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Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton





Randall Kennedy

 Randall Kennedy, Martin Luther King's Constitution: a Legal History of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 98 Yale Law Journal 999-1067 (April, 1989)(397 Footnotes Omitted

II. Rebellion in Montgomery

No events better epitomized the struggle of Southern blacks against segregation during the Second Reconstruction than the boycotts directed against Jim Crow seating on buses, 'one of the few places . . . where blacks and whites were segregated under the same roof and in full view of each other.' The most famous of these boycotts occurred in Montgomery.

A. The Spark

The spark that ignited the boycott was the refusal of a black woman--Rosa Parks--to follow a driver's directive that she relinquish her seat and move further back into the rear, 'black' section of the bus. The seat she occupied was located in the first row of the black section, a row filled by three blacks besides Mrs. Parks. According to one version of the facts, the bus driver demanded that Mrs. Parks and the other blacks on her row vacate their seats to accomodate several white passengers. In this account, a sense of segregationist equity informed the driver's decision. On this predominantly black route, the bus company allocated ten seats to the whites and twenty-six to the blacks. But on this particular run, the driver 'undertook to readjust the seating to a more equitable ratio . . . by altering the racial division to fourteen white seats and twenty-two black.' A slightly different version of the facts suggests that the driver demanded that all of the blacks in Mrs. Parks' row vacate their seats in order to accomodate only one white passenger. According to this version, the driver's demand stemmed from an unwritten rule of Jim Crow etiquette which prohibited blacks and whites from occupying seats on the same row at the same time.

Whatever version accords with the reality of the driver's conduct and motivation, there is no disagreement about the nature of Mrs. Parks' response. While the three blacks on either side of her relinquished their seats as ordered, she stayed put. 'I felt it was just something I had to do,' she later recalled. Her refusal to move, however, was more than a personal whim. As Martin Luther King observed, she had been 'tracked down by the Zeitgeist.' 'She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.' When police officers boarded the bus and demanded that she move, she again refused. 'Why do you push us around,' she asked. 'I don't know,' one of the officers replied, ' b ut the law is the law, and you are under arrest.'

Mrs. Parks' arrest elevated to new levels widespread dissatisfaction within Montgomery's black community. By the early 1950's, segregation on the buses had become a flashpoint of frustration and anger. In 1952, a black man was shot and killed by the Montgomery policy in an altercation over bus fare. In 1953, in a similar dispute, a white driver beat a black woman. The source of deepest resentment, however, was not episodic outrages but rather the ordinary degradations of Jim Crow practice--standing up over empty seats reserved for whites only, confronting drivers who refused to make change for Negroes, entering buses from the rear after paying fares at the front, encountering abuse for forgetting even momentarily the code of the color bar. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson recalled with seering vividness the pain she suffered at the hands of a driver who assailed her for sitting (mistakenly) in a seat reserved for whites:

I leaped to my feet, afraid he would hit me, and ran to the front door to get off the bus. . . . Tears blinded my vision; waves of humiliation inundated me; and I thanked God that none of my students was on that bus. . . . I could have died from embarrassment. . . . In all these years I have never forgotten the shame, the hurt, of that experience. The memory will not go away.

B. The WPC's Modest Proposals

In the early 1950's, a black women's civic organization--the Women's Political Council (WPC)--took the lead in seeking to secure better treatment for blacks from the bus company. The WPC requested and obtained meetings with city and bus company officials to convey complaints and requests. It simply asked for 'fairness' within the bounds of segregation. On May 21, 1954--four days after the announcement of Brown v. Board of Education--the WPC requested not an end to the enforcement of segregation laws but merely the cessation of certain practices that were not compelled by statute: ousting blacks from seats outside the reserved 'white sections' of buses and requiring blacks to enter buses through the rear after paying in the front. Despite the modesty of the WPC's requests, it received little satisfaction. The WPC informed city officials that a boycott was in the offing unless something was done to better the situation. Yet in March and October 1955, two black teenagers were arrested for refusing to relinquish their seats. Then came the arrest of Rosa Parks.

The WPC took the lead in initiating a boycott by blanketing black neighborhoods with leaflets that urged Negroes to forego riding the buses on the day of Mrs. Parks' trial:

Another Negro 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. . . . 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. . . . 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. . . . You can . . . 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. . . .

