More Than A Seat On The Bus

Bus Boycott, Montgomery, AlabamaBus Boycott, Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo: Copyright estate of Dan Weiner, courtesy of Sandra Weiner, MoMA)

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama. We all know the popular story of what happened on that cold December day in 1955. Indeed, it has become an American myth. A soft-spoken seamstress with tired feet refused to move to the back of the bus to make room for a white man. Her spontaneous action and subsequent arrest sparked a yearlong boycott of the city’s buses that brought down Jim Crow in the cradle of the Confederacy. And the path to black equality was cleared.

But that story, of Rosa Parks tiptoeing into history, both oversimplifies the deep roots of the boycott and disregards the bold actions of the many black women who made the Montgomery movement about more than a seat on a bus. In truth, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a protest against racial and sexual violence, and Rosa Parks’s arrest on December 1, 1955 was but one act in a life devoted to the protection and defense of black people generally, and black women specifically. Indeed, the bus boycott was, in many ways, the precursor to the #SayHerName twitter campaigns designed to remind us that the lives of black women matter.

In 1997, an interviewer asked Joe Azbell, former city editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, who was the most important person in the bus boycott. Surprisingly, he did not say Rosa Parks. “Gertrude Perkins,” he said, “is not even mentioned in the history books, but she had as much to do with the bus boycott as anyone on earth.” On March 27, 1949, Perkins was on her way home from a party when two white Montgomery police officers arrested her for “public drunkenness.” They pushed her into the backseat of their patrol car, drove to a railroad embankment, dragged her behind a building, and raped her at gunpoint.

Left alone on the roadside, Perkins somehow mustered the courage to report the crime. She went directly to the Holt Street Baptist Church parsonage and woke Reverend Solomon A. Seay Sr., an outspoken minister in Montgomery. “We didn’t go to bed that morning,” he recalled. “I kept her at my house, carefully wrote down what she said and later had it notarized.” The next day, Seay escorted Perkins to the police station. City authorities called Perkins’s claim “completely false” and refused to hold a line-up or issue any warrants since, according to the mayor, it would “violate the Constitutional rights” of the police. Besides, he said, “my policemen would not do a thing like that.”

But African Americans knew better. What happened to Gertrude Perkins was no isolated incident. Montgomery’s police force had a reputation for racist and sexist brutality that went back years, and black leaders in the city were tired of it. When the authorities made clear that they would not respond to Perkins’s claims, local NAACP activists, labor leaders, and ministers formed an umbrella organization called the “Citizens Committee for Gertrude Perkins.” Rosa Parks was one of the local activists who demanded an investigation and trial, and helped maintain public protests that lasted for two months.

By 1949 Rosa Parks was an experienced anti-rape activist. The campaign on behalf of Perkins, for example, was modeled on a protest Parks helped launch several years earlier for Recy Taylor, a young black mother kidnapped and brutally raped in 1944 in the town of Abbeville, Alabama, by a group of white men who threatened to kill her if she told anyone. Taylor reported the crime anyway and the Montgomery NAACP sent Parks to Abbeville to investigate. After gathering Taylor’s testimony, Parks carried it back to Montgomery, where she and other activists launched “The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor,” a nationwide campaign that demanded protection for black womanhood and accountability for Taylor’s assailants.

Two years after the protest on behalf of Gertrude Perkins, meanwhile, black activists rallied to defend yet another victim of white sexual violence in Montgomery. In February 1951, a white grocer named Sam Green raped a black teenager named Flossie Hardman whom he employed as a babysitter. After Hardman told her parents about the attack, they decided to press charges, and when an all-white jury returned a not-guilty verdict after five minutes of deliberation, the family reached out to community activists for help. Together, individuals such as Rufus Lewis, who organized voter registration campaigns, Rosa Parks, who was still serving as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter, and members of the newly formed Women’s Political Council, launched a boycott of Green’s grocery store. After only a few weeks, African Americans delivered their own guilty verdict by driving Green’s business into the red.

By the early 1950s, then, a history of sexual assaults on black women and of the use of the boycott as a powerful weapon for justice had laid the groundwork for what was to come. Given that history, it made sense that city buses served as the flashpoint for mass protest. Other than police officers, few were as guilty of committing acts of racist violence and sexual harassment of black women as Montgomery’s bus operators, who bullied and brutalized black passengers daily. Worse, bus drivers had police power. They carried blackjacks and guns, and they assaulted and sometimes even killed African Americans who refused to abide by the racial order of Jim Crow.

In 1953 alone, African Americans filed over thirty formal complaints of abuse and mistreatment on the buses. Most came from working-class black women, mainly domestics, who made up nearly 70% of the bus ridership. They said drivers hurled nasty, sexualized insults at them, touched them inappropriately, and physically abused them. In May 1954, JoAnn Robinson, leader of the Women’s Political Council, threatened a boycott of Montgomery’s city buses, and only after months of futile efforts to get city officials to address the problem did the boycott finally come into being. Women walked rather than ride the buses, Rosa Parks said in 1956, not in support of her, but because she “was not the only person who had been mistreated and humiliated.” Other women, she said, “had gone through similarly shameful experiences, most worse than mine.”

