What Ended the Mongomery Bus Boycott?
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
This week, I asked my students why the Mongomery buses finally desegregated in 1956.
"Because they were losing so much money because of the boycott.," came the reply.
A logical answer, but completely wrong. The boycott ended because of Browder vs. Gayle, a court case brought by 5 women (none of them named Rosa Parks) who sued the city and the mayor of Montgomery, AL.
"WHAT?!?!?" you say, "But I was told that Rosa Parks was tired, didn't want to move, and there was a bus strike, Martin Luther King Jr was in there somehow and then the bus company gave in."
That is the Civil Rights mythology, isn't it?
It is right and correct that the bus company was losing money. 75% of their ridership was black, and 90% of blacks boycotted the busses for 381 days. 381!!! I was never good at math, but I know that means a lot of red ink in the books. Routes were canceled, and it became much more difficult for white people who depended on the busses to get around.
And yet...AND YET...even losing money month after month after month was not enough to get the bus company or the city to back down.
Because of the lawsuit brought by Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese (Reese eventually dropped out of the case), a 3 judge panel decided that bus segregation was unconstitutional in light of the 14th Amendment and the guarantee of equal protection under the law.
So, that's what ended the boycott? NO! Because Montgomery appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
Then the Supreme Court said that the judges in Alabama were right and that segregation on the busses violated the 14th Amendment.
So, then the boycott ended? NO! Because Mongomery appealed it back to the Supreme Court asking for a review of the case AGAIN!
But the court said, "Did I stutter? Let the people sit wherever they want on the busses."
And THAT ruling on December 20, 1956 is what ended the bus boycott and segregation on the busses the following day on December 21, 1956.
But to review, Montgomery, AL was willing to lose money hand over fist, make life harder for its favored white citizens, and ask for appeal over appeal over appeal just to maintain the status quo. Do you realize how embedded the cultural oppression has to be to be willing to go through all of that just to maintain it? The law was not going to change on its own.
So when someone tells you that the court is not responsible for fixing all wrongs, maybe they are right. But if that is their go-to answer from the start, then perhaps they should look at the many times that all that stood between people and justice was the members of our court system. Even after 381 days of constant protest, the people could not achieve freedom on their own. They needed the Supreme Court to protect their rights from being denied.