The Women Behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott : Code Switch We've heard about Rosa Parks and her crucial role in the Montgomery bus boycott. But Parks was just one of many women who organized for years. In this episode, those women tell their own story.

The Women Behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott

The Women Behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott

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The Montgomery bus boycott lasted from December of 1955 through December of 1956. What people often remember of that moment in history is that when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, it sparked a bus boycott that was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But what that retelling leaves out are all the women who organized for years to make that boycott a reality and who helped sustain it for 13 long months.

Here you can can meet the women who's voices you hear in the podcast, see their faces and read their stories. Together, these women created a turning point in American history.


The Women Behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin in 1952 at age 13. Wikipedia hide caption

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Wikipedia

Claudette Colvin in 1952 at age 13.

Wikipedia

On March 2, 1955, when Claudette Colvin was 15 years old, she was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white woman. This happened nine months before the story we all know about Rosa Parks.

Colvin told her story to Radio Diaries, explaining that when the bus driver ordered her to get up, she refused, saying she'd paid her fare and that it was her constitutional right. Two police officers put her in handcuffs and arrested her. Her school books went flying off her lap.

"So the bus driver yelled to the back, 'Give me them seats.' But I remained seated. Since I had been studying in history the injustices, segregation, and talk about our heroes, it felt like Harriet Tubman's hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth's hand on me pushed me down on another one. History had me glued to the seat."

Colvin was a plaintiff in the 1956 Supreme Court case that declared segregated buses unconstitutional. Afterward, Colvin asked to have her criminal record expunged. Sixty-five years later, in 2021, a Montgomery County Judge finally granted her request, ordering that her juvenile court records be destroyed.

Claudette Colvin: "History had me glued to the seat."

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Rosa Parks

American civil rights activist Rosa Parks is seen in her booking photo after being arrested for an act of civil disobedience in 1955. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty hide caption

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty

American civil rights activist Rosa Parks is seen in her booking photo after being arrested for an act of civil disobedience in 1955.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty

The Montgomery bus boycott began when 42-year-old Rosa Parks, who had been a civil rights activist for more than two decades, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955.

Soon afterward, Parks lost her job as a department store's assistant tailor and spent the next year crisscrossing the country, raising money and helping turn a local boycott into a nationally publicized struggle.

"The time I was on the bus and refused to stand up, it was principally because I felt that my rights as a human being was being violated and that giving in and obeying the orders of the drivers was not helping to make conditions better for me or any of the rest of us."

Parks' commitment to the Civil Rights Movement continued throughout her life. She spoke at NAACP meetings around the country and stayed involved in civil rights cases on a national level.

Rosa Parks: "I felt that my right as a human being was being violated."

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Frances Belser

Screenshot from a filmed interview with Frances Belser, conducted in 1980 for America, They Loved You Madly. Blackside/WGBH hide caption

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Screenshot from a filmed interview with Frances Belser, conducted in 1980 for America, They Loved You Madly.

Blackside/WGBH

Frances Belser helped to hand-write flyers announcing the Montgomery bus boycott and delivered them across the city with her friends and co-conspirators. She was the secretary of Holt Street Baptist Church and mentored young women at the HBCU Alabama State.


"Pretty soon, they just started coming in from every direction. All the chairs we had in the church, we were setting them up everywhere. The balcony was full."

Frances Belser

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Carrie Folgate

Screenshot from an interview with Carrie Folgate conducted for America, They Loved You Madly, in 1985. Blackside/WGBH hide caption

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Screenshot from an interview with Carrie Folgate conducted for America, They Loved You Madly, in 1985.

Blackside/WGBH

Carrie Folgate was a boycotter who attended the first meetings.

"Oh, it was as many on the outside as was in the church. When they raised the offering that night, people on the outside just said, 'Take my money, I wants to pay. I wants to be a part of this.' And it looked like to me, they were just waiting for something good to happen, which it did."

Carrie Folgate

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Donie Jones

Screenshot from a filmed interview with Donie Jones in 1979 for Eyes on the Prize. Blackside/WGBH hide caption

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Screenshot from a filmed interview with Donie Jones in 1979 for Eyes on the Prize.

