The Montgomery bus boycott
The growth of militancy among Southern Blacks produced its own leadership and organization, since virtually no political organization existed that stood for the interests of the mass of Southern Blacks. The two main political parties in the United States maintained segregation. The existing Black organizations—the NAACP and the Urban League—were organizations of middle-class professionals, aiming to end segregation through legal means and not through a mass struggle. The politics and leadership that would come to dominate this upsurge first emerged in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
The bus boycott was sparked by the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, on December 1, 1955. Parks was a seamstress and secretary of the local NAACP chapter. The driver called the police, who promptly arrested Mrs. Parks. She was charged with violating the city’s segregation ordinance. The very next day, a meeting at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church called for a one-day boycott of all Montgomery’s buses on Monday, December 5. On that day the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) elected its first president, Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott lasted 381 days, elevating the struggle—and King—to national prominence.
The initial demands of the Montgomery movement were quite moderate, and did not aim to challenge the system of segregation as such. The MIA asked for courteous treatment for Black passengers, seating on a first-come, first-served basis, with Blacks seated in the rear, and employment of Black drivers on the predominantly Black routes. The local chapter of the NAACP had discussed a boycott for the last year, but had failed to act. Resistance by Montgomery officials and the virtually unanimous support for the boycott by Montgomery’s Black population changed the character of the struggle. King said later:
Feeling that our demands were moderate, I had assumed that they would be granted with little question; I had believed that the privileged would give up their privileges on request. This experience, however, taught me a lesson. I came to see that no one gives up his privileges without strong resistance. I saw further that the underlying purpose of segregation was to oppress and exploit the segregated, not simply to keep them apart.20The new leaders, like King, were not radicals. But King was not only an expression of the “new mood.” He was also influenced by it. The civil rights leaders believed that theirs was a moral struggle and that the “nation” suffered from the blight of racism. “It is...a moral issue...which may well determine the destiny of our nation in the ideological struggle with communism,” argued King.
King and other leaders of the movement played down any suggestion that the bus boycott was designed to challenge the existing order of things. As King put it in 1955: “We are not asking for an end to segregation,” King said in 1955. Instead, Blacks sought the right to sit, not stand, in seats that were not occupied by whites, because, King said, “we don’t like the idea of Negroes having to stand up when there are vacant seats.”21
Their basic strategy would revolve around nonviolent mass action to pressure the authorities into negotiations, leading, it was hoped, to concessions. As such, it was not a struggle of Black against white: “We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.”22 King was well aware that the movement’s demands would be met with concerted resistance, but this only elevated the moral character of struggle itself:
We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.... We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer.23
Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.24
The non-violent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of these committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had.25
Laws that need breaking
It is impossible to avoid the comparison between Arizona today and the era of Jim Crow segregation—or between the protests against these racist laws today and the struggles that finally ended Jim Crow laws by defying them en masse.
Although Rosa Parks is today revered for her role in launching the civil rights movement, at the time, most Southern (and Northern) whites disparaged her for promoting racial integration. When four Black students sat in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960, they were soon joined by hundreds of other students from a nearby Black college—but they also faced protests by angry white mobs.
Indeed, at virtually every juncture, civil rights demonstrators encountered a violent white opposition seeking to uphold the segregation laws of their state. These racists justified their attacks because African American activists “broke the law.”
There is no doubt, however, that the civil rights movement challenged and ultimately changed prevailing opinion.