- Desegregating Birmingham’s Buses: African Americans’ Protracted Struggle and White “Civil” Resistance
Recounting his experiences as a part of the civil rights struggles in Birmingham, Alabama, James Roberson described the intense emotion he felt when he rode a city bus in defiance of segregation rules. As a teenager in the 1950s, Roberson participated in collective actions to desegregate Birmingham’s buses, knowing that he was risking his safety in doing so. Forced by law to sit or stand behind the white seating section, black riders potentially faced humiliation, verbal abuse, physical assault, and arrest if they refused to comply. “The first time I defied the segregation of the bus, there was fear,” Roberson recalled. “The only way I could describe it [is] if I had a brown bag and had something in it that was alive and told you it was a rattlesnake and sat it on your lap. You didn’t know if it was going to strike or what was in it. That’s the kind of fear that gripped me when I first violated the rules and sat up front.”1
Roberson was among hundreds of African Americans who took direct action in an attempt to bring about bus desegregation in Birmingham. On two occasions—once in 1956 and again in 1958—their efforts were coordinated attempts to bring attention to the issue of segregated buses and to provoke an arrest that could be used as a test case to challenge the legality of Birmingham’s bus statutes. At other times throughout the late 1950s, individuals’ decisions not to comply with municipal segregation statutes and bus company policies were personal initiatives rather than components of a systematic desegregation strategy. This article tells the story of black Birminghamians’ years-long fight to desegregate the Birmingham Transit Company’s buses and of the forms of resistance that white residents and city leaders pursued to prevent it. [End Page 283]
As African Americans challenged bus segregation in Birmingham through lawsuits, pressure on officials, boycotts, and acts of civil disobedience, white Birminghamians responded with equally varied tactics to prevent the integration of the city’s buses. At first, white riders demanded, and public officials embraced, an outright defense of bus segregation as legal and moral. Then, in the face of mounting evidence that courts would interpret municipal bus segregation as disregarding federal law, the city’s leaders abandoned the explicit legal endorsement of racially segregated public conveyances and crafted a new statute intended to maintain white supremacy without explicitly invoking race. Even when civil rights activists successfully challenged the new coded statute in court, white opponents continued to undermine bus desegregation. Bus drivers harassed black riders, and city officials publicized the bus company’s right to discipline riders who were found to engage in “disorderly conduct.”2 By the time black activists successfully defeated the last legal vestiges of bus segregation, many white residents who were opposed to the idea of integrated buses in Birmingham could simply avoid the bus altogether. Far from being a decisive moment of integration, desegregating Birmingham’s buses, as this article argues, was a protracted struggle with an ambiguous end point as white rejection of black equal access to buses morphed into a rejection of the bus itself.
The history of bus desegregation in Birmingham has been eclipsed by the dramatic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, less than a hundred miles to the south. Scholarly attention to the thirteen-month Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956 has produced a rich understanding of the organizing and local conditions that made that boycott possible; of its gender dynamics, including the carefully crafted narrative of Rosa Parks’s involvement; of the rise to prominence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; of police repression and economic backlash; and, ultimately, of the successful legal challenge that prompted the protesters to end the boycott when they could ride desegregated buses. Historians’ focus on this milestone in civil rights history and “formative turning point of the twentieth century” has overshadowed examination of how bus desegregation unfolded in other locales.3 In [End Page 284] this understanding, the Montgomery bus boycott suggests a watershed moment from which bus desegregation...