RPJ Partner Deena Merlen’s Reflections on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Sometimes we stand up for justice, and sometimes we march, but Rosa Parks remained seated.  She was arrested for refusing to comply with a racist ordinance in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, that required Black people to sit in the back half of the bus, and if the front half of the bus grew full, to give up their seats for white passengers.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks and several other passengers were ordered to stand up so that white passengers could take their seats. The others complied, but she did not and was arrested.  Her court date was set for December 5, exactly 68 years ago today.

The members of the Women’s Political Council, Black women working for change, immediately called for a boycott of the bus system on the day of Rosa’s trial.  Word spread, and some 42,000 Black bus riders reportedly refused to ride the buses in Montgomery on December 5.

That same afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed to further the fight against segregation in the South, starting with the racist bus ordinance in Montgomery, and the newly-formed Association elected a young pastor in his twenties by the name of Martin Luther King as its leader.  They were committed to having the bus boycott continue until the law was changed.

The boycott continued for an incredible 381 days, during which time massive numbers of Black people, who had previously comprised the overwhelming majority of bus riders in the city, refused to ride the buses. Despite the pressure, Montgomery officials did not desegregate the buses until ordered to do so following the United States Supreme Court’s affirmation of the decision in Browder v. Gayle (142 F.Supp. 707, 15 P.U.R.3d 172 [1]), ruling that the Montgomery segregation law was unconstitutional. Montgomery’s buses were finally desegregated on December 20, 1956, and the long bus boycott that began with Rosa Parks’ brave stance in refusing to stand finally came to an end more than a year after it began.

As Dr. King stated on that day, with respect to the ending of the bus boycott:

For more than twelve months now, we, the Negro citizens of Montgomery have been engaged in a non-violent protest against injustices and indignities experienced on city buses. We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So in a quiet dignified manner, we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery . . . . These twelve months have not at all been easy. Our feet have often been tired. We have struggle against tremendous odds . . . .[2]

In 1999, some 44 years after she was arrested and removed from the bus on that seminal day, Rosa Parks, who devoted her life to civil rights causes, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the President of the United States and honored by an Act of Congress as the “first lady of civil rights” and the “mother of the freedom movement.”[3]

We are thinking today of Rosa Parks and the treading of all those “tired feet” in Montgomery, a foundational event in the civil rights movement, and the long march that ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that continues today in the ongoing pursuit of greater justice, equity and equality.  It has been a long walk. There are many miles to go.  Feeling grateful for those who took to their feet – or refused to stand – 68 years ago in Montgomery.

[1] Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707, 721 (M.D. Ala.), aff’d, 352 U.S. 903, 77 S. Ct. 145, 1 L. Ed. 2d 114 (1956), and aff’d sub nom. Owen v. Browder, 352 U.S. 903, 77 S. Ct. 145, 1 L. Ed. 2d 114 (1956)

[2] “Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/statement-ending-bus-boycott

[3] Pub.L.102-106 “An Act to Authorize the President to Award a Gold Medal on Behalf of the Congress to Rosa Parks in Recognition of her Contributions to the Nation” govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-106publ26/html/PLAW-106publ26.htm


This article is intended as a general discussion of these issues only and is not to be considered legal advice or relied upon. For more information, please contact RPJ Partner Deena R. Merlen, who counsels clients in areas of employment and labor law, intellectual property, media and entertainment, general business law, commercial transactions and dispute resolution. Ms. Merlen is admitted to practice law in Connecticut and New York.