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Doron Shultziner. "The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Social Interaction and Humiliation in the Emergence of Social Movements" Mobilization: An International Journal 18.2 (2013): 117-142.


Abstract and Figures

This study advances a new explanation of the Montgomery bus boycott, the constitutive event of the U.S. civil rights movement. It introduces new findings to demonstrate that Montgomery, Alabama, was unique in its segregation system, and that unrest among blacks emerged in the narrow time period between late 1953 and 1955. I trace the motivational origins of the boycott in worsening social interactions that caused a sense of abuse and humiliation in black passengers due to three main factors: changing ratios of black and white passengers on the public buses; labor-related issues that frustrated the bus drivers; and the impact of the 1954 Brown decision on the bus drivers. This study calls for a framework that conceptualizes and connects lived experiences and real contentious social interactions with the emergence of protest motivations and social movements. Accordingly, I stress the importance of distinguishing between causes that explain the emergence of movements and factors that explain the momentum and success of movements.
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Doron Shultziner
This study advances a new explanation of the Montgomery bus boycott, the constitutive event
of the U.S. civil rights movement. It introduces new findings to demonstrate that Montgomery,
Alabama, was unique in its segregation system, and that unrest among blacks emerged in the
narrow time period between late 1953 and 1955. I trace the motivational origins of the boycott
in worsening social interactions that caused a sense of abuse and humiliation in black
passengers due to three main factors: changing ratios of black and white passengers on the
public buses; labor-related issues that frustrated the bus drivers; and the impact of the 1954
Brown decision on the bus drivers. This study calls for a framework that conceptualizes and
connects lived experiences and real contentious social interactions with the emergence of
protest motivations and social movements. Accordingly, I stress the importance of dis-
tinguishing between causes that explain the emergence of movements and factors that explain
the momentum and success of movements.
The Montgomery bus boycott of December 5, 1955 is widely accepted as the constitutive
event of the mass mobilization phase in the modern U.S. civil rights movement.
As such, it is
a central or even paradigmatic test case for theories of social movements. Yet despite various
accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement, there remain un-
solved puzzles. Mainly, why did the Montgomery bus boycott (henceforth the “boycott”)
occur in this city and not elsewhere? Why did the boycott target buses and not other symbols
of the civil rights movement? And why did the struggle begin in December 1955 and not
earlier? The answers to these important questions have theoretical implications that may lead
to a better understanding of the U.S. civil rights movement and the emergence of social
movements more generally.
Theoretical and empirical advances in the field of sociology have tended to address the
Montgomery bus boycott in the context of the emergence of the U.S. civil rights movement as
a whole. Namely, they have attempted to explain the emergence of the boycott as part of a
much broader array of activity between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, collectively known
as the U.S. civil rights movement (e.g., McAdam 1982, 2009; Morris 1984; Tarrow 1994;
Jenkins, Jacobs, and Agnone 2003). This approach is problematic because it sets the theo-
retical lens and its research questions in a way that the same causal factors, such as political
My thanks go to Ariela Levinger-Limor, Mills Thornton III, Brian Martin, and Maya Shapiro for their kind help and
suggestions in working on this article. The Mobilization reviewers and editors greatly improved the article with their
comments. I also wish to thank the many archivists in Montgomery, AL and Atlanta, GA who assisted me in locating
valuable materials for this study. The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict funded initial research for my
book, Struggling for Recognition: The Psychological Impetus for Democratic Progress (2010). Some of the findings
and discussions in this article build on, and are adapted from, this book. I did additional research and work for this
article as a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2010-
2011) and the Department of Medical Education at Tel Aviv University (2011-2012).
Doron Shultziner is adjunct lecturer in the Faculty of Law at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and founder of
Mali – Center for Enterprising Citizens (Israeli registered NGO # 580569895). Please direct all correspondence to
© 2013 Mobilization: An International Quarterly 18(2): 117-142
opportunities, existing social structures, or networks, are too often assumed to explain the
origins of protest motivations (cognitive or emotional) and the dynamics and momentum of
campaigns, as well as a campaign’s success or failure, over an extended period of time. While
helpful for some purposes and questions, this global approach is less useful in answering
specific questions concerning the time and place of the Montgomery bus boycott that are of
great interest and explanatory value. In fact, the existing paradigm tends to flatten inherent
differences in distinct stages in the life of a movement and may thus conceal crucial causes
that operate in one stage but do not necessarily exist in other stages, as argued in this article.
Furthermore, existing accounts of the civil rights movement neglect to address causal
mechanisms that connect macrofactors (thought to have influenced the movement) to a social-
psychological dimension of the lived-experience that is significant to understanding the actual
people who were foot soldiers in the movement. Important theorists of the civil rights
movement have also acknowledged these shortcomings (Morris 2000; McAdam 2004; see
also critical accounts in Goodwin and Jasper 1999; Biggs 2006). This article addresses this
issue of causal mechanisms on the lived experiences and social-psychological levels in the
context of the boycott. Historical and case-specific sociological studies of the origins of the
boycott have focused on structural changes in leadership, rationality of decision making in
black and white communities, organization (e.g., the black church in Montgomery), and local
and international politics (Garrow 1989; Thornton 2002). I also evaluate these factors and
existing explanations in light of an in-depth historical investigation that uncovers new find-
ings, factors, and insights concerning the boycott.
The theoretical framework that I propose in this article advances and elaborates a social-
psychological approach that emphasizes the importance of real-life contentious interactions
and their impact on the cognitive and emotional states of the people involved. These factors
are conceptualized as causes that drive the emergence (or strengthening) of individual’s moti-
vations to engage in political protest and to join organizations and social movements more
broadly. This approach can be traced to Goffman (1956a, 1956b), who identified the impor-
tance of face-to-face encounters and interactions in which the individual—alone or as part of
a group—feels embarrassment. He also argued that in every social system there are occur-
rences in which individuals enter confrontations over inappropriate treatment and misrepre-
sentation of their identity, including one’s group identity (Goffman 1956a: 269). Such social
interactions also occur in the form of status rituals or other interpersonal rituals that convey
deference (Goffman 1956b: 478). Individuals are likely to experience feelings of shame and
humiliation when they fail to receive appropriate honor and recognition or when they are
being treated badly (Goffman 1956b: 474, 480). Goffman argues that this form of social inter-
action is also linked to challenges against existing social relations and political power (1956b:
480-81, 493).
Following Goffman, Scheff elaborated the emotional system in social interactions
involving deference. “Depending on its intensity and obviousness, rejection usually leads
inevitably to the painful emotions of embarrassment, shame, or humiliation,” argued Scheff
(1988: 395). He posited social interactions that elicit emotional responses of “honor, insult,
and revenge, may decide the fate, not only of individuals, but of nations . . . [and] of all life on
earth” (Scheff 1988: 397). Put more mildly, Scheff posits that social interactions involving
insult, shame, and humiliation can lead to a chain reaction that may spill over to the political
domain. This may explain, among other things, explosive emotional episodes and expressed
resentment (“shame-anger alternation”) with the anger directed against those who insult or
humiliate (Scheff 1988: 404).
More recently, Snow and colleagues reconceptualized breakdown theories as including
symbolic interaction between members of groups (Snow, Cress, Downey, and Jones 1998).
They argue that one set of conditions associated with the emergence of social movements “is
that which penetrates and disrupts, or threatens to disrupt, taken-for-granted, everyday
routines and expectancies” (Snow et al. 1998: 2). Snow et al. define “everyday life” as daily
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
practices that are “the routinized patterns of making do, such as daily subsistence routines and
chores, that are often performed in an almost habituated, unthinking fashion” (Snow et al.
1998: 4). They stress the causal importance of disrupting these everyday practices in such a
way that shake people’s perceptions and cause new grievances. One of the four factors that
disrupt everyday life consists of “actual or threatened intrusions into or violations of what
Goffman (1971) referred to as the immediate protective surround, or Umwelt” (Snow et al.
1998: 7). The authors do not refer specifically to social interactions in this category, but their
reliance on Goffman and their emphasis on the zone of privacy and protection from intrusion
into this domain are closely related to the social interaction approach (Snow et al. 1998: 7-9).
Their fourth category, “dramatic changes in structures of social control,” is highly relevant to
the social interaction approach. “Dramatic changes in the control and policing of non-
institutionalized citizens can also spur mobilization when those changes alter or threaten to
alter the routine grounds of everyday life” (Snow et al. 1998: 15). Snow et al. give a pertinent
example showing that worsening policing practices toward homeless people in the Boston
area spurred mobilization (Snow et al. 1998:15).
Zhao (2001: 355) emphasizes the importance of focusing on interactions between “real
humans” in his account of the Tiananmen student movement in 1989. He concludes, “My
analysis shows that the dynamic of contentious collective actions, while it is shaped by the
structure of state-society relations, develops through the contentious interactions of agents,
with outcomes that become certain only very late” (Zhao 2001: 351). Furthermore, following
Goffman’s and Scheff’s social interaction approach, Collins (2012) proposed a more
developed theory of social interaction in violent conflicts. As he explains, “Face-to-face
interaction is crucial for micro-signals and emotions to be sent back and forth, and threat
motivates people to assemble” (Collins 2012: 2). Conflicts normally begin in these micro-
level social interactions and are often accompanied by “conflict talk” that is “a combination of
insulting the other, boasting about one’s own power, and making threats” (Collins 2012: 2).
Although this theory is applied to violent conflicts, its social interaction premises are also
relevant to the study of nonviolent social movements.
The social interaction approach and its emphasis on cognitive and emotional aspects of
mobilization can be seen as part of a broader theoretical shift in the study of social move-
ments and contentious politics since the 1990s and the reemphasis of emotional and cognitive
processes in this scholarship (e.g., “oppositional consciousness,” Morris 1999; Mansbridge
2001; Morris and Braine 2001). There is now an extensive body of research that shows the
relevance of various types and clusters of emotions in different phases and aspects of social
movements (see reviews in Jasper 2006, 2011). In the stage preceding mobilization and the
emergence of movements, social interactions and dynamics that cause humiliation and other
injuries to people’s self-esteem and social reputation are of special importance (Shultziner
2010). As Jasper notes in his recent review of the literature, “Especially after humiliations,
revenge can become a primary goal” of social movements (2011: 290).
Consistent with this general approach, I argue that changing social interactions resulting
in increased abuse and humiliation of black passengers on Montgomery’s buses in the mid-
1950s explain the emergence of the motivation to protest this quite unique system of
segregated bus transportation, and it is this psychological context of widespread humiliation
that enabled and led to the boycott in very unlikely circumstances. The first day of the boycott
(December 5, 1955) marks a transformative event and the beginning of a new stage in the
struggle in which the community itself was transformed. New emotional and cognitive factors
came into play, and a new organization (the Montgomery Improvement Association, or MIA)
and leadership came to lead the protest. As such, the two stages or phases of the boycott
involve different factors and require different levels of analysis. Factors that were dominant in
generating the former (i.e., social interactions leading to humiliation) were less relevant to
explaining the latter (i.e., the importance of the new leadership, resources, and organization in
maintaining the protest and winning it). The inverse is also true: emerging leaders and new
resources do not explain the psychological origins of struggles (see also a comparison of the
stages in Montgomery to those of the uprising in Port Elizabeth, South Africa following the
Soweto uprising in 1976; Shultziner 2010: 174-177).
In a nutshell, I argue that it was not that black Montgomerians were becoming
increasingly sensitive to a stable system of segregation, as commonly assumed; rather, that it
was the system itself that intensified the abuse of, and sense of humiliation among, blacks in a
relatively short period of time leading up to the boycott. That is, a core argument of this
article is that the boycott’s causal process unfolded far more quickly than formerly realized.
