Montgomery Boycott Took Place 50 Years Ago

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. Black residents of Montgomery, Ala., boycotted city buses until they could sit anywhere they wanted. The boycott began with the defiance of Rosa Parks, who had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on one of those buses to a white man.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On this day in 1955, tens of thousands of black people decided to walk rather than ride the city buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Four days earlier, Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on one of those buses to a white man. The boycott was led by a young preacher whose voice would become known around the world.

(Soundbite from vintage speech)

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: And we are not wrong...

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Martin Luther King Jr. was a 26-year-old minister who'd just received a doctorate in theology. He was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and he was new to Montgomery.

(Soundbite from vintage speech)

Rev. KING: If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Rev. KING: If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Rev. KING: If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

INSKEEP: That speech 50 years ago today helped establish Martin Luther King as the leader of the Montgomery protests. It also helped set the tone for a boycott that would last 381 days.

MONTAGNE: Clayborne Carson is a professor of history at Stanford University. He has edited five volumes of King's papers and written extensively about him.

Professor CLAYBORNE CARSON (History, Stanford University): In some ways it was the crucial speech because if it had not gone well it is very likely that he would not have emerged as the singular leader of the Southern struggle. I think that people saw in him something really special.

MONTAGNE: Martin Luther King and other protest leaders had at first called for a simple one-day boycott, but so many of Montgomery's black citizens heeded the call that the boycott leaders decided the protest would go on. They issues a formal list of demands, among them that bus drivers should treat all passengers with courtesy and each could sit in any seat that was available. Also, the young Martin Luther King insisted the protest would be non-violent.

(Soundbite from vintage speech)

Rev. KING: The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

INSKEEP: Clayborne Carson said King was reaching out to both blacks and whites.

Prof. CARSON: His address had to balance a militancy vs. moderation. He had to speak to the black community in terms of arousing them to continued action, but he also had to reassure the white community that this wasn't going to result in violence.

INSKEEP: The Montgomery bus boycott ended just over one year after it started when the Supreme Court upheld a federal court ruling which outlawed segregation on the city's buses. Martin Luther King would later say, `We came to see that in the long run it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation.'

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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