11/13 – The Montgomery Bus Boycott

American activist Rosa Parks is fingerprinted after being removed forcibly from a Montgomery bus in 1956. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1956 the United States Supreme Court passed the Browder v. Gayle ruling, stating that the Alabama practice of segregating public buses was unconstitutional. The ruling ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott – which began on December 5, 1955, soon after civil rights activist Rosa Parks sat in a “whites-only” seat on a public bus – and was an important milestone in the American civil rights movement. In 1955, the front ten seats of any given public bus in Montgomery were reserved specifically for white people. The boycott lasted over a year, during which 14 year old Black boy Emmett Till was murdered by two white men. Following the Supreme Court ruling, the bus service was fully desegregated; but the ruling inspired violence against Blacks by the white supremacist community and the Ku Klux Klan.

History is, by definition, “in the past”. But as historians, we have to remember that every event is linked to our present in unique ways. Rosa Parks died in 2005; there are plenty of people alive now who recall the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the aftermath. It’s easy to talk about civil rights, slavery and Jim Crow laws – in integral part of US and Western history – as an obscure and foreign part of the past. But the uncomfortable truth is that the battles waged by Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and others in the civil rights movement were, in a broader historical context, very recent.

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