Montgomery’s Road To Desegregation And The Freedom Walkers

Published February 3, 2016
Updated December 6, 2017
Rosa Parks Seat

President Barack Obama sits in Rosa Parks’ seat on the Montgomery bus. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the December bus boycotts began, MIA members — in tandem with attorneys Fred Gray and Clifford Durr — began looking for ways to challenge the legality of the city’s bus segregation laws. Approaching Colvin and Browder — as well as three other women who had been discriminated against via the city’s bus system — Gray filed a federal civil lawsuit on Feb. 1, 1956: Browder v. Gayle (Gayle was the surname of the then-Montgomery mayor).

The District Court reviewed the case, ultimately ruling that Alabama’s bus laws were unconstitutional, and demanded that the state of Alabama as well as the city of Montgomery end such discriminatory practices. The city and state appealed the District Court’s decision, and it wouldn’t ultimately be decided until November of that year, when the Supreme Court upheld the District Court’s ruling.

While lawyers fought in the courtroom, everyday citizens continued to exercise their power in the streets. In order to uphold the boycott, MIA organizers arranged for carpools, and black taxi drivers offered discounted rides (that is, until the city found out and fined them). But most people just chose to walk. Soon enough, support groups formed. Collecting donations from across the country, these groups would hand out shoes to replace ones that walkers had worn to shreds.

These individuals became known as “Freedom Walkers,” and while some may scoff at abstaining from a bus ride as mundane or inconsequential, when 40,000 people do that, the act becomes powerful.

Indeed, the bus system had lost nearly 80 percent of its customers during the boycott. The efforts of the Freedom Walkers — along with their combined purchasing power and the Browder v. Gayle ruling — pushed the state of Alabama to pass legislation that made it legal for African Americans to sit virtually anywhere they pleased on city buses.

Erin Kelly
An All That’s Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she’s designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.