Experiential changes that developed out of these shifts and social interactions laid the psycho-
logical groundwork for an otherwise passive generation to challenge the system of bus segre-
gation in Montgomery.
This article adopts a process-tracing approach that is especially effective in elucidating
causal links between macro and micro factors (George and Bennett 2005). This approach
emphasizes the causal importance of dramatic events to the emergence of movements (Sewell
1996; Snow et al. 1998; McAdam and Sewell 2001; Shultziner 2010: 158-159, 172-173, 176;
Shultziner forthcoming). In particular, the reconstruction of the historical course of events
leading to the boycott is guided by two principles. The first is to identify and follow meaning-
ful emotional and cognitive developments among the people who eventually engaged in the
boycott. This is of course a difficult task when dealing with historical materials and caution is
required in the findings. The second is to focus on the causal connections that link certain
unique macro factors to the occurrence of these psychological developments, in chronological
order. The goal of this methodology is to get as close as possible to the emotional and
cognitive domain while tracing its roots in the sequencing of social and political reality of
Montgomery. This approach also reconnects with Goffman (1956a: 270) who called us to
examine “what categories of persons become embarrassed in what recurrent situations.”
This methodology also leads the search and analysis of primary materials and sources.
Data comes from a wide range of primary historical materials. The most helpful and relevant
data includes interviews with high-ranking city officials, interviews with bus company of-
ficials and bus drivers, archives and statistics of the Montgomery City Lines Inc., municipal
protocols, transcripts of the bus boycott trials, and participant accounts and memoirs (on
extracting emotions pertaining to humiliation from texts see also Scheff 1988: 400; Polletta
1998: 139). The integrative analysis of these materials combines qualitative and quantitative
indicators, while comparing, corroborating, and juxtaposing all available indicators. Since
some of the data reveal behavioral rather than direct social-psychological factors, interpreting
the results requires caution. This methodology may be helpful for studying the emergence of
other historical events and the emergence of social movements.
A striking feature of the Montgomery bus boycott, which sharply contrasts with the 1960s sit-
in generation, is the fact that the people who participated in the daily act of resistance and
collective action were mainly adult black men and women. The majority of these unsung
heroes were ordinary hard-working, lower-class blacks struggling to make ends meet, and
who were demographically, socially, and cognitively least likely and prepared to begin a
contentious struggle. The black bus riders, unlike the middle- and upper- class blacks who
drove private cars, were typically very poor and relied on the buses as the main or sole means
to get to their source of livelihood. These bus patrons, many of whom were women
provided for their own families by working as domestics in white households, were
particularly dependent on their jobs and, as such, could scarcely afford to alienate or anger
their white employers.
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Moreover, the blacks who participated in the boycott grew up in the first part of the
twentieth century when blacks were still lynched with impunity. This generation was taught
not to stand up or talk back to a white person. Many blacks considered it to be irresponsible
and dangerous to get arrested, and there was little trust among this generation that the formal
legal system would do them justice. Abernathy (1989a: 34) explained that people like him
agreed to be drafted in War World II because “we were an obedient generation.” Obedience,
passivity, and often complacency characterized this generation up until 1955. For example, in
1943 Rosa Parks boarded a bus from the front, paid her fair, and went straight to the back of
the bus, instead of getting off of the bus and reboarding it from the back as was the custom.
The driver, James F. Blake—coincidentally, the same driver who had her arrested twelve
years later—forced her off of the bus. But as she left the bus, Parks overheard black passen-
gers saying, “She ought to go around the back and get on” (Parks and Haskins 1992: 79).
Parks recounts that the pressure for social conformity at the time was strong and that “[t]hey
always wondered why you didn’t want to be like the rest of the black people. That was the
1940s, when people took a lot without fighting back” (Parks and Haskins 1992: 79).
The argument that the effects of World War II and economic changes in the United
States had caused this generation to grow impatient with the Jim Crow system in the 1950s
does not apply well to the reality in Montgomery. Such relative deprivation and social
comparisons arguments (Gurr 1970; Wood 1989) are more applicable to the particular
circumstances of the leaders of the movement than to most black Montgomerians (Shultziner
2010: 87-89). The city’s black middle and upper classes were generally inactive and
complacent despite social and economic changes. For example, when Reverend Vernon
Johns, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, had a confrontation with a bus driver in
1950, he bravely defied the driver and called on the black passengers to follow him off the
bus in protest. No person answered his call. Martin Luther King, Jr. notes that when Johns
later reprimanded a woman from his own church who did not follow him she responded,
“You ought to knowed better” (King [1958] 1965: 22). Abernathy notes that Johns was
extremely frustrated with the black community’s complacent response to injustice, quoting
Johns as saying: “Even God . . . can’t free people who behave like that” (Abernathy 1989a:
117). In fact, Johns’ church members eventually dismissed him from the pastorship due to
what they considered an aggressive rhetoric for social change and a pattern of rebuking the
community for their apathy to injustice (see also Burks 1993: 73). Many middle-class blacks
also thought that E.D. Nixon, another outstanding activist, was “a little too aggressive” (Gray
2002: 45). Even after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the NAACP found it
hard to find plaintiffs for a class action suit to challenge school segregation in Montgomery
(Thornton 2002: 40). Up until December 1955 the black middle class appears to have been
generally complacent, inactive, and often divided regarding the structural injustices in
Montgomery, except for a few notable brave men and women (King [1958] 1965: 20, 194;
Robinson 1987; Burks 1993; Levinger-Limor 2001; Gray 2002).
Similar complacency and passivity is reported for the black lower class. King explains,
“the largest number [of black lower class] accepted it [segregation] without apparent protest.
Not only did they seem resigned to segregation per se; they also accepted the abuses and
indignities that came with it” (King [1958] 1965: 21). King was therefore doubtful that black
Montgomerians would rise up in large numbers against bus segregations and unite in a
coordinated collective action to this end. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, both thought
that even sixty percent compliance in the first day of the boycott would be a success, and as
such saw the overwhelming compliance with the boycott as a sheer “miracle” (King [1958]
1965: 37, 39-40).
The adult black community of Montgomery was thus not a very likely group to engage in
a risky and demanding collective action. Most interestingly, beyond the boycott of 1955-1956,
adult black Montgomerians did not participate in another mass action on the same scale.
Montgomery was not a significant battlefield of any other campaign of the civil rights
movement, and its main four organizations (SCLC, SNCC, CORE, NAACP), notwithstanding
the march from Selma to the capital Montgomery in 1965 (after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma
on March 7, 1965). On the other hand, neighboring Alabama cities, Birmingham and Selma,
were involved in mass mobilization in the 1960s. In fact, many of the boycott leaders left
Montgomery before 1960, including King, Abernathy, Robinson, Parks, and others. The
amazing flare-up of the boycott movement in Montgomery in 1955-1956 faded quickly, well
before the civil rights movement’s peak between 1960-1965. Indeed, the city remained very
quiet during this latter dramatic period, in terms of mobilization, whereas blacks in nearby
cities were mobilizing to protest.
Yet, the fact remains that this unlikely generation was prepared to step out of old patterns
of behavior in December 1955. In order to understand both why this social-psychological
climate had formed in Montgomery and not elsewhere, and why it formed around the bus
situation in particular, one must first understand Montgomery’s unique bus segregation system.
Contrary to common assumptions, the bus segregation system in Montgomery was unique to
the American South
in the mid-1950s. This section explores the ways in which Montgomery
had a system of public bus transportation that encouraged patterns of precarious social inter-
actions, specifically humiliation, that went above and beyond those of other segregation
systems in the South.
The Montgomery City Lines Inc. operated the Montgomery public buses in the 1950s.
The company was owned by the Chicago-based National City Lines Corporation which had
the franchise to run public bus service in 42 cities in 13 states, including two branches in
major Alabama cities, Mobile and Montgomery (National City Lines 1967).
Most bus
companies in the South had a first-come-first-served policy. Even in cities that practiced
segregation on public buses the seating arrangements were still relatively predictable and
secure: customers were aware of the conventions and knew where they could and could not sit
on the bus. For example, Mobile City Lines Inc. (Montgomery’s sister bus company in
Alabama) had a seating arrangement whereby whites began sitting from the front of the bus
and blacks from the rear of the bus. The dividing line passed where black and white passen-
gers would meet and black passengers would not be asked to relinquish their seats to
accommodate more white passengers. Although this type of segregation still constitutes a
form of racism, it was at least a predictable and stable arrangement that reduced the tension in
an already very problematic setting. Unlike in Montgomery, the Mobile system allowed black
passengers to take up empty seats up to the front of the bus. Ironically, it is precisely this
Mobile-type of segregated seating arrangement that the black Montgomery leadership asked
for well before the boycott began and also during the first two months of the boycott when
negotiations were in process between the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement
Association (MIA) and city officials.
In Montgomery, on the other hand, riding the bus was a psychologically unpredictable
and intense experience with a high potential for public humiliation. Buses in Montgomery had
three designated sections (see figure 1): a front section consisting of ten reserved seats for
whites at all times; a rear section consisting of ten reserved seats for blacks; and a middle
section containing sixteen seats which both whites and blacks could occupy on a segregated
basis. The actual dividing line between whites and blacks in the middle section was not fixed
and could fluctuate during the ride. It was an imaginary and therefore flexible line that the bus
drivers would determine based on the ratio between blacks and whites on a given bus route,
the hour of the day, or even the specific stop on the route (see also French 1989: 175; Gilliam
1989: 199-200; Thornton 1989: 341; 2002: 41-45). The bus drivers were entrusted with
police-power authority and were allowed to carry weapons. By law, bus drivers could order
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
customers to evacuate their seats and move to another seat in the front or back of the bus, and
it was unlawful for a bus passenger to refuse the reseating orders of the bus driver.
Since the
dividing line was left to the discretion of the bus drivers, the crucial majority of passengers
who were ordered to relinquish their seats were blacks. Sometimes the line would even be
stretched into the rear section of the bus. That is, some drivers would often violate the bus
company’s guidelines about reseating.
The de facto custom of reseating was such that white
people were not supposed to stand while blacks were seated. For example, it was un-
acceptable, or even unthinkable, that a white woman should stand while blacks were seated.
And, when Rosa Parks refused to stand up and was subsequently arrested she was sitting in
the middle section of the bus (see figure 1 for Parks’s seat).
Figure 1. The Montgomery Bus Segregation System
Note: The bus image is adapted from “Exhibit A” in the case file of Browder v. Gayle 142 F. Supp. 707 (1956),
located at the National Archives, South East Region. The text additions to the image are the author’s.
Indeed, the middle sixteen seats of the bus were very insecure and unpredictable positions
for black riders. Despite the common assumption that this humiliating practice and form of
segregation was widespread in the South, it was in fact exceptional. The best evidence of this
comes from the findings of a special committee for investigating and resolving the bus
boycott, which was appointed by Mayor Gayle following the boycott. The committee ex-
plored how segregation was practiced in other cities and revealed that the Montgomery segre-
gation system was unique to the South, as confirmed in an interview with James J. Bailey,
president of the Retail Furniture Association in Montgomery and a white member of the
mayor’s committee, who stated, “I don’t know why, but it had just happened that her[e] in
Montgomery we have the reserved seat sections in the front and the back—most places in the
South use the first come, first served seating. But for whatever reason, we started out on the
other basic here.”
Similarly, in May 1954 Jo Ann Robinson sent a letter to the mayor asking for modi-
fications in the Montgomery bus segregation system. She explained, “Many of our Southern
cities in neighboring states have practiced the policies we seek without incident whatsoever.