The call for a one-day boycott elicited a dramatic response: on December 5, 1955, the vast majority of the black bus-riding public--seventy percent of the bus company's clientele--refrained from using the buses. Emboldened by success, leading figures in the black community created a new umbrella organization--the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA)--to coordinate the protest and press for its continuation. The Key figure in this process was E. D. Nixon, the local elder statesman of civil rights activists. Nixon was a Pullman porter who had long been active in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union to wrest a collective bargaining agreement from a major company, and a leader of local and state chapters of the NAACP. He marshalled the support of churchmen and other influential blacks, used his contacts with the local white press to publicize what was happening, and provided the protest in its earliest phase with the prestige of his own reputation.

C. King's Role

Although Nixon was the best-known of the dissidents who founded the MIA, King was selected to preside over it. He was younger, better educated, more articulate, and a member of the clergy--a position that gave him a strong institutional base of support. King was also relatively unscarred by one of the features of black life in Montgomery that had long stifled effective responses to racial oppression: bitter personal jealousies and animosities. He had not resided in Montgomery long enough to be identified strongly with any given faction or to rub many people the wrong way. He was the consensus choice of Montgomery's black dissident elite and quickly gained the support of the city's black masses as well.

King was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, in a solidly middle-class family that wielded considerable influence due to its heritage of leading churchmen; King's father and maternal grandfather were well-known pastors. He was educated at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University, where he earned his doctorate. At the time of Rosa Parks' arrest, King was engaged in his first pastorship as the minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He had resided in Montgomery for only a little more than a year and was only twenty-six years old.

King's selection as president of the MIA was quickly vindicated by the speech he delivered the night of Mrs. Parks' trial. Before an overflow audience at the Holt Street Baptist Church, he delivered, largely extemporaneously, a short but impassioned address that sounded many of the major themes upon which he would elaborate during the remainder of his life. He did so with the mix of patriotism and outrage, simplicity and sophistication that make his speeches among the most memorable in American history. 'My friends,' he began:

We are here this evening for serious business. We are here in a general sense because first and foremost, we are American citizens, and we are determined to acquire our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth. But we are here in a specific sense because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected.'

King's speech aroused a tremendous swell of enthusiasm. It expressed sentiments that had long lain dormant: '[T]here comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.' It articulated an urgent yearning for dignity: 'We are here to save ourselves from the patience which makes us patient with less than freedom and justice.' It stressed the moral and legal righteousness of the protest. 'My friends,' King declared:

don't let anybody make us feel that we ought to be compared in our actions with the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens Councils. There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery. There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out to some distant road and murdered. There will be nobody among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation.

The boycott lasted 382 days, from December 5, 1955, to December 21, 1956, far longer than its organizers initially thought possible. As King later observed:

Many of the Negroes who joined the protest did not expect it to succeed. When asked why, they usually gave three answers: 'I didn't expect Negroes to stick to it,' or, 'I never thought we Negroes had the nerve,' or, 'I thought the pressure from the white folks would kill it before it got started.'

But to the surprise of many, the boycott was consistently effective. Upwards of ninety percent of the black, bus-riding population--some 40,000 Negroes-- honored the plea to stay off the buses. To transport the boycotters, the MIA created an alternative transportation network connected by about eighty to ninety dispatch and pick-up stations all over Montgomery. Initially, this alternative system of transportation depended almost wholly on labor and automobiles donated to the MIA on a part-time basis. But soon the system took on an air of semi-permanence as the MIA hired drivers, bought vehicles, and forged a remarkably effective transportation service that operated, according to the White Citizens Council, with 'military precision.'

The success of the MIA's transportation system reflected the extraordinary sense of political commitment that suffused and mobilized the black community. Black Montgomery psychologically declared its independence from the white power structure and became, in important respects, self-governing. King and the other key figures in the MIA provided direction. But the boycott movement was, throughout its existence, a strikingly democratic phenomenon. As one friendly observer commented, 'If there was ever an indigenous mass movement, this was it.' To keep the community abreast of developments, the MIA published a newsletter. And to ensure an ongoing and active rapport between leaders and led, the MIA sponsored weekly mass meetings that rotated from church to church. The meetings, King later explained:

cut across class lines. The vast majority present were working people; yet there was always as appreciable number of professionals in the audience. Physicians, teachers, and lawyers sat or stood beside domestic workers and unskilled laborers. The Ph.D.'s and the no 'D's' were bound together in a common venture. The so-called 'big Negroes' who owned cars and had never ridden the buses came to know the maids and the laborers who rode the buses every day. Men and women who had been separated from each other by false standards of class were now singing and praying together in a common struggle. . . .

