E.D. Nixon and other community leaders. The MIA was instrumental in guiding the successful Montgomery bus boycott, a campaign that focused national attention on Jim Crow in the South and catapulted King into the national spotlight.

Following Rosa Parks’ arrest on December 1, 1965 for failing to vacate her seat for a white passenger on a Montgomery City bus, E. D. Nixon of the NAACP and Jo Anne Robinson of the Women’s Political Council launched plans for a one-day boycott of Montgomery buses. On December 5, ninety percent of the black community participated and stayed off the buses that day, prompting calls for boycott leaders to harness the momentum into a larger protest campaign. At the mass meeting that evening, the MIA was established to oversee the continuation of the MIA’s mission as it also sought to improve the general status of the City of Montgomery and to improve race relations.

After this initial meeting, the executive committee drafted the demands of the boycott campaign and agreed that the boycott would continue until demands were met. Over the next year, the MIA organized carpools and held weekly mass meetings with sermons and music to help keep the black community mobilized. The Association’s leaders negotiated with Montgomery City leaders and coordinated legal challenges to the city’s bus segregation ordinance. MIA also supported the boycott financially, raising money by passing the plate at meetings and soliciting support from northern and southern civil rights organizations.

The boycott ended in success when the US Supreme Court struck down segregated seating on public buses in November 1956. King emerged as a national figure and the MIA’s tactics cast a mold for the many protests that would follow in the civil rights movement. The Montgomery victory affirmed the potential for mass-based nonviolent resistance to successfully challenge segregation.
Why the Boycott Was Successful

The boycott was successful, in my opinion for several reasons.

1. It had mass support and it strength developed from the unity of the Black masses to boycott the buses.

2. In order to sustain the boycott, the MIA had organized an alternative transportation system, which gave the masses the ability to get to work for over a year, something that was crucial to the success of the boycott. In his San Francisco speech1 King explained this system and decision. He stated:

“One of the first practical problems that the ex-bus riders [had experienced] is that in finding some way to get around the city. The first thing that we decided to do was to use a taxi, and they had agreed to transport the people for just ten cents, the same as the buses. Then the police commission stopped this by warning the taxis that they must charge a minimum of forty-five cents a person. Then we immediately got on the job and organized a volunteer car pool. And almost overnight over three hundred cars were out on the streets of Montgomery. [applause] They were out on the streets of Montgomery carrying the people to and from work from the various pickup and dispatch stations. It worked amazingly well. Even Commissioner Sellers had to admit in a White Citizens Council meeting that the system worked with ‘military precision.’ [applause] It has continued to grow and it is still growing. Since that time we have added more than twenty station wagons to the car pool and they’re working every day, all day, transporting the people. It has been an expensive project. Started out about two thousand dollars or more a week, but now it runs more than five thousand dollars a week. We have been able to carry on because of the contributions coming from the local community and nationally, from the great contributions that have come from friends of good will all over the nation and all over the world. [applause]”2

I had the good fortune to meet E.D. Nixon a few hours prior to the December 13, 1965 Militant Labor Forum.

From my conversations, prior to this forum, with E.D. Nixon and Clifton DeBerry, (1964 Presidential candidate of the Socialist Workers Party), who helped organize the 1956 “Stationwagons for Montgomery Campaign,” it became clear to me, that the success of this transportation system was made possible by the Korean War GI’s, who used their experience in the army’s “motor pools” specifically and the army generally, to perform the maintenance of the automobiles and become the hard core of the drivers that sustained this transportation system for a year. It was also widely known, in Montgomery, that these men also had the ability and the willingness to defend themselves if the KKK attacked the transportation system. Due to the wide knowledge of this fact , and the world attention that the Boycott had achieved, the racists were unable to disrupt the car pool, that “worked with military precision.”

3. The democratically organized Montgomery Improvement Association had regular weekly mass meetings of thousands to decide the strategy and tactics of the movement. The people in the struggle had control and the final say – not the leaders from on high. This helped to insured the power of the movement, for the masses saw the MIA as their organization and were committed by their votes to implement their decisions.

The tactics of both mass civil disobedience (the boycott) and self defense by the MIA was key to the success of the struggle.

4. The power of independent mass action, independent of the politicians, was demonstrated by the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This is the power that ispired and garnered support from throughout the nation and the world.

In 1967 Martin Luther King said:

“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.

“There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum-and livable-income for every American family.

“There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities.

“. . . .The coalition of an energized section of labor, Negroes, unemployed, and welfare recipients may be the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform.

“The total elimination of poverty, now a practical responsibility, the reality of equality in race relations and other profound structural changes in society may well begin here.” 8

The Montgomery Bus Boycott led by the Montgomery Improvement Association was an example of such a coalition and it remains, to this day, one of the best models for victorious struggle in the history of working people in the United States.The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a demonstration of the power of Black Unity in action independent of and not reliant to the Democratic and Republican Parties.

ROLAND SHEPPARD can be reached at: Rolandgarret@aol.com


1. http://www.fredgray.net/background.html

2. Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project (http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/publications/speechesFrame.htm)

3. http://www.themarcusgarveybbs.com/board/msgs/10069.html

4. The Militant, “E.D.Nixon honored at Dinner,” by Harry Ring, January 13, 1966.

5. Douglas Brinkley,Viking Penguin 2000 246 pages, $19.95 cloth

6. http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=408)

7. http://www.slate.com/id/2128752/ “Diane McWhorter is the author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama-The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution and a young-adult history of the movement, A Dream of Freedom.”

8. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King Jr., (Paperback) (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990). pp. 630-34.