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Donie Jones attended the first meetings and took part in the boycott, walking almost eight miles a day to work in the fields.


"It was like a revival starting, that's what it was like. And then, we went to walking."

Donie Jones: "It was like a revival started."

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Zecozy Williams

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Courtesy of the family of Zecozy WIlliams

Zecozy Williams gave rides to fellow boycotters five days a week on her way to work as a housekeeper. She went on to serve as president of the Montgomery County Coordinating Committee for Registration and Voting.

"I would pick up people. I would leave home at seven o'clock in the morning. And I would pick up and let off, pick up and let off. And I would haul people around."

Zecozy Williams

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Jamila Jones

Jamila Jones in an interview in 2011. Jones was a young girl when the boycott happened. She became a singer and artist and wrote one of the verses of the song, "We Shall Overcome." Library of Congress/Civil Rights History Project Col hide caption

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Library of Congress/Civil Rights History Project Col

Jamila Jones in an interview in 2011. Jones was a young girl when the boycott happened. She became a singer and artist and wrote one of the verses of the song, "We Shall Overcome."

Library of Congress/Civil Rights History Project Col

Jamila Jones was a child when the boycott began, but she and her sister took part and walked to school for the 381 days the boycott lasted. Jones formed a singing group, the Montgomery Gospel Trio, to raise money for the movement.

She trained at the Highlander Folk School and while there, wrote a new verse to the song "We Shall Overcome." Jones later founded the Harambee Singers, with Bernice Johnson Reagon, who co-founded Sweet Honey in the Rock.

"I was 11-years-old when the boycott started. Youth had their own own kind of individual movement. We organized ourselves to get around town. My sister, being the leader that she was, wouldn't allow us ever to go and get a ride. She said we'd be taking up space from an adult."

Jamila Jones: "I was 11 years old when the boycott started."

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Georgia Gilmore

Screenshot of Georgia Gilmore from an interview for Eyes on the Prize, conducted in 1986. Blackside/WGBH hide caption

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Screenshot of Georgia Gilmore from an interview for Eyes on the Prize, conducted in 1986.

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Georgia Gilmore, who worked as a cook, used her culinary talents to feed and fund the resistance. Gilmore organizing women to form clubs, like the Club From Nowhere, clandestine groups that prepared meals and sold them to raise money for the movement. In the 1970s, Gilmore successfully sued the city of Montgomery to integrate the public parks and recreational facilities.

"Well, in order to make the mass meeting and the boycott be a success and to keep the car pool running, we decided that the people on the south side would get a club and the peoples on the west side would get a club ... And we just say it was the Club from Nowhere... And so the Club from Nowhere was able to report maybe a hundred and twenty five, maybe two-hundred dollars or more a week."

Georgia Gilmore

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Idessa Williams Redden

Idessa Williams Redden, of the Montgomery Improvement Association, seated at a table during an interview in 1967. James Peppler/Alabama Department of Archives and History hide caption

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James Peppler/Alabama Department of Archives and History

Idessa Williams Redden, of the Montgomery Improvement Association, seated at a table during an interview in 1967.

James Peppler/Alabama Department of Archives and History

Idessa Redden took part in the boycott and worked in social services for the Montgomery Community Action Program. She began her activist work at 16-years-old and called herself a "freedom fighter".

"Money flowed into Montgomery, Alabama, from everywhere. I remember Mahalia Jackson, she came to Montgomery. And she said, 'When I was told that the people wanted me in Montgomery, Alabama, they wanted to know what I would charge to come down to sing to them.' She said, 'I told my manager, 'I couldn't charge them walkin' folks, nothing.' [interviewer:] All right. 'Cause they walkin' for freedom. And freedom for me.'"

Idessa Williams Redden: "Stay walking for freedom."

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Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King, seen here in 2003 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was an American civil rights activist who campaigned for global peace and for racial and social justice until her death, in 2006. Allison Silberberg/Getty Images hide caption

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Allison Silberberg/Getty Images

Coretta Scott King, seen here in 2003 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was an American civil rights activist who campaigned for global peace and for racial and social justice until her death, in 2006.

Allison Silberberg/Getty Images

Eight weeks into the boycott, the home of Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was bombed. Scott King was home with their 10-week-old baby but escaped uninjured. Despite the violence and death threats, she refused to leave Montgomery.

