The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1956

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Key learning objectives:

  • Identify the events of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Explain the degree of support for boycott
  • Understand the significance of the boycott
  • Explain the events leading to the 1957Civil Rights Act and its signficance
  • Explain the events and the significance of the 1957 Little Rock incident

Key Civil Rights Activists

  • Jo Ann Robinson (Chairwoman of the Women’s Political Council)
  • Rosa Parks, her arrest was the trigger for the boycott that had been planned more than a year in advance.
  • E.D. Nixon – chairman of the local NAACP branch and collaborator with Robinson in calling the Montgomery Bus Boycott on December 5th 1955
  • Martin Luther King, new to the community, was chosen to be leader of the MIA on December 5th 1955; he was not involved in the organisation but he helped articulate the goals of the movement, sustained the community with his sermons and restrained those parts of the community that would have turned to violence particularly after the bombing of his house on 30th Jaunary 1956
  • Rufus Lewis, a founding member of Montgomery Improvement Association, chairman of the transportation committee in the MIA (he organised the car pool)
  • Bayard Rustin – a founder member of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) who had begun ‘freedom rides’ during WWII which involved organising integrated bus rides in segregated states – an exponent of Gandhian non-violence, he advised Martin Luther King during the boycott
  • Glenn E. Smiley – white Methodist minister and member of FOR (Fellowship of Reconciliation) who had studied Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent tactics and went to Montgomery during the boycott. Together with Bayard Rustin, he advised Martin Luther King on the strategy and together they drew up guidelines for non-violent civil disobedience
  • Browder versus Gayle, 1956 – supreme court ruling in favour of Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith who had all been arrested before Rosa Parks for the same offence

Key opponents of Civil Rights

  • W. A. Gayle, Mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, 1951-9
  • The Montgomery Bus Company
  • The KKK and the White Citizens’ Council

Key organisations

  • Women’s Political Council, created the civil rights infrastructure across Montgomery and organised the boycott, included Mary Fair Burks, Jo Ann Robinson, Irene West, Thelma Glass, and Uretta Adair.
  • Montgomery Improvement Association – the 1st predominantly black civil rights organization to operate independently of the NAACP. Founding members included E. D. Nixon, Rufus Lewis. It played a key role in raising funds, sustaining morale and providing alternative transport for those who refused to ride the buses. It elected Martin Luther King to be its leader at the Holt Street Baptist Church meeting of the 5th December 1955
  1. The Montgomery Bus BoycottKey events
    • 1954
      • May 17th – Brown versus US Board of Education, Topeka, Supreme Court overturns Plessy versus Ferguson, 1896 decision.
      • May 21st – Jo Anne Robinson writes to Mayor Gayle of Montgomery, Alabama threatening a boycott unless discriminatory practices are reformed but without demanding outright integration
    • 1955
      • March 2nd – Claudette Colvin arrested for refusing to give up seat
      • December 1st – Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to give up her seat to allow a white man to sit on his own at the front of the coloured section when the white section was already full. Later she said that she had been thinking about Emmet Till at the time.
      • December 5th – Holt Street Baptist Church meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association and beginning of the Bus Boycott
      • December 8th – leaders of the MIA met with the bus company, but the latter refused all of the MIA’s demands
    • 1956
      • January 30th – bombing of Martin Luther King’s House
      • February 1st – Browder versus Gayle begins in the local court
      • February 22nd – Ninety leading members of the Montgomery Improvement Association are arrested for ‘disrupting lawful business’. They are kept in custody until March 19th
      • March 19th – trial of the MIA 90. All found guilty and some have to pay fines. The trial gives an opportunity to show evidence of abuses black riders achieved at the hands of white bus drivers and gives the boycott more publicity and funding from all over the USA.
      • June 5th – three judges in the Browder versus Gayle case ruled 2-1 that the buses should be desegregated because the Brown versus US Board of Education, Topeka decision should be applied to transport as well as education. At this point the bus company, supported by White Citizens’ councils, appeals to the Supreme Court.
      • November 13th – Bus company loses first appeal
      • December 17th – Bus company loses second appeal
      • December 20th – MIA ended boycott


    • K. Taylor, A divided Union: Civil Rights in the USA, 1945-74, pp. 20-23.
    • Watch the film ‘The Help’
    • Watch (20 minute segment):


    1. Study extract A on p. 31 and complete the exam style question
    2. Read the section on p. 30 entitled ‘Maintaining the bocyott’, make a list of the various ways in which the MIA sustained the boycott.
    3. How did white supremacists try to derail the bocyott?
    4. Read pages 32-33. Create a mindmap explaining why the bocyott was successful and why it was significant
    5. What was the most important reason for the success of the boycott and why?
    6. Read extract B on p. 32 of the textbook. What impression does the author give about the Montgomery Bus Boycott? (treat as an A question)
    7. Complete the ‘C’ style question on page 33 – ‘The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the most successful civil rights event of the 1950s’. How far do you agree? Explain your answer.You may use the following in your answer:
      • The Montgomery Bus Boycott
      • Brown versus Topeka

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