Front Section:
10 reserved seats
for whites at all
times, 28% of the
total seats
Middle Section:
16 unreserved
seats, 44% of the
total seats
Back Section:
10 reserved seats
for blacks at all
times, 28% of the
total seats
seat on
1, 1955
Atlanta, Macon and Savannah in Georgia have done this for years. Even Mobile, in our own
state, does this and all the passengers are satisfied.”
Beyond the special structure of bus segregation in Montgomery, black customers had to
pay in the front of the bus and then get off the bus and board it again from the back door.
Sometimes the bus driver decided to drive off before the black costumer managed to get back
on board. It is unclear if, and how many, other Southern cities practiced this humiliating form
of segregation. Furthermore, due to the special configuration of the system and the insecure
middle section, bus drivers frequently had to command black bus riders to relinquish their
seats in order to accommodate white passengers. The drivers would often do so by shouting
derogatory names at individuals or at the whole group of black passengers.
It seems that no other social and political issue have affected black Montgomerians more
than this overall humiliating type of social interaction on buses. This is not to say that blacks
did not experience negative experiences on buses elsewhere prior to 1955. Surely there were
undocumented instances when black passengers were ordered to give up their seats (Thornton
1989: 342; New York Times, December 26, 1953, p. 21).
However, the special bus segre-
gation system in Montgomery affected an entire community on a daily basis through perverse
social interactions and psychological experiences that worsened in their frequency and inten-
sity (see below) compared to other black communities in the U.S.
It appears that the only other city that had a segregation system comparable to that of
Montgomery was Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana. Similar to Montgomery, the
public transport system in Baton Rouge was based on a system stipulating that blacks had to
give up their seats to whites if the front section of the bus was full, and blacks were not
allowed to sit in the front section even if there were empty seats in it and no more seats
available in the rear section (Morris 1984: 17). Importantly, the black Baton Rouge com-
munity protested against this system and the abuse of bus drivers, and petitioned for change in
the bus segregation system in 1953. The Baton Rouge city officials initially accepted the
petition and allowed a system of segregation based on first-come-first-served basis in which
blacks begin sitting from the back and whites from the front with no reserved seats. In
response to the new city ordinance, the bus drivers, all of whom were white, went on strike.
The Louisiana Attorney General followed with a ruling that the new city ordinance conflicted
with the Louisiana state laws and was therefore illegal. The decision angered the black
community and prompted a decision to boycott the bus system on June 19, 1953 under the
leadership of T.J. Jemison (New York Times, June 16, 1953, p. 15; New York Times, June 21,
1953, p. 65). The dramatic boycott involved mass meetings and a sophisticated system of car-
pooling that would later be implemented by community leaders in Montgomery.
The Baton Rouge boycott lasted less than a week because the city officials were willing
to compromise and reach a new agreement on a segregation system in which blacks begin
sitting from the rear of the bus and whites from the front with an addition of four reserved
seats for whites in the front and the row of seats in the back reserved to blacks. The black
leadership was in favor the compromise. A majority in the black community then voted in
favor of adopting it but others were prepared to continue the boycott (Morris 1984: 24-25).
The important point about Baton Rouge in the context of this article is that it was the only
other place in the U.S. where a Montgomery-style segregation system existed and it too was
challenged by a boycott (two years prior to that of Montgomery). This alternate boycott
emphasizes that the unique bus segregation system, which brought blacks and whites into a
sensitive social interaction, was a particularly significant issue in the civil rights struggle.
Nevertheless, the question of why the boycott occurred in the mid-1950s requires that we first
identify the timing and degree of unrest as it developed in relation to the bus situation in
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
A common notion about the Montgomery bus boycott is that the system and the level of
humiliation it inflicted on blacks were rather longstanding and constant
and that a gradual
process of unrest began after World War II and culminated in the arrest of Rosa Parks on
December 1, 1955. The familiar metaphor to describe this long process of unrest is that black
Montgomerians’ “cup of tolerance” had eventually run out and spilled over to challenge a
segregation system that had abused them for decades (e.g., King [1958] 1965: 50-51; see also
papers in Garrow 1989). Under this common understanding of the boycott, black Montgom-
erians mounted their challenge to the bus segregation system due to factors internal to the
black community (e.g., newly perceived opportunities, new leadership, stronger organization,
resources from outside Montgomery, and rising expectations for progress after WWII). Yet,
new findings and new analysis of the data suggest that unrest was not stable, that patience was
not slowly eroding over many years, and that anger developed in response to changes in the
segregation system and worsening social interactions on the buses. In fact, a marked increase
in abuse and humiliation of black bus riders began in earnest in late 1953 and continued into
1955. That is to say, the timing of the boycott is related to new experiences of humiliation and
unrest that existed in a much narrower time scale and far closer to the emergence of the bus
boycott than previously assumed. Support for this reality in Montgomery can be found in
reports and observations by Jo Ann Robinson
that are corroborated by primary documents,
and in quantitative analysis of the testimonies in court case State of Alabama v. Martin Luther
King Jr. (1956).
In 1952, Jo Ann Robinson became President of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), an
academic women’s organization intent on improving the situation of blacks in Montgomery
(Levinger-Limor 2001). The issue of abuses on the buses does not appear to have been at the
forefront of the WPC agenda until late 1953.
One of Robinson’s first initiatives was to map
and document specific areas of contention in the city. In early 1954, Robinson and her WPC
colleagues raised several issues with the city officials. The women asked for limited access to
the segregated public parks and swimming pools; the hiring of black bus drivers in predom-
inantly black neighborhood at night; and requested that buses would stop at each block, as they
do in white neighborhoods. Police Commissioner Dave Birmingham, who was elected in
January 1954 with the help of black Montgomerians’ votes, was sympathetic to their appeals
and allowed black representatives on the parks’ boards.
The city officials instructed the bus
company to add stops in black neighborhoods, but ignored the other requests.
The first documentation of WPC’s formal complaint to the city officials and to the bus
company over abuse of passengers on the buses is a letter dated February 22, 1954. This
letter, which is cited and analyzed here for the first time, was sent in the context of an increase
in bus fares, but in it the main objection is not to the increase of fees, but rather to the bad
treatment of black passengers.
It was only at this point, in early 1954, that the WPC began
presenting evidence of the humiliation suffered by black customers at the hands of bus
drivers. In addition, a number of social phenomena appeared or amplified during 1954. “The
number of Negro men walking increased during 1954 and early 1955. They walked to and
from work, to town, to movies, to see their girlfriends, because of fear of riding the buses”
(Robinson 1987: 37). Furthermore, black passengers started becoming visibly angered by the
bus seating arrangement and the ten reserved seats for whites in particular. Robinson (1987:
35) captures this vividly:
The practice of reserved seats had become an ultimate humiliation. The ten empty seats
became an obsession to weary workers, whose tired feet and aching backs urged them to sit
down. The number ten became a damnable number. . . . [It] signified bad luck. Nobody wanted
that number on anything that belonged to him. It loomed large, formidable. It was actually a
mental, a psychological omen: Threatening! Deadly!
Robinson’s account indicates a transformation (i.e., “had become” rather than “always
have been”) in the perception of the practice of reserved seats and the emotional responses
triggered by it. She notes the emergence of a new mindset related to the buses and the social
interactions on them. This specific state of mind was previously undetected, as it appears from
her reports. Robinson reports another escalation in the level of agitation “during the 1954-
1955 period, when complaints multiplied,” and she adds that it was then “that the WPC
prepared to stage a bus boycott” (1987: 25-26).
The WPC’s documentation of the bus situation also found that “pent-up emotions re-
sulting from bitter experiences on local transportation lines often were released upon hus-
bands, wives, or children, resulting in injuries that necessitated hospital care” (Robinson
1987: 36). Robinson notes that these incidents of domestic violence, as well as adult and child
delinquency, had been on the rise but she does not indicate a date for the escalation point of
these social problems.
She asserts that the growing difficulty on the buses had allowed for
these problems to become an unconscious way to release the humiliation and nerve-racking
experiences that blacks suffered on the buses. Interestingly, after the bus boycott began,
domestic violence incidents reported to the local hospitals decreased substantially. As
Robinson recalls, “the superintendent of a local hospital, which customarily treated many
weekend fight victims, told a reporter that since the boycott began, the hospital had fewer
such patients” (Robinson 1987: 37).
Robinson’s account is corroborated by two more sources. The first is an interview with
C.T. Fitzpatrick, a native of Montgomery, a white businessman, and a member of the Men of
Montgomery, a group of concerned white men who tried to find a solution to the boycott.
Fitzpatrick reported that “[a] Negro nurse said that she has been able to go to church on
Sunday for the past five or seven weeks, though she used to hardly ever go. A hospital
attendant said that the number of knife cases they received over the weekend has decreased a
great deal since the boycott.”
The second source is King who also noted that since the
boycott “[t]here has been a decline in heavy drinking. Statistics on crime and divorce indicate
that both are on the wane” ([1958] 1965: 164).
Quantitative and qualitative analysis of the court case State of Alabama v. Martin Luther
King Jr. also demonstrates the rising agitation over the bus situation since late 1953. The
defense summoned 33 black witnesses who used to ride the buses. They were asked about
unpleasant experiences on the buses and then to indicate the year in which they occurred. The
answers provided 51 indications of years in which the witnesses experienced abuse, thirty of
which (58 percent) are for the years 1953-1955 and the remaining 21 indications are for the
years 1937-1952 (see figure 2).
The testimony of James H. Bagley, the manager of the bus
company Montgomery City Lines, also corroborates the view that dynamics were changing on
the buses. When Bagley was asked if he received complaints from blacks he testified, “We
had some complaints about seating. I would say the last two years it has been nearly all
[about] seating.”
The examination of the period that precedes the boycott suggests that grievances about
the bus situation in Montgomery were multiplying since late 1953. Abuse of black passengers
was not new but abuse and a sense of humiliation were apparently amplified from late 1953
leading up to the boycott. To put it in the words of Beatrice Charles, a former black bus rider,
“This stuff [abuse on buses] has been going on for a long time. To tell you the truth, it’s been
happening every since I came here before the war [World War II]. But here in the last few
years they’ve been getting worse and worse.
The escalation of humiliation from late 1953 to 1955 created a climate conducive for
mass mobilization against the bus segregation system. For example, on March 2, 1955, nine
months before Rosa Parks
was arrested, a 15-year-old schoolgirl named Claudette Colvin
was also arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat.
Given the new climate that existed in
Montgomery at this period, Colvin’s arrest caused widespread anger and nearly launched a
bus boycott. Robinson writes that following Colvin’s arrest and especially following her con-
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
viction “large numbers refused to use the buses, but as they cooled off somewhat, they
gradually drifted back” (1987: 42). Black Montgomerians were therefore ready to participate
in such boycott by the time of Colvin’s arrest.
