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The Cross-National Diffusion of the American Civil Rights Movement: The Example of the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963

Claire Mansour


This paper is a case study of the bus boycotts of Montgomery in the US (1955-56) and Bristol in the UK (1963). Since the two movements seem to share a number of similarities, the aim of this paper is to determine if they are an instance of what the sociologists Doug McAdam and Dieter Rucht have called “cross-national diffusion” and to explain this phenomenon. The first part of this article will focus on the cultural similarities between African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans to show that they are a necessary condition for diffusion because they enabled black Bristolians to identify with the Civil Rights activists in the US. Then the second part will argue that the Bristol Bus Boycott is not a mere copy of its Montgomery source and that the specificity of the British context endowed it with new characteristics. Finally, the third part will demonstrate that the relational channel between the two movements played a crucial part in the diffusion process. Indeed it accounts for the rational choice of taking the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a model in spite of the differences between the two contexts, in an effort to generate propaganda intended to force the bus company to lift the colour bar.

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“When someone demonstrates that people are not powerless, they may begin to act again.”
British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.

1When a group of people manages to induce institutional change to achieve their aims through the successful staging of a protest movement it generally convinces other groups of people to do the same. This process of social mimicry is linked to the concept of “diffusion” which is one of the basic tenets of sociology. In 1968, Elihu Katz broadly defined “diffusion” as:

[…] the acceptance of some specific item, over time, by adopting units — individuals, groups, communities — that are linked both to external channels of communication and to each other by means of both a structure of social relations and a system of values, or culture (Katz, 78).

2Doug McAdam and Dieter Rucht then applied this definition to the analysis of social movements to explain the transfer of ideas and practices from one movement to another in a different country. Their theory of cross-national diffusion involves a group of adopters who will borrow one or several items from a group of transmitters through a combination of relational and non-relational channels provided that the adopters can identify with the transmitters (McAdam and Rucht, 56-74). Their model is based on a case study of the American and the German New Left which leads them to conclude that the tactics and ideology of the American New Left crossed the borders to Germany where they were adopted by the students.

3Can the same be said about the Montgomery and Bristol bus boycotts? Even at first glance, the similarities between the two events are too striking to be a mere coincidence. On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, as required by the Alabama and Montgomery segregation laws. The bus driver subsequently called the police and she was arrested. The leader of the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), Edgar Daniel Nixon, saw her trial as the perfect opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of the bus segregation laws. In the two days between Parks’s arrest and trial, the leaders of the black community formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, chose Martin Luther King as its president, and decided to launch a boycott of the city buses. This protest lasted for 381 days until it was called off on 20 December 1956 after the Supreme Court ruled that the bus segregation laws were unconstitutional forcing the city to pass a new ordinance allowing black citizens to sit anywhere they pleased.

4As for Bristol, the initial spark for the boycott came in April 1963 when a young West Indian man called Guy Bailey was refused a job interview on the grounds of his skin colour despite the fact that he was well qualified for the post of bus conductor. But in the early 1960s there was no law in the UK forbidding racial discrimination, so the manager of the Bristol Omnibus Company, Ian Patey, was perfectly within his rights when he turned Bailey down. In fact, Paul Stephenson — who was both the spokesman of the West Indian Development Council and Bailey’s teacher — had decided that his pupil would act as a test case to denounce publicly the Bristol Omnibus Company’s colour bar against black bus crews. So when Bailey’s job interview was cancelled, as expected, Stephenson called for a boycott of the network in protest. Just like Rosa Parks, Guy Bailey’s impeccable profile made him the perfect test case for public exposure. The boycott lasted until 28 August when Ian Patey announced that the only criterion to recruit bus crews would be their suitability for the job. Thus, like the Montgomery protesters, the Bristolian activists achieved their aims.

5The analogy between the two movements raises several questions. If one assumes that they are not isolated events and that they are both related, what, then, is the nature of the link between them? If it can be argued that the transfer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Britain is an instance of cross-national diffusion, which particular elements of the Afro-American protest were therefore adopted by their British counterparts? How can this phenomenon be explained?

6To answer these questions, the first part of this article will show that the cultural similarities between the adopters and the transmitters are a necessary condition for diffusion because they enabled black Bristolians to identify with the Civil Rights activists in the US. Then the second part will argue that the Bristol Bus Boycott is not a mere copy of its Montgomery source and that the specificity of the British context endowed it with new characteristics. Finally, the third part will demonstrate that the relational tie between the two movements played a crucial part in the diffusion process since it accounts for the rational choice of taking the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a model despite the differences between the two contexts, in an effort to generate propaganda to force the bus company to lift the colour bar.

Cultural similarities as a necessary condition for identification

  • 1 Although it should be noted that there had been no form of slavery on British soil since the Middle (...)

7The transfer of elements from one movement to another requires some kind of connection between them in the first place. Most sociologists have argued that cultural similarities are instrumental in bringing about the diffusion process because they enable the adopters to identify with the transmitters. Once the adopters come to perceive themselves as similar to the transmitters, a bond develops between the two communities which will then mediate the transfer. Cultural similarities act as a non-relational channel of diffusion, meaning that they do not depend on interpersonal contact to exist. The West Indian community in Bristol and its African American counterpart in Montgomery can be seen as sharing several cultural similarities. They had both been through the distant and real experience of slavery1 and of course, they spoke the same language which also facilitated the transfer.

