In the first few years after the Civil War, the city of New Orleans – like all southern cities – maintained segregated streetcars. Then in April of 1867 the black newspaper, the Tribune called for the streetcars to be integrated as a part of Reconstruction. The radical Republicans agreed and joined in the protests. Soon black citizens were entering the cars and sitting in the white’s only section – some of the first ‘sit-ins’ by African-Americans fighting for their civil rights.
On May 6, 1867, New Orleans mayor, Edward Heath and General Phil Sheridan, the Union commander, met with the railways and ordered them to integrate. To enforce integration the police chief issued orders in the newspapers that passengers were not to eject other passengers on account of color or they would be arrested.
Unlike most southern cities during that time, the citizens of New Orleans accepted integrated streetcars peacefully from 1867 to 1902. New Orleans was the exception to the rule, however, and the State of Louisiana finally bowed to segregation like the rest of the South.
Hope had emerged for African-Americans during the era of Reconstruction with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866; the 14th Amendment, granting citizenship to former slaves and providing “equal protection under the law”; and the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote for black men (black woman would have to wait for the 19th Amendment in 1920).
But these hopes were dashed by passage of the “Black Codes” in the Southern states, laws intended to deny equal rights, the right to vote, and the right to equal treatment under the law. This was the beginning of what became known as “Jim Crow” – the so-called “separate but equal” era in the South.
During this time the races were separated, but certainly not equal.
The Civil Rights Movement
Historians have said that the Union won the Civil War, but lost the peace. Under the “Jim Crow laws” and the threat of violence from terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan, African-Americans endured grueling oppression for the next century.
During that time, black troops had fought to defend freedom and democracy in two world wars only to come home to a lack of liberty in their own communities. After World War Two, most African-Americans had had enough. Their discontent sparked the Civil Rights Movement that expanded throughout the country in the 1950s and 60s.
One young lady who joined the movement in the 1940s was a seamstress named Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Parks was arrested on a Montgomery city bus for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.
The Montgomery City Code required that all public transportation be segregated and that bus drivers had the “powers of a police officer of the city while in actual charge of any bus for the purposes of carrying out the provisions” of the code.
Parks boarded the bus after work and sat in the section designated for black people by a sign in the middle row. As the bus continued on its route, it began to fill with white passengers. Eventually, the bus was full and the driver noticed several white passengers standing in the aisle. The driver stopped the bus and moved the sign separating the two sections back one row, asking four black passengers – including Rosa Parks – to give up their seats to the white patrons.
Three of the other black passengers reluctantly complied with the driver, but Parks refused and remained seated. “Why don’t you stand up?” the driver demanded. “I don’t think I should have to stand up,” Parks replied.
The driver called the police who arrested Parks and charged her with violation of the city code.
In her autobiography, My Story, she wrote of the incident: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
She was taken to police headquarters, where, later that night, she was released on bail.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The day before Parks’ trial, Civil Rights organizers distributed 35,000 handbills and made announcements in black churches urging African-Americans to begin a boycott of city buses the next day in protest of her arrest. People were encouraged to either stay home from work or school, to take a cab, or to walk to work. During the boycott, black cab drivers charged the same fare as the bus – 10 cents. Despite a rainy day, most of the African-American community joined the boycott.
When Parks arrived at the courthouse for trial that morning with her attorney, Fred Gray, she was greeted by 500 supporters. Following a 30-minute hearing, Parks was found guilty of violating a local ordinance and was fined $10, as well as a $4 court fee. Parks appealed her conviction, formally challenging the constitutionality of racial segregation.
On that fateful day, the city’s buses were mostly empty. Most of the estimated 40,000 African-American commuters opted to walk to work in the rain — some as far as 20 miles.
It was during the Montgomery bus boycott that a young pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., was introduced as an emerging leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
Armed with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which stated that separate but equal policies had no place in public education, a black legal team took the issue of segregation on public transit systems to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Northern (Montgomery) Division. Parks’ attorney, Fred Gray, filed the suit.
In June of 1956, the district court declared racial segregation statutes – the infamous “Jim Crow laws” – unconstitutional. The city of Montgomery appealed the court’s decision, but on November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, declaring segregation on public transport to be unconstitutional.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, lasting for 381 days and ending with this landmark Supreme Court ruling. Writing in his 1958 book, Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that Parks’ arrest was the catalyst of the protest: “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices. … Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’”