The examination of the antecedents of the boycott highlights an increase in grievances in
Montgomery before December 1955. These findings invite explanations by available theories
of social movement. The paradigmatic explanations of the U.S. civil rights movement emer-
gence, and the Montgomery bus boycott in particular, have been those relating to new
“political opportunity structures” that were identified by black political entrepreneurs and then
leveraged against the Jim Crow system (e.g., in national politics, McAdam 1982, 2009;
Abernathy 1989b; Tarrow 1994; McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996; Jenkins, Jacobs, and
Agnone 2003; or in local politics, Thornton 1989, 2002; for a more complex evaluation of the
interplay of international, national, and local politics as political opportunities see Skrentny
Figure 2. Number of Abuses on Buses by Year Testified in King’s Trial
1937 1943 1945 1947 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955
In the case of the Montgomery bus boycott, however, the motivation for the boycott in
the minds of black bus passengers was engendered by real-life personal experiences and not
due to a response to abstract and far-removed notions of political opportunities, which were
stable compared to the rapidly worsening realities in Montgomery, principally on the buses. I
found no new political opportunities that could account for the growing unrest in Montgomery
or explain why the boycott began in 1955. Nor did I find evidence that the boycott against the
bus system started because black leaders, let alone the bus riders, identified or responded to
new political opportunities or tried to mobilize people around such opportunities. There is
also little indication that existing organizations were seeking out disgruntled instrumentalist
participants and inviting them to protest for collective goods in a “supply and demand” man-
ner (Klandermans 2003: 676-89). In fact, a few courageous leaders who attempted to mobilize
black Montgomerians to political campaigns were met with apathy and hostility before 1953,
as was discussed above. The major change occurred due to local circumstances from late
1953. Only after Parks’ arrest, this grassroots anger and emotional energies enabled the active
leaders (especially Robinson and Nixon) to harness the grassroots anger and emotional ener-
gies over experiences of humiliation and call for a rather spontaneous one-day boycott by flyers
Number of Abuses on Buses
and word-of-mouth. Following this surprising success, the boycott was extended and in a
well-structured and organized manner (on spontaneity in the early stage of mobilization in the
1960s sit-ins, see especially Killian 1984; and also Polletta 1998; and in Montgomery, King
[1958] 1965: 41).
McAdam’s (1983: 43) political process approach also identifies the “resources of the
minority community that enable insurgent groups to exploit these opportunities.” In this
category of “mobilizing structures” and “social networks” scholars have later included a range
of factors such as the number of organization members, solidarity incentives, leaders, and
communication networks, such as churches, friends and families (McAdam 1982: Morris
1984; Opp and Gern 1993; McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, 1996: 3-4; Andrews and Biggs
2006; 43-47; compare to Biggs 2006, and Goodwin and Japer 1998: 29, 36, 43-45). Yet,
networks of friends, workers, and churches were relatively constant until Rosa Parks’ arrest.
They cannot explain the rise of discontent and grievances in Montgomery, as reported above.
Furthermore, although there were important changes in leadership (e.g., King), and in
organization (the MIA), and in the harnessing of some church ministers the “social gospel,”
these changes occurred only as a result of the first-day success of the boycott on December 5,
1955. The majority of black church leadership was not yet ready to protest and refrained from
attempting to mobilize for a boycott until December 5, and some continued discouraging it
even after the boycott began (see Abernathy 1989a: 114-15; King [1958] 1965: 19; King
[1963] 2000: 27, 31). As such, these structural factors are outcomes that cannot account for
the origins of the boycott. This is not to say that these factors were not significant in the
second stage of the boycott—a phase that required organizing and coordinating collective
action (e.g., a car-pooling system), strengthening emotional energies among the participants
(e.g., leaders’ “pep-talks”), and defining political goals and strategies against the city officials
(Shultziner 2010: 93-104. These factors were significant, but they lack explanatory power and
provide little insight regarding the social-psychological background that allowed the boycott
to begin in the first place.
Finally, the political process approach also stresses “cognitive liberation” as a pre-
requisite shift in consciousness, i.e., when a significant segment of the population come to
define their situation as unjust and come to perceive themselves as capable of bringing about
political change through collective action. “Shifting political conditions” are assumed to
“supply the necessary ‘cognitive cues’ capable of triggering the process of cognitive liber-
ation” (McAdam 1982: 51; see also page 230). Accordingly, it has been assumed that
“conditioning the presence or absence of these perceptions is that complex of social
psychological dynamics—collective attribution, social construction—that Snow and various
of his colleagues . . . have referred to as framing processes” (McAdam, McCarthy and Zald
1996: 5; see also Gamson 1992, 1998; Snow and Benford 1992). McAdam, McCarthy and
Zald (1996: 6, original emphasis) further defined framing as “the conscious, strategic efforts
by groups of people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that
legitimate and motivate collective action.
However, the growing grievances in Montgomery were directly related to a worsening
situation on the buses, which is not what political process theorists meant by “shifting
political conditions.” Similarly, there were no “cognitive cues” prior to December 5, 1955 that
signaled or persuaded hardworking black passengers that the time for liberation is imminent
or that the system can be successfully challenged and changed through collective action.
These perceptions were realized only after a rather spontaneous one-day boycott in response
to Parks’ arrest. In terms of framing, there was little need for new cultural frames to ignite the
boycott. Instead, there were shared experiences regarding the abuse on the buses that did not
require new cultural or master frames. Moreover, similar to mobilizing structures, the new
“cultural frames” (e.g., King’s social gospel) that did come into play were employed in
Montgomery after the boycott had begun; they were not the causes for the growing unrest in
Montgomery up to Parks’ arrest.
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
In sum, the data provides evidence of concrete changes in the levels of abuse, anger,
patience, and unrest from late 1953 to 1955. This section thus challenges the prevalent idea
that types and levels of grievances in Montgomery were less significant factors in explaining
why and how the boycott movement evolved compared to explanations based on political
opportunity structures, mobilizing structures, and framing. In fact, I found no changes in these
three factors before the boycott had begun in December 1955. In order to understand why
agitation over the bus situation began to escalate from late 1953, we need to examine the
causes of the worsening social interactions and sense of humiliation on the buses during this
The grassroots’ unrest that enabled and precipitated the boycott was related to three main
dimensions of the daily situation on the buses. These three factors are the inability of the
Montgomery bus segregation system to cope with the changing ratio of black and white pas-
sengers; bus drivers’ growing frustrations over labor conditions in the mid-1950s; and the
drivers’ reactions to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling banning segregation in public schools.
These factors will be discussed in turn.
Montgomery’s Bus Segregation System and the Decline of White Passengers
The situation on Montgomery’s public buses changed considerably in the years 1946-
1955. In 1946-1947 the bus company was at its peak in terms of the number of passengers. In
those years, public buses were still a main means of transportation for both whites and blacks
and the bus company’s revenues were high. The buses were often fully loaded and over-
crowded in rush hours, so much so that buses were added to two bus lines on July 1946
(Montgomery Advertiser, July 20, 1946). In that same month, a group of white men (railroad
employees) even pressured the city commission to force the bus company to put curtains in-
side the buses in order to completely segregate whites from blacks, and to prevent them from
coming into close contact during rush hours.
Since late 1947, however, the Montgomery
City Lines Inc. bus company was losing passengers, most of whom were white bus riders who
bought private cars. Statistics on the annual number of bus passengers reveals that the
company experienced a drop of over seven million (7,242,855) annual passengers, of those
close to six-and-a-half million (6,475,372) were fee-paying passengers (i.e., annual revenue
passengers in figure 3) in 1952 compared to its climax in 1947 (see figure 3).
In order to enable the bus company to remain profitable the city officials allowed it to
increase bus fares more than once between 1952 and 1954. In 1948 the fare was still five
cents flat rate, while in 1952 the cash-rate fare rose to ten cents and the economy tokens were
now sold at twenty cents per three tokens (Alabama Journal, October 7, 1952; Montgomery
Advertiser, November 26, 1952).
Some bus lines were rerouted or eliminated and additional
increases in bus fares occurred in 1952-1954, not without formal protest on the side of some
black leaders (Alabama Journal, February 13, 1954; Alabama Journal, February 17, 1954;
Montgomery Advertiser, March 17, 1954; Alabama Journal, March 17, 1954).
The fare hike
at the end of 1952 augmented the bus company’s revenues to just over one million dollars in
1953, and further fare increases slowed down the continued decline in revenue from 1954
until December 1955. That the bus company’s revenues continued to drop after 1953 despite
rising fares suggests that the bus company was still losing passengers in 1953 and beyond.
This reflects the nationwide trend of decreasing use of bus transportation and increasing use
of private cars in the United States at the time.
Figure 3. Passengers and Revenues of the Montgomery City Lines Inc., 1947-1956
1947 1948 1949 1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956
Total Number of
Passengers ($)
Revenue ($)
The decline of passengers had special effects in Montgomery due to its unique system of bus
segregation. The decline of passengers was mainly of white customers. In order to keep the
white-only seats occupied, the percentage of white passengers should have been kept at a
minimum of 28 percent (ten seats out of 36) on all bus routes (see also figure 1 above). By
1953 or 1954, however, the actual percentage of white passengers on the buses dropped far
below 28 on most lines, and on some lines they constituted a tiny minority or were completely
absent. Black passengers thus had become the predominant users in most of the city lines, and
on many of them they constituted over 90 percent.
The ten reserved seats for whites in the
front of the bus, therefore, took up a percentage of seats that had become far detached from
white passengers’ actual occupancy of the buses, except for rush hours on certain routes. In
other words, there were simply not enough white passengers to fill their designated reserved
seats. In this new reality, the white-only seats had become conspicuously and humiliatingly
empty during most hours of the day. It is in this context that we should understand Jo Ann
Robinson (1987: 35, emphasis added) noting that “[t]he practice of reserved seats had become
an ultimate humiliation.” On February 22, 1954, Robinson and seven other notable black
leaders sent a complaint to the mayor and city commissioners about poor bus services and the
empty seats reserved for whites.
This point is also corroborated in letter by Rev. Uriah J.
Fields, which was published in a Montgomery daily on April 1954: “The Negro citizens of
Montgomery are fed up with having to stand up on buses when there are empty seats in the
front. Especially buses going to and from areas which are predominantly inhabited by
Negroes” (Montgomery Advertiser, April 6, 1954). In addition, Robert S. Graetz (1991: 41), a
white pastor who came to Montgomery in 1955, notes, “There were never enough white
people on board to fill the bus, but no Negro was ever allowed to sit in those front seats, even
if there was not a single white passenger on board.”
Despite the declining number of white passengers and the growing visibility of the empty
seats, the policies of segregation on buses remained unchanged. A few lenient bus drivers
allowed black passengers to sit in the front section when the bus entered predominantly black
neighborhoods, but generally the harsh policy continued to be strictly enforced. When black
passengers attempted to sit in the front section, bus drivers often behaved in a cruel manner,
adding insult to injury. Robinson’s (1987: 36) account captures those moments on the buses
and their psychological repercussions:
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Black riders would often forget pride and feeling, forget the terrible offensive names they
were so often called when they dared to sit in one of the ten reserved seats. Hurting feet, tired
bodies, empty stomachs often tempted them to sit down. Names like “black nigger,” black
bitches,” “heifers,” “whores,” and so on, brought them to their feet again…. Whatever the case
was, they would be badly shaken, nervous, tired, fearful, and angry.
The visibility of the empty reserved seats and the harsh reactions of the bus drivers
against weary black passengers who attempted to sit in these empty seats constituted a new
crucial reality of riding buses in Montgomery. Clearly, this change in the ratio of black and
white passengers in the context of the special bus segregation system that existed in
Montgomery is not what political process theorists normally mean by “political opportunity
structure” or “shifting political conditions” (see above). It would be difficult to term those
changes on the buses as such without reaching tautological and analytically unhelpful
definitions of those concepts (see also Goodwin and Jasper 1999).
The Role of the Bus Drivers
Bus drivers played a central functional role as the enforcers of segregation. As the
foregoing discussion suggests, their behavior contributed significantly to the growing sense of
humiliation and agitation among black Montgomerians. Despite overwhelming grievances
over abuses on the buses, there is no research to date about the bus drivers of the Montgomery
City Lines Inc.
The role of the bus drivers has not been discussed or analyzed; it is simply
assumed to have been a constant, overlooked by research that has focused instead on the
dynamics of the boycott, organizational and political factors, and specifically on the actions of
the black community. As I argue in this section, however, increasing unrest among black
Montgomerians resulted from worsening attitudes and behavior of bus drivers whose
frustrations were growing due to issues related to their working conditions.
