The Montgomery Bus Boycott currently stands in the memories of most Americans as the beginning of the end of segregation in the Jim Crow South. When a tired seamstress became a mother to a movement in one act of defiance and a charismatic twenty-six-year-old reverend armed with her story triumphed in a victory towards the great cause of equality. However, that truly is the least of this story. As historians such as Danielle McGuire further uncover women’s contributions to American History, a substantive argument has emerged about their significance in the Civil Rights Movement, making it clear that the popular narrative is incomplete. This article invites teachers, students, and lovers of History to bridge the famous account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott with its darker underlying cause, the undistilled character of Rosa Parks, and the historical significance held by the Black women frequently overlooked in the history books. The concurrence of racism, gender inequality, and social control through the interracial rape and humiliation of Black women became the unsung cause for the Montgomery Bus Boycott that finally provided these women activists the opportunity to pull off one of the most low-key feminist victories in American History.
The story of how the Montgomery Bus Boycott became such a landmark victory is more complex than the story most of us learned in school. Popular belief is that Brown v. Board of Education and White resistance to desegregation triggered the momentum behind the boycott. Still, there is a more uncomfortable story behind the boycott’s cause, one that historians like Danielle McGuire argue has been minimized and nearly forgotten in the popular narrative. McGuire makes the case in her book At the Dark End of the Street for the necessity to protect Black women. The sexual violence and interracial rape of Black women was a rampant custom derived from slavery that had become disturbingly normalized in the Jim Crow South. The sexual violence perpetrated by white men was a domination tactic, a means of social control, that forcibly robbed Black women of their bodily ownership. Their vulnerability to attack was constant, with frequent assaults occurring within domestic jobs, their own homes, and their daily routes by foot or by public transit [i].The overtly sexualized stereotype of the jezebel caricature invented during slavery to justify the rape of Black women lingered into the twentieth century imposing itself on their life choices [ii]. In attempts to combat the salacious stereotypes assigned to them, Black women were encouraged to avoid interactions with white men, travel in groups, dress modestly, and marry early to preserve their virtue with the added benefit of male protection. As evident by the mass violence and killings of Black men, however, their efforts to retaliate were often futile. The Jim Crow South had no deterrents for White men assaulting Black women at their leisure [iii]
Rosa Parks herself recounts her own attempted rape by “Mr. Charlie,” a White neighbor of her employers in the Spring of 1931. In her recollection, Rosa recounts her panic and feelings of filth and helplessness against a much larger White man. She tells thinking of her enslaved grandmother’s helplessness through her assaults [iv]. Arguably, this close call prompted Rosa to crusade on behalf of Black victims of rape and rape accusations long before taking her seat on that Montgomery Bus. In 1943 Rosa joined her husband in the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP, serving as the Chapter Secretary. The following year, the Chapter President, E.D. Nixon, tasked Rosa to investigate the abduction and gang rape of twenty-four-year-old Recy Taylor in Abbeville, Alabama [i]. In a 2011 interview with NPR, Recy details the harrowing incident and indifference of Abbeville High Sheriff Louis despite her willingness to press charges. The local authorities refused to prosecute the six men (who claimed the victim was a consensual prostitute) even with Recy Taylor’s account and one man’s confession [v]. Rosa then had Recy and her family move to an apartment in Montgomery due to the threats for speaking about the rape and then helped form the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor [vi]
Justice never came for Recy Taylor, but her refusal to remain silent and the national attention received from her story exposed the ugly reality of interracial rape against Black women. Author and historian Danielle McGuire argues that the Equal Justice for Recy campaign laid the groundwork for the modern Civil Rights Movement [i]. Victims of rape began to speak out, and the desire to protect Black women intensified. These sentiments intensified with the rape of twenty-five-year-old Gertrude Perkins by two Montgomery police officers in March of 1949. Gertrude spoke out, and as the news spread, local Black organizations, including the Women’s Political Council lead by Mary Fair Burks, banded with E.D. Nixon and the NAACP to demand protection for Black women. Rosa wasted no time. She spearheaded the Citizens Committee for Gertrude Perkins and fiercely advocated for justice in Gertrude’s case [i]. A tipping point was close at hand during this decade. The racism and sexual violence towards Black women was increasingly being met with vehement rebuke. They were no longer inclined to be silent.
Sexual violence and debasement were a daily reality for Black women in public transit as well. When thirty-five-year-old Viola White refused to give up her bus seat in 1944, the driver had her arrested by Montgomery officers who then physically beat her. She was convicted and fined, but in her resolve, she filed several appeals with the help of E.D. Nixon. In retaliation for her repeated efforts, a local officer kidnapped her sixteen-year-old daughter and raped her. After the ordeal, Nixon could not convince any judge to sign an arrest warrant for the offending officer despite the girl’s testimony, complete with a memorized license plate number [i].
Many women such as Viola White, Geneva Johnson, Hilliard Brooks, Epsie Worthy, Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder, and a pregnant fifteen-year-old straight-A student, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up their seats before Rosa Parks. All these women, tired of the constant degradation and humiliation they experienced while utilizing the bus system on which they heavily relied (more so than men), were arrested. The WPC, once headed by Mary Fair Burks, now had the relentless Jo Ann Robinson as the president. She commanded an organized grassroots force of over three hundred women and wrote the Montgomery mayor Tacky Gayle in 1954 threatening a boycott. She recognized that over three-quarters of the bus patrons were Black and the majority female, and a boycott would shut bus lines completely. Rosa expressed her despair and impatience with vague promises and hesitancy from local Black male leaders. Local leaders declined to take a firm stance behind any of the arrested women fearing lack of support due to any of their perceived social imperfections such as poverty, drunkenness, or pregnancy out of wedlock [vi].
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Ave. bus and refused to give up her seat as the driver, James F. Blake, demanded. She was too tired, but not from a long day of sewing at her department store job. At last, the boycott the ideal person that people could rally behind, and Rosa, well known in most southern Black activist organizations, was marketed as a clean, moral, Christian lady of integrity who had a brave moment due to exhaustion. E.D. Nixon was quoted as saying, “they have arrested the wrong women”[i].
As news broke of Rosa’s arrest, Jo Ann Robinson leaped into action. By December 2, the day after Rosa’s arrest, Robinson had already created over fifty-two thousand leaflets for her infantry to distribute, calling for the official boycott to begin on December 5, 1955. Robinson’s flyers read:
Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has be arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday…Please stay off all buses Monday [i].Jo Ann Robinson
On Monday, December 5th, it was clear that the WPC’s call to action was a success. The buses were empty as they repeatedly stopped for passengers that weren’t there. The recently elected president, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., E.D. Nixon, and other male leaders of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, quickly assumed control of the boycott and Rosa’s image. On the evening of December 5th, 1955, following Rosa’s release from jail, five thousand Black Montgomerians (mostly women) filled the Holt Street Baptist Church with thousands more outside waiting to hear the speakers address the boycott. In an excerpt from MLK’s speech, one can see the dilution of Rosa’s constitution for the desired image of the cause. Rosa was not given the opportunity to speak [vi].
Mrs. Rosa Parks is a fine person. And, since it had to happen, I’m happy that it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks, for nobody can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity. Nobody can doubt the height of her character, nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment and devotion to the teachings of Jesus. And I’m happy since it had to happen, it happened to a person that nobody can call a disturbing factor in the community. Mrs. Parks is a fine Christian person, unassuming, and yet there is integrity and character there. And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested [vii].Martin Luther King, Jr., December 5, 1955
In the eyes of women like Robinson, the Black men of the community were finally “removing their aprons” to stand up for Black womanhood. Black women of the WPC who had been fighting all along joined the Montgomery Improvement Association to support the boycott. Jo Ann Robinson, A.W. West, and Rosa Parks served on the MIA’s executive committee. Robinson selected Erna Dungee to serve as MIA’s financial secretary. Maude Ballou became King’s personal secretary. Martha Johnson was appointed MIA’s secretary clerk, and Hazel Gregory served as general overseer of MIA to ensure smooth daily operations. While the focus of the news stories and credit went to Dr. King for most of the Montgomery Bus Boycott successes, it is clear that Jo Ann Robinson served as the movement’s chief strategist. She and the women behind her organized grassroots fundraisers and sought donations to maintain their three hundred car fleet used to transport boycotters (mostly women) to their daily destinations. Several Black churches and Black women’s social clubs also participated by collecting donations and sponsoring activities to keep the movement funded. Many of these women were arrested for their protest activities, but it only added fuel to the fire of the boycott [i].
