Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

December 17, 1955

Guest post by Adam Pinkerton, History MA student at Arizona State University.

On December 17, 1955, the front page story featured in The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper covered the recently started bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.  Titled “Boycott Still On; Bus Co. Loses $3,000 Daily: Car pools keep riders off vehicles” the article provides a brief summary of events which had recently started following the arrest of Rosa Parks.  Mrs. Parks, “a department store seamstress,” was arrested for refusing to follow a bus driver’s demand  that she give up her seat for a white passenger on December 1. The arrest inspired a city wide boycott of the segregated bus system.   By December 17, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that the boycott was about “85 per cent effective” which resulted in a negative net of “about $3,000 a day.”   While the leadership of the movement was attributed to Reverend Martin Luther King, E.D. Nixon, Reverend D. Abernathy, and Reverend Elroy Bennett, the bus boycott was only possible with a combined effort throughout Montgomery with “108 cab owners, a private car pool of 200, and eight filling station proprietors who are giving special discounts to auto owners transporting persons participating in the boycott.”  According to Dr. King, the boycott was inspired to make three changes: “(1) That the drivers display more courtesy towards the colored riders; (2) That the seating be arranged on a first-come-first-served basis; (3) That the company hire colored bus drivers.”  The petition was denied by the bus company and their response showed the apathy of the 1950s: “We merely wanted them to follow a policy of having the colored passengers fill the bus from the rear and the whites fill the bus from the front….  We have no intention of ever hiring colored bus drivers.” 

Jeanne Theoharis describes in her book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, what started as a “one-day boycott on Montgomery’s buses on Monday – the day Mrs. Parks was scheduled to appear in court” developed into a movement, initially led by the Women’s Political Council, to demand permanent change.  Thousands of leaflets were distributed throughout Montgomery’s “barber shops, stores, bars, factories, and [churches].”  The misleading descriptions of the boycott as “spontaneous’ and ‘undirected’” holds a deeper meaning on many levels including a cognizant effort to “prevent repression of their organization [the Montgomery Improvement Association]”, an effort to distance the movement from fears of a communist connection during the Cold War, and unfortunately, to misunderstand the complex (more than the “quiet seamstress”) Rosa Parks.

A federal “civil action lawsuit” was filed on 1 February 1956 by leaders of Montgomery’s civil rights community.  While the initial ruling in Browder v. Gayle was decided on 19 June 1956 in favor of the petitioners, city leaders quickly “appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.”  On 13 November 1956 the Supreme Court reaffirmed the lower court’s conclusion overturning the precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson thus “nullifying Alabama’s state and local laws requiring segregation on buses.”
 

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