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.
One night early in the boycott he had a religious epiphany, which he described later: he had come home from a meeting and his wife was asleep; the phone rang, and when he answered, another anonymous caller threatened his life. After that he could not sleep. He made some coffee and sat in his kitchen. For a moment the path before him seemed aabsolutely impossible. Then, while praying aloud, he felt the presence of God, very suddenly and very intensely, as he never had before. King explained that this experience reconciled him to the danger of the boycott and the protest actions that followed.
Montgomery changed more slowly. To survive the boycott, the black community formed a network of carpools and informal taxi services. Some white employers were forced to transport their black employees themselves. Many blacks walked long distances to work each day. The boycott quickly began to hurt the businesses of city storeowners, not to mention that of the bus company itself, which was losing 65% of its income.
But instead of considering the demands of the MIA, whites attempted to end the boycott by other means, both unofficially, though a series of bombings of churches and private homes, and officially, through the courts. Because the MIA compensated drivers who transported boycotters, the city sued it for running an illegal transit system. King was in court defending the MIA against the injunction when news arrived that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Rosa Parks, and had made illegal the kind of bus segregation enforced in Montgomery.
This ended the boycott, and on 21 December 1956, over a year after Parks had refused to relinquish her seat, King joined Ralph Abernathy and other boycott leaders for a ride on the first desegregated bus. Violence continued in the wake of the boycott: more homes and churches were bombed, and some white people threw stones and shot bullets at buses. But however tenuous the victory was at the local level, it marked a national success for King and for the cause of African Americans as a whole.