December 1955 marked the beginning of the end for a thriving company in Montgomery, Alabama. By no fault of its own, the Montgomery City Lines (the city’s municipal bus company) was placed in the middle of a dispute between Montgomery’s black citizenry and Montgomery city laws. “The Montgomery City Lines is sorry if anyone expects us to be exempt from any state or city law,” Transportation Superintendent J. H. Bagley said in comments reported in the December 3, 1955 Montgomery Advertiser, “[w]e are sorry that the colored people blame us for any state or city ordinance which we didn’t have passed.” Passive aggressive as Bagley’s statement was, it nonetheless underscored the quandary facing the bus company. Segregation was not their policy, and ending it was beyond their power. Yet National City and not Montgomery’s city government would bear the expense of lost fares, and the company struggled to communicate an effective public defense. Initially, that defense largely involved a legally-correct claim to powerlessness which certainly pleased white city officials but persuaded not at all the largely black ridership boycotting the buses. Segregation placed National City in an untenable position, and the boycott exploited that. National City was in the business of making money, not social justice, and wanted the latter to let the former alone. Even the obviously annoyed Superintendent Bagley remembered that when he continued, moderately, “we have to obey all laws just like any other citizen. We had nothing to do with the laws being passed, but we expect to abide by all laws, city or state.”1 [End Page 251]
Though we now know it had been a long time coming, the legendary Montgomery Bus Boycott had its beginnings just days before Bagley spoke, when forty-five-year-old Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. Her actions violated the city’s bus segregation laws, and she was subsequently arrested for disorderly conduct.2 Blacks were outraged by the arrest of yet another black woman on a city bus, as Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith had been arrested for similar actions months earlier.3 Provoked by Parks’ arrest, Montgomery’s black residents initiated a 381-day boycott of the bus system that only ended after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.4
This boycott proved disastrous for Montgomery City Lines, costing the company $750,000.5 Boycott studies and historical accounts have appropriately and understandably focused on the protest movement itself, but this one looks at the bus company’s financial quandary. The company had to adhere to the city and state laws in Montgomery, and Montgomery civil rights activists refused to ride the buses because of laws beyond the bus company’s control; thus, the bus company faced potential ruin. Discontent left the Montgomery City Lines in a precarious position, one they were never able to recover from, even years after the boycott.
Examining the boycott through the viewpoint of the bus company offers insight into companies’ behavior in contemporary situations where corporate action is constrained or prescribed by public policy. Boycotts of businesses and services occur quite frequently in today’s society, but this 1955 boycott was different. The protestors were not boycotting the proximate target of their ire (Montgomery City Lines); rather, they were boycotting a system of oppression, segregation, prescribed by the State of Alabama and the Montgomery City [End Page 252] Council (which contracted for municipal bus service with National City Lines).
Bus service was a core method of transportation for Montgomery’s black residents, as about half of the city’s 44,000 black residents regularly paid to use the service.6 Many blacks lived on Montgomery’s west side and would take the buses to the courtyard square in downtown Montgomery, then transfer buses to get to the city’s eastside. Many black domestic workers used buses to get to and from the white homes where they worked. On the city’s segregated buses, the first ten front seats were reserved for white patrons, the last ten seats were for blacks, and the middle...