Scott King campaigned for global peace and for racial and social justice until her death, at age 78.

"The news spread fast. You know, with 50,000 people, this had never happened anywhere, where 50,000 Black people stood up in solidarity. And it was working. So that was quite a phenomenon, and it attracted attention as far away as South Africa."

Coretta Scott King: "50,000 black people stood up in solidarity and it was working."

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Gussie Nesbitt

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Screenshot from an nterview with Gussie Nesbitt conducted in 1979 for America, They Loved You Madly.

Blackside/WGBH

Gussie Nesbitt was a domestic worker and an NAACP member.


"I remember the night when they bombed pastor King's house. His wife was in there with a small baby. He wasn't there. He was in a meeting. And when they got there, all the colored people had had their weapons and gun and everything was ready. But King come out. He went in and he said, 'My wife and baby's, all right.' He held up his hands, said, 'Put down your weapons.' He said, 'This is nonviolent.'"

Gussie Nesbitt

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Willie Mae Lee Crews

Willie Mae Crews Marion Military Institute hide caption

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Marion Military Institute

Willie Mae Crews

Marion Military Institute

Willie Mae Lee Crews was a graduate student in sociology at Fisk University when the boycott began. Crews was sent to Montgomery to interview boycott participants, including Rosa Parks, and to document the movement.

"People called and some said we're sorry and others said. "You brought it on yourself." And then others called and said, "We missed this time, but we'll get you the next time." It was ugly what some people did."

Willie Mae Lee Crews

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Virginia Durr

Screenshot from an nterview with Virginia Foster Durr conducted in 1979 for America, They Loved You Madly. Blackside/WGBH hide caption

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Screenshot from an nterview with Virginia Foster Durr conducted in 1979 for America, They Loved You Madly.

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Virginia Durr and her husband Clifford went with E. D. Nixon to bail Rosa Parks out of jail on December 1, 1955. Throughout the bus boycott, Durr remained an avid supporter, highlighting the importance of white involvement in the protest.

Prior to the boycott, Durr was a founding member of the interracial Southern Conference for Human Welfare and worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to abolish the poll tax.

"It would never have changed unless the federal government had stepped in and told them, 'well, either you do this or you go to jail.' And that was the simple answer they had. Wasn't a question of debate. It's just a question of law, and order. If the courts hadn't stepped in, I think we'd still be struggling."

Virginia Foster Durr: "If the courts hadn't stepped in, I think we'd still be struggling."

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Jo Ann Robinson

Screenshot from an interview with Jo Ann Robinson conducted for America, They Loved You Madly in 1979. Blackside/WGBH hide caption

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Screenshot from an interview with Jo Ann Robinson conducted for America, They Loved You Madly in 1979.

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Jo Ann Robinson was president of the Women's Political Council in Montgomery and played a pivotal role in organizing and sustaining the boycott. She mimeographed tens of thousands of flyers telling Black people not to ride the bus on December 5th, 1955.

In 1987, the University of Tennessee Press published Robinson's memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It.

"The Supreme Court had to come in. You get fifty two thousand people in the streets and nobody's showing any fear, something had to give."

Jo Ann Robinson

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Gwendolyn Patton

Civil rights activist Gwen Patton (1943-2017) was involved with all of the leading organizations of the civil rights era. Library of Congress/Civil Rights History Project Col hide caption

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Library of Congress/Civil Rights History Project Col

Civil rights activist Gwen Patton (1943-2017) was involved with all of the leading organizations of the civil rights era.

Library of Congress/Civil Rights History Project Col

Gwendolyn Patton would go on to become a founding member of the Alabama Democratic Conference and a youth organizer in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She later earned a doctorate in political history and higher education administration.

"I was never for integration for the sake of integration. You know, I don't think I learned any better sitting next to a white child. I didn't define myself in juxtaposition to white people. And that was reinforced with my grandmother... she said, 'Gwendolyn, the bus boycott was not about sitting next to white people. It was about sitting anywhere you please.'"

Gwendolyn Patton: "I was never for integration for the sake of integration."

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Original music was composed by Wendel Patrick, this episode was engineered by Gilly Moon.