As a historian, I spend much of my time reflecting on the past – what has changed over the years and what role ordinary citizens played in initiating those changes. Understanding the challenges of the past, and the strategies historical actors employed to change society, provides hope for the days ahead. Looking back to carefully analyse the events that led us to the present also provides a glimpse of the possibilities that lie before us.
We learn valuable lessons from those who have preceded us. And their experiences – most notably, the moments where their efforts were successful – often leave me with a sense of hope.
This is true when I reflect on the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Boycott, which took place from December 1955 to December 1956, was one of the most significant developments of the American Civil Rights Movement. It directly resisted segregation in the US South and served as a powerful example of the utility of nonviolent resistance.
Before the Boycott began in 1955, transportation laws in Montgomery, Alabama, upheld white supremacy. According to the Montgomery City Code, African Americans could not sit in the same section as white residents on local buses. Bus drivers in the city were even empowered with the rights of police officers to remove African Americans who violated the policy. The popularised narrative of the Boycott focuses on Rosa Parks courageously refusing to give up her seat when a bus driver ordered her to move to accommodate a white passenger. In reality, the story began much earlier, capturing the long and difficult road that led to the 1955 boycott.
In 1950, Jo Ann Robinson became president of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), an organization in Montgomery that was established by a group of Black women in 1946 to challenge racial inequality. Born in Georgia in 1912, Robinson was a professor at Alabama State College and an active member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. As president of the WPC, Robinson set out to address the inhumane treatment of African Americans on city buses.
Keeping African Americans relegated to the back of the bus was only part of a larger effort to maintain white supremacy in the segregated South. Black women, including Robinson, were frequently subjected to verbal abuse and even physical assaults as they traveled from place-to-place on public transportation. Black children, such as 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, were not exempt from this mistreatment.
In 1953, the WPC collected hundreds of complaints from local residents about their mistreatment on city buses. As they met to address these complaints, Robinson and her colleagues devised a range of strategies to tackle this issue and on various occasions lobbied the mayor. They even considered planning a citywide boycott.
When Rosa Parks was arrested on 1 December, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat, Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council quickly capitalised on the moment. In the wake of Parks’ arrest, they distributed thousands of leaflets in Black communities announcing a boycott of the buses. For 381 days, Black citizens of Montgomery held fast to their commitment not to ride city buses.
Their resilience – even in the face of threats, violence, and intimidation from white supremacists – paid off. On 5 June, 1956, the US district court in Montgomery ruled that any law requiring racially segregated seating on buses violated the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Although the city appealed to the US Supreme Court, the original decision was upheld, ending the segregation of public transportation.
More than 60 years since the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Black Americans face many of the same challenges – and mistreatment – that Robinson and her colleagues resisted. From police violence to mass incarceration and unequal access to quality healthcare, Black people in the United States are still fighting for full rights and freedom. They are still demanding that others see value in their ideas and contributions to society – and most of all, their lives.
With each passing day, one wonders how long it will take to dismantle systems of oppression that bind us still. The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott is but one glimmer of hope – a story of persistence and grassroots activism, and a story about results. If the uprisings in the summer of 2020 are any indication, change is just on the horizon and, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, if we remain steadfast in the fight for social justice, we will soon see the fruits of our labour.
It will take some time, but history has taught us that we must not lose hope.
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Keisha N. Blain is the co-editor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019.
Reasons for Hope is a series of essays to mark the one year anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis. The author's fee for this article is being donated to the National Literacy Trust. Read more of the essays here.
Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin