In May 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the Separate Car
Act of Louisiana that called for segregated “white” and “colored”
seating on railroad cars. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision ushered in the infamous doctrine of “separate but equal.” Reaching beyond the scope of transportation, the Plessy
doctrine embraced many other areas of public life, such as rest rooms,
theaters, and public schools, and provided legal basis for racial
segregation in the United States. On behalf of a seven-person majority,
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Henry Brown wrote the following:
[The Separate Car Act] does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment,
which abolished slavery…is too clear for argument…A statute which
implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored race—a
distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which
must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other
race by color—has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two
races.…The object of the [Fourteenth Amendment] was undoubtedly to
enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in
the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish
distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished
from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms
unsatisfactory to either."
In 1953, a year before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka struck down Plessy’s “separate
but equal” doctrine, African Americans in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, under
the banner of the United Defense League, staged the nation’s first
successful bus boycott against transportation racism. African Americans
accounted for the overwhelming majority of Baton Rouge bus riders and
two-thirds of the bus company’s revenue. The United Defense League’s
economic boycott effectively disrupted the financial stability of the
Baton Rouge bus company, costing it over $1,600 a day.
In December 1955, on the heels of the Baton Rouge bus boycott and the Brown
decision, Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old black seamstress in Montgomery,
Alabama, was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white
man in defiance of local Jim Crow laws—igniting the modern civil rights
movement. E. D. Nixon, the highly respected black labor leader who had
organized the Black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union in
Montgomery, bailed Parks out of jail and gained her consent to use her
case to challenge Jim Crow.
action sparked new leadership around transportation and civil rights.
Local Black leaders met at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Formed the
Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). They elected
twenty-six-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr.—at the time, a little known
minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—as their spokesperson.
Though Blacks were tired of seeing half-empty buses pass them up
because the drivers were saving seats for whites, Blacks were fighting
for more than a seat on the front of the bus. They were demanding Black
bus drivers, more stops in Black neighborhoods, and elimination of the
practice of forcing Black riders to pay at the front of the bus but
enter through the back. The MIA, which led the bus boycott, inspired
blacks not only to defy Jim Crow segregation on the buses, but to
confront institutional racism that permeated all aspects of Black life
The MIA organized
a volunteer car pool to transport boycott participants. The
sophisticated transportation system devised by the MIA proved to be an
effective weapon against the Montgomery bus company. In a matter of
days, the MIA organized 48 dispatch and 42 pick-up stations, creating
car pools that operated with military precision. The Montgomery police
quickly began arresting drivers and handing out tickets for overloading
cars. Passengers waiting for rides were harassed and some were arrested
for loitering. Still, no amount of police harassment managed to break
the backbone of the 381-day bus boycott.
February 1956, the MIA filed suit in the U.S. District Court
challenging the legality of segregated buses. Shortly thereafter, King
and some 90 other activists were arrested for conspiring to organize a
boycott. King’s trial made national news and exposed the ugly face of
Jim Crow transportation. In June 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in
favor of the MIA.
Luther King, Jr., recognized that racism in its many forms was holding
Blacks back economically and that Blacks were being denied the basic
rights that white Americans took for granted. In his speeches, he made
it clear that the racism being fought in the Montgomery transit system
was not an isolated occurrence, but that racism permeated every
you go beyond the relatively simple though serious problems such as
police racism, however, you begin to get into all the complexities of
the modern American economy. Urban transit systems in most American
cities, for example, have become a genuine civil rights issue—and a
valid one—because the layout of rapid-transit systems determines the
accessibility of jobs to the Black community. If transportation systems
in American cities could be laid out so as to provide an opportunity
for poor people to get to meaningful employment, then they could begin
to move into the mainstream of American life. A good example of this
problem is my home city of Atlanta, where the rapid-transit system has
been laid out for the convenience of the white upper-middle-class
suburbanites who commute to their jobs downtown. The system has
virtually no consideration for connecting the poor people with their
jobs. There is only one possible explanation for this situation, and
that is the racist blindness of city planners."
linking the unequal treatment on and access to buses with the violation
of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, the MIA and their leaders
built on the foundation laid by the United Defense League boycott in
Baton Rouge. The Montgomery bus boycott was a turning point for many
reasons. It introduced nonviolent direct action to the Black South and
demonstrated the collective power of a united Black community. The
basic organizing principles that came out of Montgomery were implanted
in the nationwide civil rights movement and changed America forever.
The Black masses would no longer be treated as second-class citizens,
relegated to the back of the bus. They demanded to be treated as
This article is excerpted from the volume: Highway Robbery, Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity,edited by Robert D. Bullard, Glenn S. Johnson, and Angel O. Torres. Highway Robbery confirms the obvious and ignored truth: equality in transportation has been established in name only. Case by case, Highway Robbery
shows how—a half-century after the Montgomery bus boycotts—chronic
inequality in public transportation is firmly and nationally
entrenched. Published by South End Press.
D. Bullard is the Ware Distinguished Professor of Sociology and
Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta
University. He is the author of fourteen books, his most recent work
being Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity (South End Press, 2004).
an in-depth account of the Plessy v. Ferguson court case, see Brook
Thomas, ed., Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (New
York: Bedford/St. martin, 1997).
Keith Weldon Medley, “The Sad Story of How ‘Separate but Equal’ Was Born”, Smithsonian magazine (February 1994): 106.
Henry Billings Brown, “Majority Opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, in
Desegregation and the Supreme Court”, ed. Benjamin Munn Ziegler
(Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1958), 50-51.
D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities
Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984), 17-25.
Robin D. G. Kelly, “Freedom Riders (The Sequel),” The Nation (February 5, 1996): 18-21.
detailed history of the Montgomery Bus boycott, see Roberta Hughes
Wright, The Birth of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Southfield, MI: Charro
Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and
Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., repr. (San Francisco: Harper
Collins, 1991), 325-326. Dr. King’s essay was first published
posthumously in January 1969.
Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 58.