As the boycott dragged on, Rosa Parks fulfilled her duty as the face of the desegregation movement by traveling throughout 1956 to speak at events organized by fellow activists such as Ella Baker and Septima Clark. She continued to urge perseverance every time she spoke publicly despite her exhaustion and failing health due to the stress of her schedule and constant public scrutiny. Finally, on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle (the lawsuit filed shortly after the beginning of the boycott for plaintiffs victimized by the Montgomery Bus system, namely Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith about the constitutionality of segregation in public transit). The court ruled against Montgomery bus segregation and mandated integration [vi]. The three hundred and eighty two day Montgomery Bus Boycott had earned a victory in the pursuit of racial equality. Still, more importantly, for the Black women of Montgomery that had organized, toiled, been imprisoned, and walked hundreds of miles in protest, it was a victory of a dignity reclaimed. The Jim Crow South would now and forever be aware of the powerful capability of these women to fight for change, respect, and safety [i]. The actions and true natures of women like Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, Recy Taylor, Gertrude Perkins, and Claudette Colvin are central to the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The violence towards Black women and their contributions to this pivotal moment in Civil Rights deserves to become standardized in our teachings of American Civil Rights history. It is important our culture to learn the complete story and the uncomfortable truth for women behind the protest where racism, sexism, and inequality converged
Further Listening: The Black Women of Jim Crow and Their Musical Legacy
This playlist is composed of songs by and about the women of the Jim Crow South. They span time and various genres of Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Spirituals, R&B, Soul, Rock, and Pop. It includes Lead Belly‘s “Where Did You Sleep Last” (sometimes called “In the Pines,” “My Girl,” or “Black Girl” depending on his audience) is a song representative of the emasculation felt by Black men and alludes to the myth of overtly sexual Black women or possible victims of interracial rape. Billie Holiday’s haunting song “Strange Fruit” is a song about lynchings of Black men in the South, and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” exhibits a more direct vocal expression of anger over the situation for Black people. It then leads into African American spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and gospels like “This Little Light of Mine,” revived and adopted by groups like the Montgomery Improvement Association to unite a suffering people. Singers like Fannie Lou Hamer, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Mavis Staples are then present with their songs that galvanize around the goal of freedom. The playlist finishes with the influence the women of Civil Rights have had on popular music in recent years. Nirvana historically chose to cover Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” during their MTV Unplugged Session in 1993, and “Rosa Parks” by Outkast was a widely popular song about the boycott and highlights the focus on her legacy and the lack of other women’s. There is also a song by the Neville Brothers about Rosa Parks that reflects the popular narrowing of Rosa’s role in Civil Rights and the common omission of other critical female figures. Finally, Beyonce’s “Freedom” is an example of a current openly political song addressing systemic racism, police brutality, and references slavery and the struggles of those who came before her. It is being called an anthem for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Her political power, voice, and influence are a testament to Black women taking back control of their bodies and images and making forceful use of their unique platforms.
[i] Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement, from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 8-10, 39, 87, 113-125, 118, 163-165, 167-169, 182-212.
[ii] McLean, Yvonne. “‘Jezebel’ Is One of Three Common Racial Slurs Against All Black Women and Girls.” Tennessee Tribune, March 11, 2021. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.usca.edu:2048/login.aspxdirect=true&db=n5h&AN=149226809&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
[iii] Thompson-Miller, Ruth, and Leslie H. Picca. “‘There Were Rapes!’: Sexual Assaults of African American Women and Children in Jim Crow.” Violence Against Women 23, no. 8 (July 2017): 934–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801216654016.
[iv] Rosa Parks. Account of a near rape, ca. 1956-1958. Autograph manuscript. Rosa Parks Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, https://www.loc.gov/exhibitions/rosa-parks-in-her-own-words/about-this-exhibition/early-life-and-activism/terrifying-incident/.
[vi] Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), 23-24, 47-60, 91-93, 126-133.
[vii] “Martin Luther King Jr: Montgomery Bus Boycott, December 5, 1955.” In Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches, edited by Josh. Gottheimer, Bill Clinton, and Mary Frances Berry. Perseus, 2003. https://searchcredoreferencecom.ezproxy.usca.edu/content/entry/pershope/martin_luther_king_jr_montgomery_bus_boycott_december_5_1955/0
How To Cite:
Autumn Blizzard, “An Incomplete History: The Forgotten Feminism Behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Digital History at USC Aiken, 2021, https://digitalhistoryusca.com/2021/05/04/an-incomplete-history-the-forgotten-feminism-behind-the-montgomery-bus-boycott/.
Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson, and David J. Garrow. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It : the Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
Thompson-Miller, Ruth, and Leslie H. Picca. “‘There Were Rapes!’: Sexual Assaults of African American Women and Children in Jim Crow.” Violence Against Women 23, no. 8 (July 2017): 934–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801216654016.
Holland, Endesha Ida Mae. From the Mississippi Delta : a Memoir New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Clark, Septima Poinsette, and LeGette Blythe. Echo in My Soul 1st ed. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1962.
The Rape of Recy Taylor. Directed by Nancy Buirski. Augusta Films, Transform Films, HBO Documentary Films, 2018. 1 hr., 31 min. https://www.hulu.com/movie/the-rape-of-recy-taylor-87144347-027b-479b-91f6-d10ae3cc253c?d=Gracenote&cmp=rt_where_to_watch&content_id=1000096998.
Featured Image: Osvaldo Oyola. “ ‘The More Things Change. . .’ Golden Legacy, Affirmative Action & Black Comics,” Digital Image. The Middle Spaces: Comics, Music, Culture (blog), June 17, 2014. Accessed April 18, 2021. https://themiddlespaces.com/2014/06/17/the-more-things-change-golden-legacy-affirmative-action-black-comics/.