In 1955 the bus company employed 94 bus drivers, all of whom were blue-collar, low-
income white men. In 1953 they were making $1.40 an hour and working eight and a half
hours a day, six days a week, without any paid vacations. At that period, living costs were
increasing and labor-related disputes in the South were intensifying.
These new problems
affected Montgomery’s bus drivers as much as, or perhaps more than, the rest of the white
population. The Montgomery City Lines Inc. bus drivers were organized in an affiliate (local
765) of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway and Motor Coach
Employees of America. In October 1950 the bus drivers had their first major dispute over
salary increases.
In December 1952 the bus drivers also threatened to strike, seeking im-
proved salaries (Montgomery Advertiser, December 13, 1952; Alabama Journal, December
13, 1952; Montgomery Advertiser, December 14, 1952). In 1953 they realized that their bus-
driver peers in Birmingham were enjoying better benefits (such as a two-week paid vacation
and six-day sick leaves) and were receiving better salaries (some 20 cents an hour more). Dis-
satisfied with the new contract offers they received, the drivers stopped running the buses on
December 12, 1953, at the height of the Christmas shopping season. They returned to the
buses four days later, after compromising on a two-phased eight-cent-an-hour salary increase
(Montgomery Advertiser, December 12-16, 1953; Alabama Journal, December 12, 14-15,
Beyond their frustrations over working conditions and salaries, the bus drivers also had to
deal with a more complicated job on the buses compared to their peers in other cities. The bus
drivers were entrusted with police powers and were responsible for enforcing the complicated
policies of segregation on the buses, an aspect of the job that put them in delicate power
relations with their own passengers. One point of contention that was already mentioned is the
issue of not allowing black passengers to sit down in white-only seats. Bus drivers had also to
be constantly aware of the changing ratio between white and black passengers (and to reseat
the passengers accordingly) as the bus moved between the different parts of the city at dif-
ferent hours of the day. Thus, bus drivers would occasionally need to assert their authority as
the enforcers of segregation.
As a result of this system, confrontations were not uncommon. For example, several white
passengers who refused to move when they sat next to black passengers in the back section were
arrested and fined.
Although black passengers were law-abiding citizens and would not risk
challenging the bus drivers directly, they also did not always voluntarily move unless it was
clear that they had no choice but to do so. Gladys Moore, who testified in State of Alabama v.
King (1956), gave an example of how such social interactions would be played out: “you are
toward the rear of the bus and when the driver tells you to move you look the other way.”
The frustration and strain of bus drivers is captured in occasional complaints of white
citizens against bus drivers. For example, in September 1954, a white citizen wrote to a local
newspaper a short article addressed to the manager of the Montgomery bus company. He
noted tension on the side of the bus drivers on two newly extended routes: “The strain is
noticeable on the bus drivers, too. They are hard pressed to meet the new schedules imposed
on them” (Alabama Journal, September 15, 1954). Another complaint from a white citizen in
that same month accused bus drivers of incivility and abuse of little children on school buses
(Montgomery Advertiser, September 5, 1954).
Compared to white customers, however, black passengers were easy targets and a pop-
ulation against whom the bus drivers could vent their frustrations. Drivers were keenly aware
that they could get away with such behavior without being discharged or rebuked. As Ralph
Abernathy (1989a: 132) recalls, “Several of the white drivers were determined to harass our
people at every opportunity. . . . Clearly this kind of gratuitous cruelty was contri-buting to an
increasing tension on Montgomery buses. We tried to reason with local authorities and with
bus company officials. They were polite, listened to our complaints with serious expressions
on their faces, and did nothing.”
In this way, black customers became scapegoats for bus drivers’ work-related frustrations
and difficulties managing the bus segregation system on their own routes. In early 1954, for
instance, following complaints that were raised by the WPC, city officials instructed the bus
company to stop at each block in black neighborhoods, just as they did in white neighbor-
hoods. Bus drivers could not simply ignore their duties and not enforce the new rules for they
would risk losing their jobs. An easier way to express their frustrations was against the black
passengers who thought it was futile and dangerous to complain. Indeed, following this
decision, Jo Ann Robinson (1987: 32) writes that black riders “felt proud and happy that the
City Fathers have acted favorably on their behalf. For a few days bus operators acted in a
generally satisfactory manner toward all passengers, and everyone was pleased.” That is, the
bus drivers complied with the new rules, but Robinson (1987: 32) adds, “the joy was short-
lived. The mumblings started again, as stories of unhappy experiences began to circulate once
more.” A possible explanation of Robinson’s account is that the bus drivers resented the new
roles that required them to make additional stops and increase levels of service for black
customers, and subsequently retaliated against black passengers.
Finally, the role of the bus drivers in creating a humiliating atmosphere on the buses and
contributing to unrest among black Montgomerians is revealed in interviews with two
members of the Men of Montgomery (see above). Businessman C.T. Fitzpatrick mentions that
the committee investigated the charges against the bus drivers and discovered that “the
company had some rough necks who were rough with everybody” and that the bus company
“discharged five of the troublemakers during the session.”
James J. Bailey, a white business
manager was more explicit about the role of the bus drivers in causing the boycott:
The drivers were rude to both white and Negro passengers but they were ruder to the
Negroes…. I, personally, think that discourteous treatment brought about the demand for
change in the seating arrangement. I think that was the main source of dissatisfaction and that
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
the desire for change in seating would never have come about if the drivers had treated Negro
passengers with respect and dignity. I don’t think enough Negroes were dissatisfied about the
seating arrangement for that alone to cause the boycott. . . .
In sum, a change on the part of the bus drivers’ behavior toward black passengers appears
to have laid the psychological groundwork for the boycott. One likely reason for this
deterioration in the treatment and humiliation of black passengers is the growth of labor-
related frustrations and demands on the part of the bus drivers.
This factor of worsening
social interactions on the side of the white bus drivers toward black passengers over labor
issues is hard to conceptualize and explain by the political process paradigm.
The Impact of Brown v. Board of Education
The bus drivers’ mistreatment of black passengers reached a new height following May
17, 1954, the day in which the U.S. Supreme Court handed its famous ruling in the court case
Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka (henceforth Brown).
The ruling—that deter-
mined segregation in schools was unconstitutional—was known by segregationists as “Black
Monday.” The announcement of the ruling triggered a massive backlash in the South and gave
rise to the White Citizens’ Councils (WCC), a group of extremist social organizations that
avowed to fight integration and keep the South segregated (McMillen 1971). Members of the
WCC believed that the ultimate intentions of those pushing for integration were to destroy the
“Southern way of life” and push for “intermarriage” and “the mixing of the races,” shared
taboos and abominations that needed no further explanation. The so-called mixing of white
and black children in the same classroom was inconceivable to many white Southerners, and
would indeed take years to be implemented even symbolically in Mississippi and Alabama.
Brown was seen as an attack against whites and an attempt for a Second Reconstruction, the
first reconstruction attack being the policies aimed at defeating the South in the American
Civil War (see also McVeigh 1999).
These attitudes are vividly expressed in a pamphlet of
the Central Alabama Citizen’s Council located in Montgomery, AL:
The Citizen’s Council is the South’s answer to the mongrelizers. We will not be integrated!
We are proud of our white blood and our heritage of sixty centuries.
This integration scheme ties right in with the new, one world, one creed, one race philosophy
fostered by the ultra-idealists and international left-wingers.
If we submit to this unconstitutional, judge-made integration law, the malignant powers of
atheism, communism and mongrelization will surely follow, not only in our Southland but
throughout our nation.
What decision are you going to make for those baby children at home?
These appeals were, in a general sense, tremendously successful in the South as the WCC
grew to be the most significant social movement responding to Brown at the time. As
McVeigh (1999: 1463) argues, conservative movements of this sort, “at least in their forma-
tive stages, are engaged primarily in defensive collective action” that seeks to “preserve or
restore the established order” and that such movements are based on the “emergence of new
grievances.” He adds that under these conditions of new grievances there are also “new
incentives to engage in extra institutional political action, in particular, the politics of protest,
violence, and terror” (McVeigh 1999: 1474).
Reactions to Brown differed from place to place. A major factor influencing responses to
Brown in a given community was the ratio between blacks and whites. Reactions to Brown
were mild where the black community was a small minority but “racial tensions ran highest
and white intransigence was greatest where the Negro population was the most dense”
(McMillen 1971: 6). In Montgomery, the black community consisted of between 40 and 50
percent of the city’s total population by the mid-1950s. The geographic and historic location
of Montgomery as the Capital of the eleven states that succeeded from the United States (the
Cradle of the Confederacy), and the city’s highly conservative white elite, were additional
factors exacerbating the reactions to Brown among white Montgomerians. One such reaction
came in the form of strong pressures for social conformity and ideological intransigence
among many white Montgomerians.
A more overt and active response was to join the WCC.
Beyond the general factors that made the Brown decision sensitive in Montgomery, there
is also more specific evidence exemplifying the bus drivers’ ideological reactions to Brown,
and consequently their worsening treatment of black passengers. This connection could be
seen by juxtaposing three sources of evidence: interviews with white Montgomerians; inter-
views with, and field reports on, the bus drivers; and the timing and content of Jo Ann
Robinson’s letter to Mayor Gayle concerning the bus situation.
In an early phase of the boycott, two prominent white Montgomerians provided Anna
Holden, a student at Fisk University, with valuable information about the bus drivers and their
reactions to Brown.
Former Police Commissioner Dave Birmingham explained privately
that the Brown Supreme Court ruling “agitated the separation issue and generated a lot of
misunderstanding between the races. There is more unrest over segregation than there used to
be.” He also added that “some of those fellows [bus drivers] are mean as hell and they didn’t
ask them [black passengers] to get up or to go back in a nice way. I would say that five or six
of them are as mean as rattlesnakes and they did all kinds of things that made the niggas
Dave Norris, president of a local workers’ union council, revealed that many of the
bus drivers were affiliated with the White Citizens’ Council. He noted, “I am sure that a good
proportion of them belong. Men in the lowest income level seem to be the ones who are
joining . . . the type of men who do nothing but drink and talk about the ‘niggers’ for re-
Both Birmingham and Norris held the bus drivers accountable for the boycott,
either directly or indirectly. In their view, the bus drivers abused black passengers to the point
of pushing the black community to a mass-scale confrontation.
Holden also made important field observations about, and conducted interviews with, bus
drivers early in the boycott. For example, she interviewed two bus drivers on January 21,
1956. She spotted one of those drivers at a WCC meeting in Montgomery. She asked the other
driver what he thought started the boycott and he replied, “this NAACP [which stood behind
the Brown lawsuit] is what started it.”
Another bus driver told Holden, “They already had all
the buses and they weren’t satisfied with that. They want to get in the schools and everything
else. This is just the first step.”
Holden also interviewed William C. Welch, the president of
the bus drivers’ local union. He used the world “nigra” and “nigger” to refer to blacks, instead
of “Negro,” the common name that was used at the time. Holden reports that she had also
seen him with another bus driver at a WCC rally.
These reports strongly indicate an
ideological orientation and affiliation of the bus drivers with the WCC. This suggests that
when the Brown decision made dramatic headlines in Montgomery and stirred fears in the
white community (Thornton 1989: 343), the bus drivers worsened their treatment of black
passengers and tried to “put the Negroes back in their place,” which was a phrase commonly
used after Brown.