These experiences propelled African American women into every conceivable aspect of the boycott. Women were the chief strategists and negotiators of the boycott and ran its day-to-day operation. Women helped staff the elaborate car pool system, raised most of the local money for the movement, and filled the majority of the pews at the mass meetings, where they testified publicly about physical and sexual abuse on the buses. And of course, by walking hundreds of miles to protest their humiliation, African American women reclaimed their bodies and demanded the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

Rooted in the struggle to protect and defend black womanhood from racial and sexual violence, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is impossible to understand and situate in its proper historical context without understanding the stories and saying the names of Gertrude Perkins, Flossie Hardman, Recy Taylor, and all the black women who were mistreated in Montgomery.

Today, as we celebrate the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s arrest, witness the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement on city streets and campus quads across the country, and #SayHerName to demand an end to police violence against women of color, we should look to the past – and remember it correctly. Parks and the women who started the Montgomery bus boycott fought for more than a seat on the bus. They demanded the right to move through the world without being molested, fought against police brutality and racial and sexual violence, and insisted on the right to ownership and control of their own bodies.

About the Author

Danielle McGuire

Danielle McGuire is the award-winning author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance - a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Knopf, 2010). She is an Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University and is currently writing a book about the 1967 Algiers Motel murders in Detroit.

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13 Comments

    1. Not entirely. there is a terrific biography, now out in paperback, the Rebellious life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis.

  1. One of the reasons I love this article is its explicit rejection of the ‘kindly grandmother’ myth with Parks. That myth is part of why we don’t know as much about her – her anti-lynching work, her post-Montgomery work on urban, northern poverty in Detroit, her radicalism. They don’t fit into the safe narrative of a nice lady who just got tired and fed up. It’s easier and safer for mainstream America to not see her as an ‘agitator’.

    I also had no idea about Parks’ work in this area, but I’m so glad I do now, and I’ll be giving these to my high school juniors when we look at Montgomery later this year.

      1. That would be wonderful – I’m always on the lookout for short, readable primary sources that 11th graders who struggle with reading might be able to handle. The Sam Green story in particular, as well as citizen complaints, seem like they could be really useful in class. I’ll email you directly. Much appreciated!

  2. I just find it fascinating that the sexual violence in this story was so completely erased. I mean, you read this and think, “Of course!” But I had truly never heard this part of the story before. And once you know it, you recognize that you cannot understand that event– that incredibly well-known and important event– without having this piece of the puzzle. So we have all been operating with the wrong picture.

  3. This is a great piece and such important work you are doing Prof. Mcguire, thank you! I’d love to talk with you more about racialized sexual violence, in relation to the broader history of racial violence/terror, which I am presently focused on further documenting and studying. I have been reading your excellent book.

    Also important to the contextualization you give is the widespread racial abuse and violence on Jim Crow buses leading up to the 1950s. Margaret Burnham has written an excellent piece (All Aboard: Soldiers and Buses) in a special issue of Race & Justice I recently co-edited, where she examines racial homicides of black soldiers on city buses, often by deputized bus drivers, and the denial of legal protection or recourse. You can find that essay here: http://raj.sagepub.com/content/5/2.toc

  4. Thank you so much for your work! I have provided training in the anti-rape movement for years and do workshops on the history of the anti-rape movement. But i will forever be telling it differently now that i have ready Dark End of the Street. And much more accurately, giving homage to the women of color who deserve it! Imagine all the white feminists like myself who have been telling groups for years that “the anti-rape movement began in the 60s!” Shame on US!!! Thank you for pulling back the covers! If you’d ever be interested in doing a workshop let me know!!

  5. Excellent job Ms.Mcguire. In the midst of the STANFORD UNIVERSITY RAPE CASE, I find it interesting how quickly CNN, FOX NEWS, MSNBC and even Vice President Joe Biden spoke against the ruling by the judge who sentenced Brock Turner to 6 months in jail for raping that young lady. This story has prompted Ashleigh Bamfield to conduct a Town Hall Meeting this Tuesday on College Campus Rape that will be aired on CNN for a global audience to view. Karin Roland (Chief Campaign Officer for the website Ultra Violet), gathered 1.2 million signatures to have the judge in the case removed from the bench.I’ve emailed Ms. Roland to ask her to use that same passion and intensity to bring attention to Chester Thompson ( who while employed as a Civil Public Servant aka Police Officer with Syracuse, New York), RAPED Maleatra Montanez ( a copper complexioned woman) while he was in uniform and on duty in her apartment. Officer Chester Thompson RAPED Ms. Maleatra Montanez and made her face her newborn baby while he RAPED her. Ms. Montanez NEVER SAID YES to Chester Thompson’s sexual advances and feared for her life. Chester Thompson had a known history of raping women while on duty as a Police Officer for the city of Syracuse,New York. Chester Thompson received NO PRISON TIME FOR HIS RAPING of Maleatra Montanez. Let’s see if Karin Roland responds to my email so we may have a Globally televised Town Hall Meeting on (White male) Police Officers RAPING “Black” women. Chester Thompson needs to have his Police Pension taken from him, be registered as a sexual predator, have his gun taken from him and never allowed to work as a police officer or any other public civil servant job anywhere on this planet. Yesterday on the Fox News program Justice w/ Judge Jeanine, Judge Jeanine Pirro spoke about Brock Turner’s rape victim and I quote ” That victim will live with this for the rest of her life.” Does this not apply to the countless numbers of “Black” women being raped by White Male Police Officers?

  6. Thank you for posting this. I teach US History and AP US History in Iowa. I am taking an online class in Southern History from Delta State from Dr. Westmoreland and have viewed your lecture, “To Gain Title to Our Bodies: Black Women and the Long Civil Rights Movement” from March of 2015. This has provided my with a great deal more perspective on the bus boycott specifically and the issue of sexualized violence in general.

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