Today’s post was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Lead Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus to a white man. She was arrested and charged with violating the city’s segregation laws. Her act of civil disobedience led to a 381-day boycott of the city buses by African American residents in Montgomery. The resistance that Parks displayed was rooted in years of frustration from mistreatment and the racial segregation policies enforced by the Montgomery city buses and local law officials.
Members of the black community had wanted to challenge the bus segregation policies for several months. The Women’s Political Council (WPC), led by activist and educator Jo Ann Robinson, called for a one-day bus boycott on December 5th – the same day that Rosa Parks was tried for violating the segregation laws. After the WPC printed and distributed thousands of flyers to black residents in Montgomery, the one-day bus boycott was a success.
In order to maintain the momentum of the one-day bus boycott and affect lasting change, local NAACP leader E. D. Nixon, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and other ministers in the community established the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was voted president of MIA and became spokesperson for the bus boycott.
Rosa Parks was not the first, but one of many other black women who had been arrested and charged with violating various policies regarding segregated seating on city buses. Earlier that year, Claudette Colvin was handcuffed and arrested for refusing to give up her seat on March 2nd. Fifteen year old Colvin was involved with the local NAACP Youth Council and had an understanding of her Fourteenth Amendment rights (namely, equal protection of the law). However certain members of the community felt that she did not hold the appropriate image to be a test case against Jim Crow policies.
Claudette Colvin, along with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith (all arrested and charged with violating segregation policies on the buses), became plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama. Colvin, Browder, McDonald, and Smith were encouraged and aided in their legal pursuit by the MIA and WPC. The US District Court of Alabama ruled in Browder v. Gayle on June 5, 1956 that segregation on the buses was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama appealed the ruling all the way to the United States Supreme Court, who upheld the decision by the lower federal district court that Alabama’s racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional. Documents from the landmark case are available online and held at the National Archives in Atlanta under the file unit Aurelia S. Browder et al v. W. A. Gayle et al, No. 1147 (NAID 279205).
The boycott ended more than a year after Rosa Parks’ arrest, on December 20, 1956.