Finally, the connection between the Brown decision and the surge of abuse of black
passengers on the buses is also apparent from the timing and content of a letter that Jo Ann
Robinson sent to Mayor Gayle on May 21, 1954. In this letter Robinson protests the situation
on the buses and reminds the city officials of earlier requests of the WPC, among which was
the request for a “city law that would make it possible for Negroes to sit from back toward
front, and whites from front toward back until all the seats are taken” and the request that
blacks would not be asked to pay in the front and enter from the rear of the bus. Robinson also
wrote that “[m]ore and more of our people are already arranging with neighbors and friends to
ride to keep from being insulted and humiliated by bus drivers. There has been talk from
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of busses.”
significance of this letter has been previously noted in terms of the importance of the WPC
planning and organizing for the boycott (Garrow 1985; on the WPC see also Levinger-Limor
2001). What has not been noticed is the fact that this letter, which threatens a boycott over the
bus situation, was sent merely four days after Brown. Rather than raising the issue of school
segregation, which was then at the top news headlines, Robinson raises the issue of an
aggravation of abuse on the buses. Moreover, she asks for very modest reforms, namely, a
modified segregation system in which blacks are not required to relinquish their seats, similar
to the segregation system in Mobile, and for blacks to be allowed to enter the bus from the
front. That a letter of such nature was sent almost immediately after Brown does not seem to
be incidental. Without considering the causal connection to the growing abuse on the buses as
a result of Brown, this letter is highly puzzling.
These complementary sources strongly suggest that Brown aggravated the treatment of
black passengers and was therefore another event that fueled the unrest among blacks that led
to the boycott. A focus on the ideological affiliation of the bus drivers with the WCC helps to
explain the ways in which fear and anger unleashed against blacks following Brown contri-
buted to the deterioration of service to black passengers on the buses in Montgomery.
The analysis of the Montgomery bus boycott offered in this article sheds new light on issues
surrounding the event that have otherwise remained unexplored or unresolved. I proposed that
by exploring the ways Montgomery was unique in the experiences of blacks on the public bus
transportation we can better understand why mass mobilization occurred in Montgomery and
not elsewhere, why the struggle arose over the issue of bus segregation and not over other
acute social, political, or material problems, and why Montgomery remained quiet in terms of
protest and mobilization after 1956. This approach also provides an alternative and more
complete explanation for the puzzling timing of the Montgomery bus boycott. Black pas-
sengers’ patience had not been slowly eroded over decades or many years. Rather, they
experienced a sharp increase of abuse and humiliation by bus drivers in a defined period of
time, beginning toward late 1953. The situation on the buses worsened in terms of the
visibility of empty white-only seats and the behavior of the bus drives, and these new
phenomena had a widespread emotional effect on blacks who used the bus services daily. A
strong sense of humiliation ensued from these social interactions and this prepared the
community to engage in what was initially an “unthinkable” one-day boycott to retaliate
against the main location and source of their humiliation, the buses and the bus drivers.
Without considering the role of the bus drivers in aggravating the situation in Montgomery,
we are left with unanswered questions about how and why strong unrest actually emerged
among black Montgomerians who were rather passive until late 1953, why they targeted the
buses and not other injustices, and why they did not participate in another sizeable mobili-
zation after the boycott.
Although it is difficult to evaluate the causal weight of each factor, the decline of white
passengers which left ten reserved seats visibly empty, and the increasing abuse on the side of
bus drivers from late 1953, seem to be the main causes. Each of those affected the majority of
black Montgomerians who boarded the buses, and there was no escape from these experiences
except for choosing to walk (or take taxis for the very few who could afford it regularly).
Each factor on its own generated a sense of humiliation, frustration, and often anger. Their
combination was explosive, synergetic, and hard to disentangle. The Brown decision certainly
aggravated a highly sensitive situation but arguably the escalating abuse from late 1953 was
sufficient for the boycott to begin even without the bus drivers’ backlash after Brown. This
decision was handed down in May 1954 whereas the boycott began in December 1955
(though it nearly started following Claudette Colvin’s arrest in March 1955). Thus, this
escalation intensified the overall sense of abuse that was felt and expressed in various ways in
the black community of Montgomery before Brown.
Given these new empirical findings about the period leading to the bus boycott, what is
then the best way to conceptualize and theorize the birth of the Montgomery bus boycott? I
have offered a theoretical framework that stresses the importance of real-life contentious
social interactions in generating the social-psychological background of this event. This
approach echoes Goffman’s (1956a: 270) call to examine “what categories of persons become
embarrassed in what recurrent situations.” These factors are indeed independent causes that
explain the emergence of new grievances and emotional energies that gave rise to the
Montgomery boycott movement. While this framework appears suitable to explain the social-
psychological origins of the Montgomery bus boycott, it does not yet relate to all the im-
portant aspects, factors, and dynamics that became significant after the boycott began on
December 5, 1955.
This theoretical framework calls for an analytic distinction between three separate stages
in the life cycle of movements: social-psychological antecedents, momentum and resilience,
and success or failure in achieving the goals of a movement (see Shultziner 2010: 170-81). It
is quite implausible—and given several decades of research, most likely impossible—that one
set of factors—such as political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing—would be
able to account for both the causes of movement emergence, the causes that keep movements
going, and the determinants of their success or failure. Factors and causes that operate in one
stage may be remarkably different both in type and in scale than those that operate in another
stage. In either case, as Goodwin and Jasper (1999: 51) recommended, “We should never
assume a willingness, even eagerness to protest (if only the opportunities were there!) but
must see how this is created.”
In order to observe why, how, and when protest motivation is created, an analytic
distinction must first be drawn between the social-psychological antecedents of the boycott
and its outcomes. For example, the factors that caused unrest in Montgomery prior to the
boycott cannot be explained by, or reduced to, structural and institutional factors pertaining to
movement centers and organizations, which became more significant after the boycott began.
In a broader theoretical context, this calls for a distinction between causes that are involved in
giving rise to unrest—such as dramatic events and social interactions that give rise to a sense
of abuse, humiliation, low self-esteem, and anger—and factors that are more closely related to
keeping the momentum of a struggle, such as a sense of pride, joy, high self-esteem, high self-
efficacy, and a new or more cohesive group identity (see also distinctions in Jasper 2006,
2012; Shultziner 2010: 150-156; Shultziner forthcoming).
Furthermore, organizational, institutional, and political factors play an important yet
different role in different stages of a movement. For example, leaders’ political decisions and
compromises are critical for success or failure in achieving a movement’s ultimate goals but
they are often irrelevant to the emergence of new grievances and mobilization in the first
stage. Strong and well-organized movement centers and networks are important for sustaining
a movement in face of repression but they may not explain why contention emerged in the
first place. Leaders, skills, and strategic and tactical calculations often play a crucial role once
a movement is rolling but may not have any effect and explanatory power regarding a
widespread sense of humiliation among citizens whose social interactions with law en-
forcement officers have deteriorated. Thus, it may prove more accurate to explain separately
the three stages of a movement, as noted above. In the case of the Montgomery bus boycott,
the movement’s origins cannot be explained by structural and leadership factors that became
very important in the second and third stages, namely, only after the first-day of the boycott
(for a full discussion of these factors during the year-long boycott see Shultziner 2010: 87-
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Final theoretical lessons would include the need to more closely examine factors
commonly associated with the emergence of the U.S. civil rights movement and social
movements more generally. The literature on social movements tends to emphasize national,
international, economic, and state institutions, as well as other macrolevel factors that impinge
upon the political process. As the Montgomery bus boycott case illustrates, however, a social
movement could emerge even when macrolevel factors are relatively stable. Furthermore,
assumed changes in the macro level do not necessarily translate into new cognitive and
emotional orientations and unrest among the oppressed. The causal mechanisms should be
demonstrated more concretely on the level of individuals’ actual lives and social interactions.
The important questions then become: What are the lived experiences of the people who
eventually become psychologically ready or inclined to begin a struggle? Are there new social
interactions, physically or symbolically, that involve abuse and humiliation? Were there
dramatic events that changed the social-psychological climate? (see also Shultziner forth-
As this article suggests, social interactions between those enforcing an oppressive system
and the oppressed themselves are of paramount importance in deciphering the emergence or
escalation of unrest prior to the emergence of a social movement. Had the bus drivers been
more lenient in enforcing (or rather not enforcing) the policy of allowing black passengers to
sit in the white-only seats when the buses were being abandoned by white passengers, and had
the bus drivers not worsened their behavior so dramatically in such a short time with respect
to black customers, the Montgomery bus boycott may have not begun and the mass mobili-
zation phase of the U.S. civil rights movement may have waited for the younger generation
that led the sit-in campaigns in 1960. In this respect, the bus boycott was a very early and
highly unique protest of an unlikely generation that predated the main phase of mass mobili-
zation during 1960-1965.
In sum, the wider implications of this research for the scholarship are to look for special
local factors that trigger action. Worsening social interactions between oppressors and the
oppressed may result from a wide array of local factors and even from haphazard events: they
are not necessarily dictated by new state policies or predicated on any given set of macro-
factors. It is therefore important to examine whether there were in fact changes in real-life
social interactions and experiences and what types of social-psychological reactions they may
have generated among individuals. Furthermore, in order to uncover social-psychological
elements of important episodes it may prove useful to look for evidence from sources such as
interviews, health records, organizational and society membership, city protocols, and local
rules of behavior in a specific period yet in relation to comparable locations. An implication
for social movement activists is to look for specific sources of grievance even in areas that
might otherwise seem unlikely bases for promoting change.
The word “modern” distinguishes the movement of the mid-1950s and 1960s from a long legacy of struggle by
established organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, since
1909), and various other forms of resistance by African Americans well before the mid-1950 (see also Harding 1983;
Scott 1990; Fairclough 2004, and Rodriguez 2007).
Most black passengers were women because many black men emigrated to find work in the industrialized North
(Thornton 2002: 32).
The “South” in this paper refers to West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia,
Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Kentucky
The National City Lines Reports are located at the University of Chicago Library.
Sections 10 and 11, Chapter 6, Code of the City of Montgomery 1952. Exhibit “B” in court case Browder v. Gayle.
See the testimony of the bus company manager, James. H Bagley’s, in State of Alabama v. Martin Luther King Jr.,
Pp. 229-35, 523 (in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Alabama, 1956, No. 7399. Located at the Fred Gray
Collection, King Library and Archives; and the Alabama Department of Archives and History).
Anna Holden interview with Tom Johnson, January 20, 1956 (Holden n.d.).
Anna Holden interview with Mr. James J. Bailey, February 2, 1956 (Holden n.d).
Jo Ann Robinson letter to Mayor Gayle, May 21, 1954 (copy of letter printed in Robinson 1987: iix).
See the testimonies of the defense witnesses in the court case State of Alabama v. Martin Luther King Jr. (1956:
There are a few reports indicating grievances over segregated transportation elsewhere. Furthermore, a court case
was filed against the illegality of bus segregation and park segregation laws in Columbia, South Carolina in 1954.
The idea that abuses on the buses were relatively constant and that black Montgomerians gradually got tired of it
has been popularized in volume one of the highly successful documentary series Eyes on the Prize (PBS Video 2006;
see also Williams 2002: 60; and more generally McAdam 1982: 14, 21, 23).
Jo Ann Robinson’s (1987) memoir is one of the best participant accounts of the boycott, but it is not always
accurate with regards to dates, which is understandable given that the memoir was written and published almost 30
years after the boycott. The memoir must be read carefully in terms of timelines and needs to be corroborated with
other resources.
S.S. Seay (1990: 147-48), however, reports meeting with a bus company manager to complain about bus drivers’
behavior in 1949-1950. Seay notes that nothing came out of the meeting and the issue was not raised until two years later.
Anna Holden interview with Dave Birmingham, January 31 and February 1, 1956 (Holden n.d.).
