Excerpt: 'Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice'

In the mid-1950s, the momentum for progress on civil rights accelerated. In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to surrender her seat to a white person on a city bus and move toward the back as the rules of Jim Crow demanded. The bus driver called the police and Mrs. Parks was arrested. The events that flowed from this solitary act would capture the attention of the nation and the world, as a large-scale, grassroots movement, the Montgomery bus boycott, began. Thousands of African Americans refused to ride Montgomery's buses, and because they made up a substantial portion of the daily ridership, the boycott struck a severe financial blow to the bus company and to the city's merchants.

The Montgomery bus boycott brought Martin Luther King to the forefront of the civil rights movement. The 26-year-old Baptist preacher, charismatic, courageous, and possessed of mesmerizing oratorical skills, proved to be a superb strategist. As the boycott continued throughout 1955 and 1956, its leaders faced threats and harassment that came in a variety of forms: they were fired from their jobs; they were jailed; and in an act of terror that only stiffened the resolve of the boycotters, King's house was bombed.

In the Montgomery campaign, King honed his skill as a practitioner of nonviolent resistance, a philosophy that owed a great deal to the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. King was jailed for his role in the Montgomery campaign-the first of many times he would be imprisoned over the next decade, each sentence serving to enhance his stature as the leading figure in the civil rights struggle. Because of the determined actions of thousands of black citizens in Montgomery, in December 1956, the city was ordered to desegregate its buses. A great victory had been won and countless ordinary people had helped to achieve it.

The bus boycott marked a new stage in the civil rights struggle. While after Montgomery, the NAACP continued to pursue its legal strategy, the movement's energy would begin to flow from broad-based efforts led by King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, and other organizations. Seeking to mobilize thousands of young black men and women, such groups were often closely linked to southern black churches. Instead of the methodical, if at times momentous, legal challenges waged by black elites in American courtrooms, after 1955, the civil rights struggle came to be defined by peaceful marches, freedom rides, lunch counter sit-ins, inspirational sermons, demonstrations, and arrests.

The Brown decision and events in Montgomery generated pressure in Washington. In response, Eisenhower's attorney general, Herbert Brownell, presented Congress with a draft for a civil rights bill. The proposed legislation, introduced in 1956, included the establishment of a civil rights division in the Justice Department and provided for the prosecution of federal voting rights abuses, both of which were central concerns of American civil rights leaders.

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