is a work of non-fiction aimed at a Young Adult audience by Russell Freedman, published in 2006. Freedman combines a simple prose style with well-researched historical facts to make the Montgomery Bus Boycott and eventual Supreme Court ruling that the segregated bus system in that city was unconstitutional accessible and appealing to a young audience.
Freedman begins by describing the state of race relations in the southern U.S. in 1949. He describes the Jim Crow Laws as a way of enforcing white supremacy by creating a system of doubled services and rights known as segregation. He also describes other ways that black people saw their rights limited or denied altogether, including the Poll Taxes that required you to pay a fee if you wanted to vote in elections—a fee most black people in the South were too poor to afford. Freedman describes the growing discontent at the unfairness and blatant racism of this system, and asserts that the people of Montgomery, Alabama were actively seeking a way to effectively protest and eliminate these onerous segregation laws.
A black teacher named Jo Ann Robinson sat in the white section of a city bus and was thrown off the bus as a result. Robinson joined forces with a local group called the Women’s Political Council and brought their grievances to the mayor of Montgomery, demanding that changes be made. They wanted more black bus drivers and the end of mistreatment of black passengers. They warned the mayor that if changes weren’t made, the Council had a plan for a city-wide boycott of the buses. Black leaders continued to look for the perfect opportunity to protest segregation laws, knowing they would have one chance to make their case on a national level. In 1955 a woman named Claudette Colvin was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white passenger on a bus, a common requirement under Jim Crow. But she was not considered a suitable person to champion because of her youth and the fact that she had reputedly had an affair with a married man; black leaders wanted an ideal person to be the face of their proposed movement.
In 1955, a woman named Rosa Parks, a 42-year old seamstress, was sitting in the Black section of a Montgomery bus when she was asked to give up her seat to a white person. Parks refused to give up her seat, and was arrested for this act of defiance and fined $14. Parks chose to appeal her arrest, and the Council and other black leaders felt they had the ideal case on which to base their planned boycott and legal action. A boycott was organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association, and almost the entire black population of the city began walking to work and school instead of riding the buses.
Freedman introduces Martin Luther King, Jr., a local preacher who becomes the head of the Montgomery Improvement Association. King preached non-violence even in the face of violent acts, and insisted that boycott participants and protesters never engage in any sort of violence, because he knew that no matter how justified, such acts would be used to paint the black protesters as savage and dangerous.
The bus boycott begins to cost the bus companies a lot of money, as many of their passengers were black, and some white riders joined the boycott in sympathy. Pressure is put on the mayor and police force to do something about the boycott, and many of the protesters were beaten and arrested under false charges in an attempt to intimidate them. Dr. King’s home is bombed. When these tactics don’t work because of King’s strictures against violent reactions, the police arrest King himself. This sparks a massive protest among the black population so that King is released shortly afterwards without any charges being brought against him.
Ultimately, the boycott lasts 381 days. Rosa Parks’ legal case makes its way to the Supreme Court, where the segregation laws are found to be unconstitutional and are struck down. This decision laid the groundwork for the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending the era of Jim Crow for good, although the prevalent racism and unfair treatment of black people continued—and continues today.
Freedman tells the story of the bus boycott and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rise to national prominence in a straightforward manner, without any stylistic flourishes. This allows the facts and people to speak for themselves instead of diluting the brutal unfairness of Jim Crow with flowery language or technical tricks, and keeps the reading at a level appropriate for younger readers for whom learning the facts of the story is more important than fancy writing. Freedman puts effort into making the various players in the drama, from the famous to the infamous, seem like real people with clear motivations and complex personalities. This gives the story a sense of drama as opposed to a dry recitation of facts and dates.