Letter objecting to the increase in bus fares and the bus situation, signed by Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon, J.T.
Brooks, A.W. West Jr., Frizette Lee, Rufus Lewis, J.E. Pierce, and Rev. Hubbard, sent to Mayor Gayle and City
Commissioners, February 22, 1954, Minutes of the City of Montgomery, Volume dated October 1, 1951 through
September 30, 1955, p. 1128 (located at the Montgomery City Clerk Office). Edgar N. French, a minister in
Montgomery and central activist in the boycott, recounted that “[b]y 1953, there was a peculiar kind of social
unrest…. It was not at all uncommon to hear a colored citizen say… ‘WE are tired of this!’’’ (French 1989: 174).
Robinson (1987: 36-37) recalls that on particularly difficult days, grown men picked petty fights with their wives
or children; women “gave their children unnecessary beatings;” and children “resentfully fought other children” and
“beat their pets severely for no apparent reason.”
Anna Holden interview with C.T. Fitzpatrick, July 22, 1956 (Holden n.d.).
Three of the 33 defense witnesses did not indicate years; eight mentioned two years; three mentioned three years; one
mentioned 1945 and the five years preceding the boycott; eight witnesses stopped riding the buses after the years of their
reported experience. In the five last testimonies, the defense lawyers changed their question from “when was your first
experience” to “when was your last experience.” This may tilt the results slightly toward 1955. But of those who were
asked the former question the majority answered 1953. State of Alabama v. Martin Luther King Jr., Pp. 337-469.
State of Alabama v. Martin Luther King Jr., P. 354.
Willie M. Lee interview with Beatrice Charles, January 20, 1956 (Holden n.d., emphasis added).
In an interview to a Fisk University undergraduate, Willie W. Lee, who interviewed Rosa Parks about her refusal to
give up her seat, Parks said, “I was tired of being humiliated” (Willie W. Lee interview with Mrs. Rosa Parks,
February 5, 1956 [Holden n.d.]).
For more information about the Claudette Colvin’s arrest see Robinson (1987: 37-39), Gray (2002: 47-49), and for
Claudette Colvin’s own account see Gray (2009).
J.H. Bagley letter to Mr. F. Norman Hill, subject “Weekly Report,” July 30, 1946; both items are in National City
Lines Inc. Southern Region Collection, box 509 (located at the Georgia State Special Collections and Archives).
Data for this chart was obtained from the National City Lines Inc. Southern Region Collection at the Southern
Labor Archives, Georgia State University, and from National City Lines Inc. Reports to the Stockholders at the
University of Chicago. Archival data about the actual number of passengers is available only until 1952 and needs to
be extrapolated from 1953 onwards.
A four-volume collection of original newspaper clippings about the Montgomery City Lines Inc. constitutes the
Daniels Collection, which is part of the Archives and Special Collections of the Alabama State University. Clippings
are also found at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
On February 22, 1954, Jo Ann Robinson and seven other notable black leaders sent a complaint to the Mayor and
City Commissioners about the increase of fare and noted the poor bus service and the empty seats reserved to whites,
Minutes of the City of Montgomery, P. 1128.
Public Transit Equipment, Passengers, and Passenger Revenue, 1922-2000, Datapedia of the U.S., Issued by
Bernan Associates, 2004, P. 317.
This high percentage seems to have been standard for at least 63 percent of the total company buses because out of
67 company buses 42 were immediately laid up following the boycott; see Anna Holden interview with James H.
Bagley (manager of the Montgomery City Lines Inc.), January 21, 1956 (Holden n.d.).
They complained following the increase of bus fares, see Minutes of the City of Montgomery, P. 1128. See footnote
number 16 for the names of the black leaders.
Research on the bus drivers would have been difficult (but not impossible) due to their own traumas and suspicions
during and following the boycott. See for example Paul Hendrickson’s (1989) account of his attempt to interview
James F. Blake, the bus driver who led to Rosa Parks’ arrest. Still, Anna Holden did manage to make valuable
observations of, and interviews with, several bus drivers during the boycott (see below).
This is exemplified in serious disruptions in public transportation such as a 69-day strike of disgruntled bus drivers
in Montgomery’s sister bus company in Mobile, 1950; and a eight-week railroad strike in Louisville and Nashville,
1955, marked by violence. For the railroad strike see Alabama Journal May 11, 1955.
This conflict appears to have been resolved relatively quickly and there was no recourse to strike. See “Newspaper
The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Clippings Concerning Labor,” Folder Box 580 in National City Lines Inc. Southeast Region Collection.
These white passengers were mostly white men from the Maxwell Field Army Base near Montgomery where segregation
was banned, see Anna Holden interview with Dave Birmingham, January 31 and February 1, 1956 (Holden n.d.).
State of Alabama v. King (1956), P. 368.
Anna Holden interview with C.T. Fitzpatrick, March 27, 1956 (Holden n.d.).
Anna Holden interview with James J. Bailey, February 2, 1956; see also Anna Holden interview with Mrs. Leach,
Folder “Montgomery Interviews by Holden, Anna 1955-1956” (Holden n.d.).
It is important to stress that not all bus drivers were always rough with their black customers. There are reports that
some bus drivers acted kindly and fairly within the bounds of the segregation system (Montgomery Advertiser,
September 8, 1947; see also Burns 1997: 231; Graetz 1991: 41; Robinson 1987: 34). However, there were many more
humiliating acts of frustrated bus drivers whose treatment probably overshadowed these acts of human kindness.
Brown et al. versus Board of Education of Topeka et al. 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
These reactions can also be explained in terms of “siege mentality,” a collective behavior whereby individuals of a
given group believe that those who are outside of the group have harmful or negative intentions toward them (Bar-Tal
and Antebi 1992: 49-50). One of the characteristics of siege mentality is to use all necessary means to protect against
the perceived source of threat (Bar-Tal and Antebi 1992: 59).
“The Citizen’s Council,” Central Alabama Citizen’s Council, Montgomery, AL, published by the Association of
Citizen’s Councils, Winona, Miss. (Headquarters). The pamphlet was collected by Anna Holden in early 1956 and
can be found in Preston and Bonita Valien Papers.
See interviews by Anna Holden with Rev. Thomas R. Thrasher, January 23, 1956; with the Durrs, February 2, 1956;
with Dr. G. Stanley Frazer, pastor, St. James Methodist Church (and member of the Central Alabama White Citizens
Council), February 3, 1956; with Mayor W.A. Gayle, February 10, 1956; with Clyde Sellers, Police Commissioner,
February 10, 1956; all in Folder “Montgomery Interviews by Holden, Anna 1955-1956” (Holden n.d.).
Anna Gladys Holden (born 1928) was a student at Fisk University and later chair of Nashville’s CORE chapter.
She traveled to Montgomery with a research team in the early days of the bus boycott and recorded exceptionally
violable observations and interviews. The author would greatly appreciate any help contacting her (or family), Willie
M. Lee, and the other members of the research team.
Anna Holden interview with Dave Birmingham, January 31 and February 1, 1956 (Holden n.d.)
Anna Holden interview with Dave Norris, February 11, 1956, P. 5; see also interview with J.H. Bagley, V.D. King, and
bus drivers, January 21, 1956, Pp. 3-6; interview with Mr. Day, ex-bus-driver, February 11, 1956, P. 2 (Holden n.d.).
Anna Holden interview with J.H. Bagley, V.D. King, and bus drivers, January 21, 1956, Pp. 3-6 (Holden n.d.)
Anna Holden interview with a bus driver, February 1, 1956; Folder “Montgomery Interviews by Holden, Anna
1955-1956” (Holden n.d.).
Welch was interviewed while in bed and half-asleep when the interview started. Anna Holden interview with W.G.
Welch, February 9, 1956, P. 1 (Holden n.d.).
Jo Ann Robinson letter to Mayor Gayle, May 21, 1954 (copy of letter printed in Robinson 1987: iix; see also in
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... 33 Longhofer, Schofer 2010Rootes 2004. 34 Burawoy 2015Shultziner 2013;Snow et al. 1998. 35 The inequality-cum-ecological security concerns in the global environmental justice movement reinforce such an interpretation (Almeida 2019). ...
... 63 While it is also conceivable that such trust has eroded in light of ongoing policy implementation struggles during what was a long period of top-down environmental advocacy prior to the early 2000s (e.g., Almeida 2019; Longhofer, Schofer 2010; Rootes 2004), we think it more likely that this measure reflects protesters' trust in the FFF movement as an ›environmental group‹. 64 E.g., McAdam 1988;Shultziner 2013;Simon, Klandermans 2001;Snow et al. 1998. 65 E.g., Amenta 2006Milkman 2017. ...
... .g., Van Dorn et al. 2013. 26 E.g., Aslanidis 2016 Kaltwasser et al. 2017;Klandermans 2013;Shultziner 2013;Simon, Klandermans 2001; Snow et al. 1998; van Stekelenburg, Klandermans 2007; . 27 E.g., Klandermans 2013McAdam 1988; Van Dorn et al. 2013. ...
Widersprüchliche Tendenzen der Ent- und (Re-)Politisierung prägen die gegenwärtige demokratische Gesellschaft. Protestbewegungen und Populismus polarisieren auf der Straße und in sozialen Medien, während anonyme Algorithmen oder wissenschaftliche Expertise politisches Entscheiden zu technokratisieren drohen. Zugleich werfen diese Phänomene die Frage nach den demokratietheoretischen Beurteilungsmaßstäben auf. Der Sonderband liefert einen konzeptuellen Rahmen für die Analyse und Deutung dieser Prozesse und setzt bisher unverbundene Forschungsfelder in Beziehung. Theoretische Perspektiven und empirische Befunde verbinden sich so zu einer Debatte um das Verständnis sowie die Erscheinungsformen und Dynamiken von Politik im 21. Jahrhundert.
... 25 E.g., Lipset, Rokkan 1967Van Dorn et al. 2013. 26 E.g., Aslanidis 2016Inglehart, Norris 2016;Kaltwasser et al. 2017;Klandermans 2013;Shultziner 2013;Simon, Klandermans 2001;Snow et al. 1998;van Stekelenburg, Klandermans 2007;. 27 E.g., Klandermans 2013McAdam 1988;Van Dorn et al. 2013. ...
... 33 Longhofer, Schofer 2010Rootes 2004. 34 Burawoy 2015Shultziner 2013;Snow et al. 1998. 35 The inequality-cum-ecological security concerns in the global environmental justice movement reinforce such an interpretation (Almeida 2019). ...
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It is conventionally assumed that the values underlying people’s support for environmentalism are diametrically opposed to those favorable to right wing populism. While this might allow us to assume that recent global climate strike mobilizations fall on the ‘post-materialist’ and ‘progressive’ side of a battle against right wing populism, it is an open question. In order to explain the motivational origins of present climate mobilizations, we refocus attention on the need to bridge macro-historical theories on patterns of contention in Western democracies with micro-sociological ones. Employing new data from protest surveys of Fridays for Future (FFF) Global Climate Strike demonstrations that took place in Germany in 2019, we test whether the motivations of these protestors adhere to models of post-materialism either in terms of their concerns or their political engagement attitudes, and whether these motivational factors differ between younger and older generational cohorts. Our results suggest that the motivations underlying recent climate mobilizations should not be typified as post-materialist. FFF protestors expressed high levels of materialist concern and they did not view expressive or extra-institutional forms of engagement as more capable than institutional ones to bring about political change. Although the younger cohort was less disillusioned with both “protest politics” and conventional politics than adults, few indicators distinguish the youth and adult groups. Notably, the groups held in common the demand for greater scientific leadership on climate policy, rather than for greater direct democracy. This study affirms the need to avoid treating environmental movements as ideologically uniform and the importance of assessing configurations of motivational factors in mobilization. Keywords: protest; environmental movement; post-materialism and cultural value change; global climate strike; Fridays for Future; populism
... The Civil Rights movement is an apt case for assessing how the effects of varying factors shift over time because the movement's peaks, successes, tragedies, tactical shifts-as well as changes in broader political and economic conditions-highlight varying life course stages. Furthermore, the movement still plays a prominent role in social movement theorization (Andrews et al. 2015;Olzak and Ryo 2007;Shultziner 2013), making it an excellent case for understanding how these theoretical predictors change depending on different aspects of the movement. Understanding how resource availability, political context, and tactical decisions influence emerging social movements, declining movements, and movements that have demobilized differently sheds light on the broad factors that shape mobilization processes; particularly for rights-oriented movements. ...
