F. Erik Brooks, Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Western Illinois University, grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and said the bus boycott that began in December, 1955 is still talked about in that community today.
“It is one of the things that our city is proud of and ashamed of,” said Brooks. “Proud that these particular blacks had the resolve to face a policy and a law that they thought was unjust, and they showed the intestinal fortitude (and) unity to break the backbone of this unjust law.”
And even though there might be some shame about those days, Brooks said the city recognizes the historical significance of the boycott.
“I do know that they have capitalized on that event with a lot of businesses downtown, a lot of museums downtown,” Brooks said. “I think they’ve turned that negative into a positive.”
Brooks said he will be among the tourists and visitors in March when he leads students from the WIU Centennial Honors College on a tour of southern cities. In addition to Montgomery, the group will make stops in Memphis, Birmingham, and Selma.
“I’m looking forward to showing them some of the significant spots (in Montgomery). Not only the Montgomery Bus Boycott but some of the things from the Civil War as well,” Brooks said. “You have the place where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office. You have the place where Dixie was first played. It’s really interesting when you sort of overlay those things on top of each other and start to have discussions about them.”
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
Up to the time of the boycott, blacks were required to sit in the back half of city buses in Montgomery. If the front half filled up, blacks were expected to give up their seats to white passengers.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on December 1, 1955, sparking a bus boycott that lasted more than a year. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the city had to integrate its bus system.
The boycott is considered the first major action of the American Civil Rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to national prominence as a result of his leadership role in the boycott. King had just come to Montgomery, where he served as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Brooks believes Parks’ refusal to give up her seat was part of a plan drafted by Civil Rights leaders.
“If you look at the timing of the boycott, which is in December – that would cripple the city economically if people refused to ride the buses to go downtown and shop,” Brooks said.
“They had so many things they had organized through the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP so I’d like to think that they had a lot more forethought in putting this boycott together.”