For those who seek in the American past glimpses of communities in which self-determination constituted a liberating passion rather than a distasteful chore, black Montgomery in 1955-1956 is a fine example. That community was probably never more free than during the boycott. So high was the level of engagement, so deep was the urge to reform, 'so profoundly had the spirit of the protest become a part of the people's lives that sometimes they even preferred to walk when a ride was available. The act of walking, for many, had become of symbolic importance.'

King's greatest contribution to the boycott movement lay in his ability to conceptualize and articulate a morally attractive vision of the protest. Two aspects of that vision were particularly influential. One had to do with his attentiveness to the morality of process. Arguing in Gandhi-like fashion that the means are the ends in the making, King emphasized in countless interviews, speeches, and articles the nonviolent, unembitterred, redemptive character of the protest. 'The Negro must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as a citizen,' King maintained, '[b]ut he must not use inferior methods to gain it. He must never come to terms with falsehood, malice, hate, or destruction.'

The second feature of King's contribution had to do with placing the protest in a framework that enlarged its meaning, that transformed it from a parochial to a universal struggle. It is true that he made frequent appeals to racial pride over the course of the boycott, challenging his black constituency to strike a blow for the betterment of the Negro's fortunes. But he also emphatically portrayed the boycott as a more ambitious and inclusive undertaking. 'We are not struggling merely for the rights of Negroes,' he declared one evening at a MIA prayer meeting. 'We are determined to make America a better place for all people.'

D. The Radicalizing of King and the MIA

The Montgomery story might have turned out far differently had the Montgomery City Lines been served by a different legal advisor. During the first few weeks of the boycott, at meetings sponsored by the Alabama Council on Human Relations (ACHR), the MIA attempted to negotiate a settlement on the basis of reforms that avoided directly challenging the legitimacy of de jure segregation. But the Company's attorney, Jack Crenshaw, successfully thwarted all attempts to compromise. Although he assured the MIA that, of course, the Company would discipline discourteous employees brought to its attention, he was unwilling to concede that there even existed a problem with drivers' demeanor toward black passengers. He reported that the Company did not anticipate hiring any black bus drivers. Most importantly, in terms of the evolution of the protest, he insisted from the outset that the MIA's proposals regarding altered seating arrangements contradicted state and municipal segregation statutes. According to Crenshaw, ' i f the blacks don't like the law we have to operate under, . . . they should try to get the law changed, not engage in an attack on our company.'

Crenshaw's argument powerfully strengthened the position of hard-line segregationists. At least one of the city commissioners appears to have favored compromising on the basis of the MIA's initial demands on seating. But Crenshaw assailed compromise on the basis of both policy and legality. Compromise was unwise, he contended, because it would only feed black defiance. 'If we granted the Negroes these demands,' he warned, 'they would go about boasting of a victory they had won over the white people.' Compromise was illegal, he insisted, because the city ordinance as written could simply not accommodate the reformed seating arrangement the MIA proposed.

The Code of Alabama provided that all transportation companies carrying passengers for hire 'shall at all times provide equal but separate accommodations on each vehicle for the white and colored races.' The Code further declared that the agent in charge of any vehicle 'is authorized and required to assign each passenger to the division of the vehicle designated for the race to which the passenger belongs.' The City of Montgomery's Code articulated essentially the same rule: ' A bus line in the city shall provide equal but separate accommodations for white people and negroes . . . by requiring employees to assign passenger seats . . . in such manner as to separate the white people from the negroes.' Nothing in the language of either of these provisions expressly precluded a system, in which, on a first-come, first-served basis, whites occupied seats from front to back and Negroes from back to front until all seats were taken. Moreover, a seating plan of precisely this sort was already in effect in other segregated southern transportation systems including, most notably, Mobile, Alabama.