... Despite these advances, there is still room for growth. Mobilizing forces may differ for earlier nascent periods of the movement embodied by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the "massive resistance" against it (Bartley 1999;Shultziner 2013), and such periodization may help us understand the connection between new movements like Black Lives Matter that draw more on social media than traditional SMOs with the "long Civil Rights Movement" of the twentieth century (Earl 2018;Isaac 2008). Furthermore, alternative measures of movement vitality-for example, protest size (Biggs 2018) or congressional hearings (Seguin et al. 2018)-may offer additional insights into the shifting nature of the movement across periods. ...
Social movements are constantly evolving. Protest activity waxes and wanes as movements suffer through prolonged periods of frustration, win occasional gains, and turn to new goals and issues. While theoretical models of protest activity are often sensitive to this reality, empirical models typically treat these explanations as time-invariant, rather than situated in specific moments in movements’ histories. Quite simply, we suspect that the effect of important predictors of movement activity, notably access to resources, political opportunities, repression, and competition, varies depending on the specific moment in the movement’s life course. We explore this possibility through a detailed analysis of three main periods of the American Civil Rights movement: (1) the movement’s initial success (1960–1968), its subsequent demobilization (1968–1977), and its institutionalization (1978–1995). Our analysis builds on limited work arguing for greater sensitivity to a movement’s life course when explaining protest activity. We find that the type of organizational resources that shape mobilization varies across periods, and support for prior work showing that the concurrent push and pull of institutionalization and radicalization led to demobilization. Finally, we find that coalition work motivated protest during its period of institutionalization. We conclude by discussing the theoretical and empirical implications of these findings.
... Jasper (1998) developed the term "moral shocks" to describe visceral, bodily feelings that are caused when an unexpected event or piece of information creates a sense of outrage leading people to mobilize, continue in a movement, or drop out collective action. More recently, in trying to explain the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, Shultziner (2013) found that the daily interactions in the system of bus public segregation among Black and White passengers intensified the abuse and sense of humiliation of Black passengers whose increased grievances led to the 1955 bus boycott. ...
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How can theories of social movements and revolutions help us understand the rise of collective action, their tactical and strategic choices, and their prospects for succeeding? By reviewing past and recent developments in the literature of social movements and revolutions, I argue that in comparison with social movements scholars, structuralists of revolutions more accurately used theories of threat and breakdown in understanding what triggers revolutions and revolutionary situations. Nevertheless, because scholars of revolutions usually distinguish types of revolutions based on outcomes after supposed clear endings, they have missed important insights from the literature on movement continuity that might guide us towards new understandings of revolutions. Moreover, both fields have followed similar paths in terms of contributions and gaps in the study of emotions, spontaneity, tactics, and repression in collective action.
... Of course, the cognitive and emotional components of motivation for engaging in protest cannot be easily disentangled. Movement scholars recognize that emotions can be mobilizing as well as demobilizing and that they can amplify people's motivations for protesting (e.g., Goodwin, Jasper, & Polletta 2009;Jasper 2014;Shultziner 2013;Van Stekelenberg & Klandermans 2013). Strong emotions, especially indignation about a particular conflict or issue, are considered to be decisive drivers towards expressions of political dissent. ...
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In upending much of what is usually taken for granted about politics in everyday life, the Covid-19 pandemic is re-animating several puzzles in the study of protest participation. Here we conduct a case study of Fridays for Future (FFF) Global Climate Strike mobilization in Berlin to shed light on the profile of activists who sustained protest mobilization in pandemic contexts. Comparing data from field surveys of protesters at the September 2020 Global Climate Strike with data collected at the pre-pandemic strikes in September and November 2019, we examine the profile of FFF demonstrators along multiple dimensions, including socio-demographics, motivations, political engagement, and institutional trust. Our preliminary results suggest that younger, more politically engaged, and less politically-cynical climate activists joined the street protest under pandemic conditions. Beyond the large turnout of the already-committed, findings also suggest that protesters were more confident in the ability of action and policy to make a difference with climate change but also galvanized by the loss of attention to the issue in the wake of Covid-19.
... Of course, the cognitive and emotional components of motivation for engaging in protest cannot be easily disentangled. Movement scholars recognize that emotions can be mobilizing as well as demobilizing and that they can amplify people's motivations for protesting (e.g., Goodwin, Jasper, & Polletta 2009;Jasper 2014;Shultziner 2013;Van Stekelenberg & Klandermans 2013). Strong emotions, especially indignation about a particular conflict or issue, are considered to be decisive drivers towards expressions of political dissent. ...
The presentation addresses the question of how movement mobilization has shifted in the context of COVID-19. To explore this issue, we focus on the Fridays for Future climate movement as our empirical case. The talk reviews key findings on changes in the social composition, motives and attitudes of protest participants using new, time series data from surveys collected at the Global Climate Strikes in 2019 and 2020 in Berlin. ***PODCAST AVAILABLE:
... The bulk of these studies are empirical (e.g. Bergstrand, 2014;Blocq et al., 2012;Chiarello, 2013) and seek to integrate framing with other theoretical approaches, such as the analysis of emotions (see Blocq et al., 2012;Schrock et al., 2004;Halfmann and Young, 2010), political opportunities (Shriver et al., 2013) and culture (Snow et al., 2013), or within more pragmatic examinations of particular cases (Nulman, 2015a;Rizzo et al., 2012;Shultziner, 2013). ...
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The social movement literature in Western Europe and North America has oriented much of its theoretical work towards micro-, meso-, and macro-level examinations of its subject of study but has rarely integrated these levels of analysis. This review article broadly documents the leading theoretical perspectives on social movements, while highlighting the contributions made in recent years with regard to the wave of protests across the globe – typified by the Occupy Movement and the ‘Arab Spring’ – and grievances that are relatively novel in qualitative or quantitative form such as austerity, precarity, and a sense of democratic deficiency. While these novel social processes have invigorated the specialized arena of ‘social movement studies’ and generated a resurgence of work on social movements beyond the field, this article argues for the need to interconnect levels of analysis in order to develop a more insightful account of contemporary contentious politics.
The authoritarian regime in Angola seeks to control every dimension of life in the country interfering with a set of fundamental rights such as the freedom of assembly, of movement and of expression. However, by their very fluid nature, by the inherent massing and anonymity, the contexts of mobility not only offer a set of social interactions rarely allowed in the current political panorama, but also provide an escape to effective surveillance and monitoring from authorities. Furthermore, the multidirectional encounters that mobility enacts — with people, situations, events, spatial mnemonics — create the conditions for the acknowledgement of an individual and collective plight. The absence of a likely public space for the discussion of certain compelling issues transforms the contexts of mobility into ephemeral moving assemblies, into unconventional sites of resistance where a sociopolitical culture is hatching. Collective transport's ambiguous anthropological qualities configure a highly productive ethnographic setting for the surreptitious researcher and an inescapable context if one is to assess Angola’s current reality. By depicting the social life of Angola’s public transport I will unveil the several mechanisms and possibilities behind these moving assemblies examining how mobility and sociopolitical mobilization intertwine.
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The notion that mass mobilization has analytically important stages is underappreciated in the literature. This paper proposes an approach that decomposes mass mobilization into three main phenomena: origins, protest and outcome. Each stage is characterized by unique factors and mechanisms. Accordingly, the research questions pertaining to each stage are dealt with by multiple levels of analysis and alternative explanations, allowing theory testing and theory development. The paper highlights separate causal mechanisms that operate in the emergence of grievances and protest motivation during the origins stage; mechanisms involving different forms of pressure, organization, psychological processes, and external forces during the protest stage; and mechanisms pertaining to key players and strategies that determine outcomes of mass mobilization. We illustrate that certain factors and mechanisms which are key in one stage have little or no causal relevance in the other stages. Other factors and mechanisms may also dramatically change in content, meaning or configuration between the stages. This theoretical approach facilitates the integration of a large and diverse body of scholarship into a structured analysis of mass mobilization that allows for both a detailed case study as well as comparison of stages across mass protests. The analysis of stages and causal mechanisms is illustrated across cases of democratization, revolution, and protest within democracy.
This article examines scholarship about ethnoracial mobilization written by sociologists within the subfields of social movements and race and racism. We situate our synthesis within critiques put forward by other scholars about the treatment of ethnoracial movements within the social movement subfield. Using these critiques as launching points, we find two broad patterns in the literature: (a) a focus on ethnoracial social movements that decenters race, at times treating it as an independent variable and (b) a focus on mobilizations for racial equity that treats race as a dynamic and constructed process. Within the latter focus, we note research that investigates ethnoracial mobilization at the macro‐, meso‐, and micro‐levels. We call for more research on movements that specifically consider the mobilization and construction of ethnoracial identities. In doing so, we provide a conceptual map of the field and make suggestions for how social movement scholars employing distinct theoretical foci can engage in ethnoracial analysis. Finally, we hypothesize why there might be a dearth of research within the social movement subfield that engages in critical analysis of ethnoracial dynamics of social movements.
The wave of sit-ins that swept the American South in 1960 has become a crucial episode in the literature on social movements. To investigate who joined the sit-ins and why, this article analyzes a sample survey of 255 students in Southern black colleges in 1962. The survey includes measures of integration into preexisting social networks and measures of beliefs and sentiments. Most surprisingly, students who attended church frequently were less likely to join the sit-ins, though the presence of activist ministers made protest more likely. Protesters were motivated by strong grievances, for they had an especially negative evaluation of race relations. Yet they were also motivated by optimism about the prospects of success, for they believed that there was no white majority for strict segregation. The analysis underscores the importance of beliefs and sentiments, which cannot easily be reduced to objective measures of social location.
So-called "classical collective-behavior theorists" have been charged with placing too much emphasis on spontaneity and the emergence of new norms and structures in social movements. Empirical support for this charge and material for constructing an alternate model have been offered in recent revisionist studies of the Civil Rights Movement. This alternate model emphasizes the importance of deliberate planning and pre-existing social structures in the development and growth of bus boycotts and sit-ins between 1955 and 1965. Reexamination of the Civil Rights Movement in Tallahassee, Florida, shows it to be a case which does not fit the alternate model in important respects. It is concluded that while organization and planning are key variables, social movement theory must take into account spontaneity and emergence, and the transformation of pre-existing structures.
This article examines the phenomenal rise in the early 1920s of the Ku Klux Klan, which drew its members primarily from the middle class and was characterized by nativism, racism, religious bigotry, coercive moralism, and economic conservatism. It argues that the Klan's rise is best understood as a response to the sudden devaluation in the economic and political "purchasing power" of the Klan's recruits. Guided by microeconomic logic, the Klan used cultural appeals to stimulate demand for what its members had to offer in exchange within economic and political markets. It also used cultural attacks to restrict the supply of competitors. I test the argument with statistical analyses of state-level membership estimates and county-level membership data for the state of Indiana.