Similar social category

  • 2 In Bristol in 1958 the black unemployment rate amounted to 5% (Dresser, 1986, 11).

8The black citizens of both Montgomery and Bristol were generally confined to the lowest social categories because of white racism and discrimination. Black immigrants arriving in Bristol lived mainly in the deprived area of Saint Paul’s where they were exploited by slum landlords who took advantage of the housing shortage to charge exorbitant rents (Dresser, 1986, 7). Some historians believe that — since there were no laws against racial discrimination at the time - it was not unusual to see signs on the windows of some lodging houses saying “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. They were also frequently refused service in shops or pubs. The rate of black unemployment was over twice that of whites2 while those who worked were often relegated to menial jobs. Although relatively new and much less ingrained than in the Southern States, racism stood in the way of working-class consciousness. British trade unions resisted the employment of black workers and the poorest white Bristolians could always find comfort in the idea that they were still a cut above the “coloureds”. Whites on both sides of the Atlantic had similar prejudices, ranging from the notion that it was unclean to touch black people to the fear that they were lusting after white women (Fryer, 143). Both communities were also the victims of white violence, albeit to a lesser extent in England than in the Southern States, with gangs of Teddy Boys or racist white mobs preying on black individuals. By the late 1950s, acts of violence committed against blacks had become commonplace in cities where there were sizeable immigrant communities. “On weekend evenings in particular,” explains Peter Fryer, “gangs of ‘teddy boys’ cruised the streets looking for West Indians, Africans of Asians. […] The police took little notice of these attacks, whose frequency and violence steadily increased (378).” The race riots of Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958 and Middlesbrough in 1961 are other large-scale examples of such practices.

Communities with strong social ties

9Both the African American community in Montgomery and the West Indian community in Bristol had strong social ties with similar networks linking people through social, cultural and religious activities although they took a more informal shape amongst the latter. The Afro-Caribbean Bristolians also had their own separate churches and even if their pastors were reluctant to get involved on a political level, they would still encourage their flocks to attend marches and take part in the boycott once it was launched. The West Indian Association had been organising cultural events such as the recent celebration of Jamaican independence. They had also tried to meet with city councillors to raise the issue of racial discrimination in housing and employment but it did not result in any concrete change. Therefore, in 1962, Owen Henry and Roy Hackett formed the West Indian Development Council to deal specifically with racial discrimination. Paul Stephenson, who had just come back from a three-month trip to the United States where he had studied the Civil Rights movement closely (Marwick, 239), later became its spokesman. Although he was not of West Indian origin — he was West African on his father’s side and British on his mother’s side — and had only recently arrived in Bristol, Stephenson used the existing social networks and organisations of the Afro-Caribbean community. He played a crucial part in providing a relational tie between the two movements and giving the initial impetus which triggered the identification process.

Collective identity and related practices

10Through the identification process, the adopters come to define their collective identity as similar to that of the transmitters. According to McAdam and Rucht, the level of identification is proportional to the number of elements adopted (63). In other words, the more thorough the identification, the more extensive the diffusion process. Because they strongly identified with the African American activists, black Bristolians adopted their tactics and their belief in non-violent direct action as the means to achieve their ends. As in Montgomery, the West Indian Development Council organised a boycott of the Bristol city buses which required participants to walk or cycle to work and back. But they also borrowed tactics which had been used by the American Civil Rights Movement after the Montgomery protest like marches and sit-ins. On 6 May 1963 they held what some believed was the first black-led march against racial discrimination in the United Kingdom which gathered between 50 to 200 people according to different estimates (Dresser, 31). They also staged sit-ins at Fishponds Road in the north-east area of Bristol to prevent buses from accessing the city centre.

11But despite all these similar features, the Bristol protest was far from being a mere copy of its American source of inspiration but took on new characteristics of its own shaped by the specificity of the British context.

Specific characteristics of the Bristol Bus Boycott

The British context

12Of course, Britain in the early 1960s was nothing like the American South. First, black Bristolians were mainly Commonwealth immigrants who had come in growing numbers after the Second World War thanks to the 1948 British Nationality Act, which granted them the right to work and settle in the United Kingdom. The case of the South Asian immigrants will not be dealt with in this article because although they benefitted from the gains of the Bristol Bus Boycott, they did not play an active part in its organisation. As for West Indian immigrants, they had been educated through the colonial system so many of them revered Britain as the “mother-country” and had come to consider themselves as Englishmen of sorts (Fryer, 374). On their arrival, they were very disappointed to find that British society did not match their expectations. Racial tensions escalated and anti-black riots erupted in several cities, most notably in Nottingham and London (in the area of Notting Hill) in 1958. In both cases, the events took a similar pattern. The presence of a couple composed of a West Indian man and a white woman seemed to have sparked the riots, leading to episodes of fighting between local blacks and whites which were then distorted by sensationalist media coverage leading to the arrival of hundreds of anti-black rioters who roamed the streets and attacked the non-white residents (Pressly). Problematic race relations could no longer be ignored and the government retorted with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act which was aimed at restraining black presence by limiting immigration from Commonwealth countries to those who had employment vouchers. This meant that the source of the problem had been analysed as being the number of black immigrants, and not white racism.

