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Friday, 5 December 2014

History in Focus: Montgomery Bus Boycott

In 1955 the Civil Rights movement got its first major victory
With in recent years of multiple African-Americans being shot and killed by white Americans it has made many disillusioned about the state of rights between whites and African-Americans in the US. Following a jury acquitting white police officer Darren Wilson of the murder of African-American teenager Michael Brown it has made everyone believe that institutionalized racism is still prevalent in American society in not just the US but the world; personally my friends and I in the UK also hold this view that racism is still prevalent in US society thanks to this. I start with this to show that institutionalized racism can be beaten with today's topic: the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 5th 1955 African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama unanimously agreed to boycott the buses in Montgomery after Rosa Parks was thrown off a bus and arrested until segregation between black and white passengers ended. Just over a year later segregation on public transport was illegal. It showed that institutionalized racism could be defeated.
The Jim Crow laws were the reason why segregation was prevalent
Background to the Boycott- After the end of Reconstruction, (1865-1877), laws in the South and some in the Mid-West and North-West were passed to discriminate against black people as well as Mexicans, Asians and Native Americans. They were a continuation of the so called Black Codes which were rampant during the Reconstruction era but the Jim Crow laws managed to strip virtually all rights from black Americans. This included laws which banned relationships between white and black Americans, segregated schools, transport and public buildings/facilities, (such as restrooms in the image above), and stripped black Americans of the vote. Although this was illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment the laws were not directly stripping them of the vote but rather more subtle ways such as the Grandfather clauses where your grandfather had to be on the voting register before 1865 to be able to vote but before 1865 almost all African-Americans were slaves so had no vote but other laws were put in place. Poll taxes were put in place in some areas so poorer whites and blacks with an extremely low wage, (not until the New Deal and World War Two was a minimum wage established), could not vote and literacy tests were sometimes put in place where the tests were deliberately harder for African-Americans, (such as being forced to recite the entire pledge of allegiance flawlessly with no hesitations). In 1898 the Supreme Court even found segregation legal in Plessy vs. Ferguson as long as it was separate but equal conditions but almost never was enough funding given to black facilities. By 1955 buses were segregated with black passengers being forced to move to the back of the bus if a white passenger got on board which brings us to our next point...
Claudette Colvin: the first protester in Montgomery
Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks- Everyone knows about Rosa Parks' story, (which comes later), but there were other incidents similar to what had happened with Parks. In Fort Worth, Texas and in Louisiana similar cases had caused bus segregation to be made illegal in those states. The first one in Montgomery though was just nine months before Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat. A 15 year old student at Booker T. Washington High School, (incidentally named after a famous civil rights activist at the start of the 20th century), called Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat. She was a member of the NAACP Youth Group and wanted her rights so she refused to move to the back of the bus for a white passenger. On March 1st she was arrested and forcibly removed from the bus. The only reason why she wasn't used as a figure by civil rights groups was that she was pregnant and unmarried at the time she was arrested. With social views at the time groups like the NAACP believed that by using her as a figure it would make them even more unpopular. However Claudette was the spark to challenge racism. She would play two more roles in helping to end segregation; one would come around in 1956 but the other happened only nine months later. Rosa Parks served as an Adviser to the NAACP Youth League in Montgomery and this would inspire her to change history.
Rosa Parks with another special activist in the background
 On the 1st December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat when a white passenger got on board. She stated that she was thinking about the murder of Emmett Till, (a 14 year old who had been brutally tortured and murdered by two racist men), and quite possibly was inspired by Claudette Colvin. Parks was arrested shortly after. That same night the Women's Political Council handed out leaflets saying the following:
Another woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman's case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.
Local NAACP President and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters member Edgar Nixon decided to use Parks as the symbol that people could rally behind.
Rosa Parks' mug shot when she was arrested
The Boycott begins- Edgar Nixon, T.R.M. Howard and local Reverend Ralph Abernathy saw that by the 3rd December the African-American populace of Montgomery would support a boycott of the buses. A close friend of Abernathy got involved and he would become a great figure for the non-violent civil disobedience who drummed up support for the boycott: Martin Luther King. They decided that as many African-Americans as possible should boycott the Montgomery bus service until they desegregated the buses. Despite Parks $10 fine, (which was more expensive in 1955), Parks managed to show her support of the boycott. African-Americans came out in their hundreds to support the boycott with them walking, biking and carpooling to and from work. A few whites even got involved with some white housewives driving driving black domestic servants to work. Black taxi drivers charged 10 cents per ride, (equivalent to one bus fare), which caused officials to fine any taxi drivers found charging less than 45 cents for fares. The bus company refused to make any concessions so more and more decided not to take the bus despite the emptying bus seats. With the bus company losing money the boycott started working. Of course white opposition started to grow as the boycott dragged on with the ranks of the White Citizen's Council, (basically the Ku Klux Klan without the lynching and robes), doubling and Martin Luther King's and Ralph Abernathy's houses being firebombed. Boycotters were even attacked in the streets! Despite this King, Howard, Nixon and Abernathy, (as well as Coretta Scott King), managed to keep the boycott going. King even managed to placate a group of 300 angry African-Americans who were tired of being harassed.
King was made the unanimous leader of the civil rights movement thanks to the boycott
Ending segregation and legacy- Pressure on Montgomery rose around the country with even many whites supporting the boycott who liked the idea of non-violence preached by the boycott's leaders. Many black ministers started to raise support by asking for donations for the boycotters to keep them going. King and 89 other people were even arrested and had to pay $500 in fines and serve 386 days in jail but this quickly fell through. Soon it came down to a court case with Browder v. Gayle in June 1956. It was moved to the Supreme Court with Claudette Colvin being one of the star witnesses. With the NAACP Colvin and a few others represented the discriminated black populace and the court found segregation on buses, (and by default public transport), unconstitutional. On December 20th 1956 the boycott ended after 381 days. In victory King and several white supporters took a desegregated bus ride. However full rights still was not achieved and there was a wave of hate crimes against African-Americans and white people in Montgomery who supported the boycott. One African-American, (Willie Edwards), was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless the boycott put King into the limelight who would later form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 as well as becoming the main influence in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 which ended the Jim Crow laws and broke the back of the Ku Klux Klan.

The relevance to what is happening now- I mentioned the current troubles in the US now because the Montgomery boycott showed that institutionalized racism can be fought. Through non-violent civil disobedience, (such as what is going on right now across America), full rights can be truly achieved and surely it must be easier now than before with globalization, wide support from groups ranging from Anonymous to the NAACP and no Jim Crow Laws. Hopefully this can be an example of something positive in history repeating itself.

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