On 1 December 1955 a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a full Montgomery bus. Bus company policy dictated that black passengers fill seats from the back and white passengers fill seats from the front. Where the sections met, blacks were expected to yield to whites. The racist atmosphere on buses was strengthened by the attitude of the all-white driving staff, which was known to harass black passengers verbally, and sometimes physically.
Parks was a seamstress for the Montgomery Fair department store and a member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), having served as its secretary in the 1940s. By her single unplanned act of defiance, she caused a chain of events that concluded with a United States Supreme Court decision prohibiting bus segregation and King's rise to national prominence.
The driver whom Parks defied had her arrested, and she was released on $100 bond. Her connections to the NAACP and the black community in general meant that the case attracted instant city-wide attention. She was arrested on a Thursday, and a group of community leaders met immediately and planned a boycott for the following Monday. Meanwhile, the NAACP lawyers took on her court case, optimistic that they could ride the issue to the Supreme Court, in light of their recent victory in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
The organizers of the boycott, who hailed from other black groups, such as the NAACP and the Women's Political Council, met in the basement of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which King had offered for that purpose. The group drafted three demands for the bus company: that seating be available on a strictly first-come, first-served basis; that drivers conduct themselves with greater civility to black passengers; and that black drivers be hired for predominately black routes. There was no call to integrate seating. To secure these demands, no African Americans would ride the buses on Monday, 5 December.
And hardly any did; indeed, nearly 20,000 blacks supported the action, and because blacks constituted the majority of the bus system's customers, many buses drove around empty. Because of the black community's eagerness to comply with the boycott–and because of the bus company's refusal to capitulate- community leaders held a second meeting on the afternoon of the boycott to plan an extended protest. The group named itself the Montgomery Improvement Association, or MIA, and elected King its president. Though only twenty-six, he showed great promise as a leader, and was enough of a newcomer to stand outside old local political rivalries. From the beginning, and throughout the most trying, violent events of the lengthy boycott, King never failed to emphasize the protest's rootedness in Christian principles. Though they might be the victims of violence, black protestors would engage in no acts of violence themselves; they would "turn the other cheek." This set the tone for all of King's subsequent campaigns.
The boycott lasted a year, and changed the character of both King's life and the city of Montgomery. King became the target of numerous telephoned threats and a few actual acts of violence. His house was bombed; he was arrested under false pretenses; he was sued for various reasons; he became very well known.