On this dayFeb 20, 1956

Civil Rights Activists Arrested for Organizing Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama

On February 20, 1956, local officials issued warrants for the arrests of civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, for organizing the Montgomery bus boycotts. The following day, a grand jury indicted 89 of the leaders of the boycott, accusing them of violating a 1921 statute forbidding boycotts without “just cause.”

African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, began boycotting city buses in December 1955 to protest the poor treatment Black passengers received on the segregated vehicles. The segregated buses reinforced the myth of racial hierarchy; Black passengers were required by law to give up their seats to white passengers and were only allowed to sit or stand at the back of the buses, which also made far fewer stops in Black residential communities than in white ones. 

In the grand jury report that accompanied the indictment, the grand jurors repudiated anti-segregation efforts. "In this state we are committed to segregation by custom and law; we intend to maintain it," they wrote. “The settlement of differences over school attendance, public transportation and other facilities must be made within those laws which reflect our way of life.”

As the indicted boycott leaders surrendered themselves into custody at the police station, hundreds of African Americans gathered outside in a show of support for their efforts to challenge racial discrimination and fight segregation in Alabama.

Of those indicted, only Dr. King was prosecuted. Despite defense evidence that the boycott was peaceful, and that discriminatory bus service inflicted harm on the Black community, Dr. King was quickly convicted, fined $1,000, and given a suspended jail sentence of one year of hard labor.

The indictment, along with Dr. King's conviction, strengthened local African Americans' resolve to fight segregation, and attracted national attention to the growing civil rights movement.

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