The Montgomery bus boycott marked a turning point in postwar American history. It launched the movement for racial justice as a nonviolent crusade based in the black churches of the South. It gained the support of northern liberals and focused unprecedented and unwelcome international attention on the country’s racial policies. And it marked the emergence of twenty-six-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., who had recently arrived in Montgomery to become pastor of a Baptist church, as the movement’s national symbol. On the night of the first protest meeting, King’s call to action electrified the audience: “We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality.”

Black residents of Montgomery, Alabama, walking to work during the bus boycott of 1955-1956.

From the beginning, the language of freedom pervaded the black movement. It resonated in the speeches of civil rights leaders and in the hand-lettered placards of the struggle’s foot soldiers. On the day of Rosa Parks’s court appearance in December 1955, even before the bus boycott had officially been announced, a torn piece of cardboard appeared on a bus shelter in Montgomery’s Court Square, advising passengers: “Don’t ride the buses today. Don’t ride it for freedom.” During the summer of 1964, when civil rights activists established “freedom schools” for black children across Mississippi, lessons began with students being asked to define the word. Some gave specific answers (“going to public libraries”), some more abstract (“standing up for your rights”). Some insisted that freedom meant legal equality, others saw it as liberation from years of deference to and fear of whites. “Freedom of the mind,” wrote one, was the greatest freedom of all.

For adults as well, freedom had many meanings. It meant enjoying the political rights and economic opportunities taken for granted by whites. It required eradicating historic wrongs such as segregation, disenfranchisement, confinement to low-wage jobs, and the ever-present threat of violence. It meant the right to be served at lunch counters and downtown department stores, central locations in the consumer culture, and to be addressed as “Mr.,” “Miss,” and “Mrs.,” rather than “boy” and “auntie.”

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