Montgomery Bus Boycott


Freedman (80) asserts that the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the mid 50’s happened at the time when the civil rights activism was at the peak. The origin of the movement perhaps started earlier than the official December 1st, 1955 date when it officially started. This was when Rosa Parks refused to obey the given rules of sitting in the designated segment for black people in a bus in 1943. It can be justified that the methods chosen by the participants were the best because of the mood prevailing at that time was for change. The methods of civil disobedience though not legal at that moment, were effective as they caught the attention of the world.

In the height of civil activism many ideas of how to best tackle the aspect of inequality among the white and black races in America were raised. The constitution itself had clauses that identified that all people were equal before the supreme law of the land. However, since the black people had a long history of slavery they were perceived as inferior from other races among the American people. In addition to that, they were a minority hence putting them in a bad position to negotiate for their recognition (Caulfield, 1).

The idea previously adopted to confront this situation was to separate the races in order to avoid conflict that would happen due to the enmity that had already been established between the black and white people. This was characterized by labeling of white only or black only facilities in order to avoid “confrontation’ between the divide. However, this sounded to be unfair since most of the white facilities were well maintained while the black ones were overcrowded and were poorly made. This was despite the fact that both the races paid equal taxes and deserved equal treatment.

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Freedman (90) observes that the idea was challenged in court by black lawyers and other civil rights activists with no avail because powerful political forces were frustrating the processes. All these happenings meant that the legal system was not trustworthy among the black community triggering a mood of change that was to be phenomenal since then. The peak of it all was the Rosa Parks incident of refusing to sit in Black Only segment which gave the black participants the courage to face the challenges through only one method of redress namely, civil defiance.

Resisting oppression

Civil defiance or civil disobedience can be defined as the deliberate knowing and breakage of the law of the land in order to gain a particular objective usually a social purpose (Caulfield, 2). This means that all the avenues of seeking attention to address a particular vice in the society would have failed to work.

The pioneers of this movement in that period chose these methods to pass their point across as it was the best options. Notably, all of them were prominent people in the black society who not only were popular but also were very learned (Caulfield, 2). For instance, Jo Ann Robinson was a professor in a prestigious university who made a mistake of sitting in an empty all-white bus but stopped from sitting in it, or better still Pastor Vernon Jones who was also made to stand up for a young lad who was white because he was black. All these people had a common thing that made the justification of the civil disobedience be the only option of redress.

Despite the fact that these originators of the boycott knew what the law said about such acts done to citizens it was almost impossible to make a legal suit that was not to be lost. This was the first justification of civil disobedience as it was to get the attention of the public. Many black leaders were put away in jail when they tried to follow the correct channel of justice. Most of the issues facing the black community were hard to act in court as they were not recognized directly in the constitution. In addition, those matters were not provable in court for the victims to be adequately compensated (Freedman, 86).

The other justifiable reason why the users of the method adopted it was the effort of the local authorities to divide the black community. This is portrayed in the incident of 1956 when the city commissioners decided to approach some leaders of the black community to bribe them in order to stop the boycott but the plan failed. This made the mass action grow bigger as the faith in the authorities was lost. However one may argue that the information that was obtained was not a reason to further increase the boycott’s intensity. However, such actions from authorities are often responsible for public anger and resentment hence an unprecedented reactions.

According to Caulfield (2), in addition to that, direct violation of basic rights is the most common justification of the civil disobedience. This is where a group of people feel that their rights are not adequately represented by the authorities in place. The said group may seek alternatives in order to address such oppression which more often than not results in uprisings. The civil actions have an effect of major concern that is difficult to ignore as we are to see shortly.

An issue that many scholars have had a difficult time to define is what consists of civil disobedience. Using the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a case study where acts of vandalism and riots were used in some quarters, to some extent it sped up the process of civil right redress. However some scholars totally disagree with this observation (Freedman, 93). Such scholars such as Carl Cohen see civil disobedience should be non violent, conscientious and action should be in a manner that is likely to show respect to the existing authorities. This view can be justified in a democracy where the majority carries the day. However it does not address the position of the minority. The people normally oppressed in the systems are the minority who find themselves in a position between little representation and legal wars.

