During the 1940s and 1950s, there was little practical progress made in civil rights, NAACP had been concentrating on, ironically, lawful ways to fix what was wrong with the justice system, they had been focusing on court cases and representation. There had been some advances, e.g the Brown case which deemed that segregated education was indeed unconstitutional. However although the case invoked passion across America it was the Montgomery bus boycott that was a turning point for civil rights, it showed Alabama that African Americans were serious and willing to go to great lengths for their cause.
Rosa Parks was a dignified and respected woman, she was friendly to neighbours and believed strongly in inequality. Her attitude and reputation already gave her the moral high ground against opponents. Parks decided she did not want to give up her seat for a black man and was subsequently arrested, her arrest and trial sparked outrage across the black community and there was a call for action, for something direct to be done. Thus the boycott was implemented. The boycott was different from previous attempts at gaining civil rights, Civil rights leaders and groups such as NAACP had tried court action with moderate success and not enough progress.
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The boycott had a huge impact on the way people saw the African American community of Montgomery. Instead of a lower class, violent, unorganized extreme revolutionaries, they saw a group of dignified, ordinary people, who had organized themselves efficiently, banded together, were passive, using non-violence and still getting people’s attention.
It not only showed that violence isn’t the only form of direct action but demonstrated that these people were not the lower class unintelligent people that some whites had previously thought. The boycotters set up their own taxi and carpool services, highlighting how prepared and organized they were, they demonstrated to the white community that they did not need them and were not prepared to be treated as inferior. Even though the taxi services were costly and took a lot of planning the African American community showed their determination by going that extra mile rather than give in to segregated buses.
The boycott also showed that people were willing to go out of their way to improve things for themselves and others. The boycott lasted for over a year; for 383 days people walked huge distances to work, as Ms. Pollard said ‘my feet is tired but my soul is rested’ she along other people showed their determination and huge spirit by walking to work or paying for taxis. They were committed to their cause.
The boycott was not just a few people; it was a mass movement of hundreds of ordinary people. They weren’t great leaders or powerful people, they were plain and responsible citizens, this allowed others across the United States to empathize with them, with the calm manner they seemed as if they were in the right, making the Montgomery council seem stubborn, unfair and wrong. Immediately giving them the advantage.
The shock value to the white community had a huge impact, many were surprised at how well the boycott had been organized and pulled off, for some, it improved their view of African Americans, but as ever with extreme situations it polarised opinions and popularity of white civil councils rose, with membership increasing. However the boycott would have frightened the white community, it threatened their livelihood, most of the people who used the buses were black, and without them, the bus owners could go bankrupt. It also affected downtown businesses, as they were further away from black housing African Americans were less likely to shop there. The boycott highlighted the economic power of black people, even if whites would admit it they relied on black people for their income.
Black civil rights groups also gained, NAACP received money from northern sponsorships and donations; people in the north saw the boycott and had their attention drawn to not only the unfairness of the system but to the fact that black people were willing to stand up for their rights, as a result, donations were made to fund the NAACP and the taxi services. Towards the beginning of the boycott the Montgomery improvement association was set up, compromising church ministers and others from the community, Martin Luther King was elected as president and they set about implementing the boycott.
The boycott showed the power of the church and the influence church leaders and ministers had. It also produced Martin Luther King, arguably the most well-known civil rights leader, as a prominent figure within civil rights. Later on that year MIA joined with other civil rights activists from around Atlanta and formed the Southern Christian leadership conference (SLCL).
Throughout the boycott, African Americans showed themselves to be respectable, peaceful and even cooperative, whereas the white community responded with stubbornness and even violence. Martin Luther King’s house was bombed, as were other white leaders, even when the buses were finally segregated snipers shot at buses. During the beginning weeks of the boycott Black leaders agreed to meet with the white bus company in order to come to a compromise, they had the minimum demands and were willing to work with the whites; however, the bus company refused to compromise.
The white community responded in any way they could to try and stop the boycott, people were arrested using old boycott laws, Martin Luther King was charged $500 plus court fees for taking part, taxi drivers charging under the minimum fair were prosecuted and police began to arrest drives for minor traffic offences. This highlighted the stubbornness of the white officials and showed to the rest of the country the irony of the situation, the African Americans who had been oppressed were walking calmly to work and not responding to violence, whereas the apparently superior white people were acting pettily and some were resorting to violence.
The media played a big part during the boycott, their role was to film the protesters and show their courage and commitment to the world, especially the northern states, it brought the stories into their houses and made them realize what was going on in their own country, it showed the differences between north and south. The Montgomery bus boycott also demonstrated the problem between State and federal law, they were often in contradiction and disagreed, the issue of segregation highlighted this.
The Montgomery bus boycott eventually won, buses were desegregated. In comparison to the years to follow one could say bus segregation in Alabama was not a huge gain, however at the time, it was a large amount of progress, it acted as a blueprint for further protests and direct action, it showed a nation that the boycotters were serious and that ordinary African Americans could do something about their situation.
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