Segregationists in Montgomery objected to this plan, however, on the grounds that it made no provision for what was to be done if a bus filled with Negroes who then departed at various times were left with only a scattered and mixed array of seats available for incoming white passengers. The MIA countered this objection by saying that if its plan were put into effect, Negroes would voluntarily move to vacant seats in the rear of the bus, while whites would move to vacant seats in the front. The MIA insisted that ' a t no time, on the basis of its proposal, will both races occupy the same seat.' Its assurances, however, were deemed inadequate. Crenshaw's reading of the relevant statutes frustrated the MIA's impulse to stop short of attacking the state's enforcement of racial separation per se. 'We are not asking an end to segregation,' King repeatedly stated early in the boycott. 'That's a matter for the Legislature and the courts. We feel that we have a plan within the law.' By blocking compromise. Crenshaw helped to radicalize King and the MIA.

The attack on the boycott was supported by other hardliners. These were people wholly committed to an unstinting defense of the old order. In their eyes, more was at stake in Montgomery than money or convenience. 'What they are after,' Mayor Gayle declared in reference to King and the MIA, 'is the destruction of our social fabric.' Acting on that belief, the commissioners ended negotiations and instead imposed a 'get tough' policy aimed at crushing the protest. Gayle vowed that the City Commission was 'not going to be part of any program that will get Negroes to ride buses again at the destruction of our heritage and way of life.'

City officials sought to break the boycott in three ways. First, they urged the white community to take a unified and aggressive stance toward the boycotters. Only a miniscule number of whites in Montgomery publicly supported the MIA. Those who did are noteworthy precisely because of their peculiarity: they were isolated, ostracized rebels. Both of Montgomery's white-owned newspapers attacked the MIA editorially. No predominantly white organization in the city associated itself with the boycott. The white ministerial association in the city refused even to meet with King. At the same time, perhaps because they expected the boycott to fold quickly, white supremacists at both the leadership and grass-roots levels initially found it difficult to take the boycott seriously enough to be genuinely alarmed. Upon realizing, however, that they confronted a protest movement that would not easily be subdued, white leaders increasingly began to mobilize the white population. Mayor Gayle, for instance, urged white employers to stop chauffering their boycotting employees and to avoid paying them "blackmail money' in extra weekly transportation fares.' More importantly, he and the other commissioners joined the Montgomery affiliate of the White Citizens' Council, an action that both reflected and accelerated its rapidly rising popularity. On February 10, 1956, at a Council rally featuring Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi, twelve thousand whites filled the state coliseum in Montgomery in what was then one of the largest political gatherings in the history of the state.

No officials publicly encouraged private white violence against the boycotters, and when violence occurred, they quickly condemned it. On the other hand, a foreseeable consequence of the commissioners' 'get tough' policy was to unleash certain well-developed violent impulses. MIA leaders were threatened, and verbal intimidation was quickly superseded by potentially lethal force as bombs were detonated at the homes of King and Nixon.

A second strategy involved efforts to resuscitate the divisiveness that had characterized the political life of black Montgomery before the boycott. Rumors were planted accusing King of exploiting the boycott for personal gain. Leading white citizens suggested to older, conservative blacks that they were being unfairly overshadowed by an ambitious, young outsider. Mayor Gayle attempted to bypass King and the MIA altogether by reaching an agreement with three black ministers unaffiliated with the protest to end the boycott. These measures, however, were largely ineffective. Support for King within virtually all sectors of the black community grew over the course of the struggle. Not only did blacks, following the direction of the MIA, disregard the alleged settlement, but, under community pressure, the three ministers who met with the Mayor publicly disavowed having reached an agreement in the first place.

A third strategy involved harassment and punishment. The local military draft board reclassified the draft status of Fred Gray, the MIA's principal local attorney. The local prosecutor initiated (but later dropped) criminal proceedings against Gray for barratry. The police, aided by deputized unemployed bus drivers, ticketed black motorists in unprecedented numbers for speeding, waiting too long at stop signs, not waiting long enough, or overloading vehicles with passengers. King himself was arrested and jailed for allegedly driving thirty miles per hour in a twenty-five mile per hour zone.


The Legal Status of the Southern Negro in 1955
Rebellion in Montgomery
The Boycott in Court
The Limitations and Achievements of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
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