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Justification for Civil Disobedience

The Montgomery Bus Boycott participants used such means of civil disobedience that worked and made a milestone in the civil movement history. This made many analysts to look at the respect in a closer way and can be broken down into four components of civil action namely physical confrontation, economic grounding, political lobbying and psychological confrontation. This components must operate together in order to achieve the set objective. We can look at the components in a nutshell for clarity (Cozzens, 1).

The form of civil disobedient used by the black community was non-violent because even though both the leaders and protesters were faced with increasing violence, they stuck to nonviolent resistance and their strenuous daily schedule devoid of public transportation. They were justified to do so as they never hurt anybody even though they were hurt. Violence will only bring about destruction as observed by Gandhi (860); they had to use a “higher law than that of destruction”. Gandhi goes ahead that one should face their enemies with love as crude means does not solve anything. He claims that nonviolence as form of expressing grievances sends a deeper message. Basing from what Gandhi believed in, the boycotters were justified because their intention was not to destroy but peacefully pass across their message.

Physical confrontation if used moderately and in a non-violent manner can be one of the most effective ways. It consists of protests strikes and go-slows in firms. It can be justified as it always gets the public opinion move to those participating. In the case of Rosa Parks and the bus incident, the action was a “semi-strike” as she defied the set rules and laws intentionally in order to get the attention necessary for the address of the situation. This made the general public to have a particular opinion towards those negative laws that were racist. In a democratic society in modern days strikes are recognized by the law and are to be carried out at designated times and in some set ways. One can critically see this as a clever way set by existing governments to curtail all the challengers who exist. However physical confrontation has a risk of turning into a more violent mode like vandalism and riots if not properly regulated (Caulfield, 1).

The economic grounding can be a form of civil disobedience that the government may find hard to ignore. This normally through a selective boycott of some economic activities that are critical in the government revenue collection. In the case of Montgomery boycott where the racist buses were deliberately assumed and no one used them in transport. This was meant to frustrate the companies responsible for the buses that were advocating for these vices. Actions by the governments to rectify the situation proved to be futile. Efforts to make people vote for the abandonment of the boycott was a total failure. The economic grounding was a justifiable mode of civil action as it made the players come to the table for negotiation (Caulfield, 4).

Cozzens (1) observes that political lobbying used by Dr. Luther King was another method used in the conflict. Though it was viewed as being inciting to the black community, it was effective. It involved huge public rallying and matching to arenas and government buildings to protest over the issues of equality of all people. Since it was fast gaining popularity among many races other than the blacks it hurt the government’s reputation. The congress and the Senate had begun to be sympathetic to the movement. This method however was fatal one as it triggered political assassinations through snipers. In the case of the Montgomery bus boycott, cases were reported where snipers shot at the buses killing some people.

The government that was supposed to protect them had failed hence the blacks took the powers in their hands to bring justice. They were right because to seek for happiness irrespective of their or race. As Jefferson (765) observes, “…all men are created equal, that are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Additionally Jefferson points out that to safeguard these rights, “governments are instituted by among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Therefore should the government fail in any manner, the people have all the right to do away with laxity through such forms of civil disobedience.

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Perhaps the most important dimension of the civil disobedience which perhaps was more successful in the struggle was the psychological confrontation by the participants. This was because it was ultimately realized that the physical confrontation was not only fatal but also destructive among all the people. Vandalism and violence only triggered crackdown, arrests and other activities which were very destructive. The psychological confrontation meant a nonviolent approach to the issue. This meant that adamant leaders who were pressuring the government lobbied the international attention and other like-minded institutions to help in the effort against the system (Freedman, 92).


Having looked at the methods in a nutshell how they worked and how they were justified it’s important to accept the fact that in the case of the civil rights struggle, no method used was good or bad as long as it was effective to drive the point home. It can be difficult not to justify what the boycotters did in making their concerns heard because the authority that was to protect them did nothing about it. The authorities used wrong means to suppress to suppress the participants’ rights to air their concerns. This according to me is the case where the means justifies the end.

In summary various circumstances where the uses of such actions are justifiable are very clear in the case of Montgomery bus boycotts. First, the systems of representations for the minority were not in place. Hence the black people had no choice but to protest and strike. Two, the general mood that had been put up by their leaders made it unstoppable for the general public to react at the slightest provocation. It was also noted that the authorities being aware of such practices failed to act on them. World over the purpose of the demonstrations and go slows is to make the ones at the helm to intervene and correct circumstances that are prevailing. Such actions may be criticized from all angles but can be justified given the circumstances.

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