The colour bar

  • 3 At the time most trade unions in Britain had closed-shop agreements forcing their management to rec (...)

13But what comes to mind first in thinking about the American South in the early 1960s remains the Jim Crow system. Since 1896, the “separate-but-equal” doctrine had been given legal sanction by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the Supreme Court, thereby making segregation the official practice of the Southern States. In Britain, the colour bar was more insidious precisely because those who practised it would not admit they were doing so. In the 1950s British trade-unionists resisted the employment of black workers in many industries. They feared the threat of “cheap labour” undercutting their wages or breaking their strikes. They often set up quotas restricting their numbers to a maximum of five per cent, agreed with the management that “coloured” workers would not be promoted above whites, or that the rule of “last in first out” would not apply while there were still black workers that could be dismissed first (Fryer, 376). White employees even organised strikes in protest, as in West Bromwich in 1955 where they objected to the employment of a black conductor. It was also common practice for unions to vote for the introduction of a colour bar to prevent their employers from hiring black labour3. After the Second World War, the National Union of Seamen managed to keep black workers off British ships (Fryer, 367). These arrangements deliberately ignored the national stance of the Trades Union Congress which had first passed a resolution decrying racial discrimination in 1955, and then reaffirmed its commitment in 1959 (Wench, 8).

Local context — the city of Bristol

  • 4 In early January 1956, the managers of the Montgomery City Lines admitted that they were facing imp (...)

Bristol’s past as one of the leading British slave ports had left enduring traces ranging from streets named after famous slave traders to particularly difficult race relations (Fyer, 399). Only a year before the bus boycott, a fight had broken out between black and white stevedores which resulted in the dismissal of 60 black workers because the whites refused to work with them (Dresser, 2007). By 1963, the city numbered approximately 7,000 West Indians (Dresser, 1986, 39). While the sight of black bus crews was fairly common in other British cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester or even neighbouring Bath (“Sir Learie Joins in Colour Bar Issue”), the state-owned Bristol Omnibus Company refused to employ black drivers and conductors. The General Manager, Ian Patey, claimed that hiring black labour would downgrade the job and convince the current white staff to seek work elsewhere (Dresser, 1986, 19). But the decision to enforce a colour bar did not originate with the management. In 1955, the Passenger Group of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in Bristol, which represented bus drivers and conductors, had voted in favour of excluding black bus crews (Dresser, 1986, 12). Once more, this resolution from the local trade union branch was completely at odds with its national commitment to anti-racism and its public condemnation of apartheid in South Africa, as Stephenson would be quick to point out (“W. Indians 100 p.c. for Bus Boycott”). Finally, if blacks represented 80% of bus users in Martin Luther King’s city, they were far from forming such a large proportion in Bristol (Kelly) so the boycott would not put the same economic strain on the bus company4. Why, then, did the black British activists choose this form of protest?

In fact, despite all these differences it would seem that Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council decided to opt for a Southern-style boycott of the buses precisely because of its connection with the segregationist practices of the American South.

Diffusion as a rational choice

14The adoption of the transmitter’s collective identity and tactics is not an automatic process of mimicry but results from a rational choice. Not only were there elements of cultural similarities between the African Americans of the Civil Rights movement and the black Bristolian activists, but there was also a conscious process of drawing parallels between them.

The prestige of the Civil Rights Movement

15Paul Stephenson — who was the only relational tie bridging the gap between the two movements — acknowledged that the Montgomery Bus Boycott had had a significant influence on him and had given him the inspiration to stage a similar protest in Bristol. He declared an in interview in November 2005:

16You couldn't help but be impressed by Martin Luther King and what he was doing in America. But without Rosa Parks I'm not sure whether we would have embarked on our boycott. She was a huge influence on me. I thought if she could protest by not giving up her seat on a bus we could start a bus boycott (“Forty Years On: Due Credit for Civil Rights Pioneer”).

17The prestige of the leading Civil Rights figures not only convinced Stephenson to take action, but it also contributed to attracting activist support for the movement, and getting it favourable media coverage by giving it credibility and legitimacy. The mass media had made sure that the story of Rosa Parks reached the British coasts, and by 1963 Martin Luther King had become an international figure. Therefore, it might be no coincidence that on 28 August, while King was delivering his famous “I have a Dream” speech, the General Manager of the Bristol Omnibus Company announced that they had decided to lift the colour bar.

Extending the analogy to create propaganda

18By identifying with the African American Civil Rights Movement, black Bristolians were by extension comparing the British authorities to their Southern American counterparts who officially practised segregation. It was part of Stephenson’s strategy to generate propaganda to get national media attention and to shame the bus company and the local trade union into action. Some of the similarities between both movements were carefully staged. On the first day of the boycott, the leaders of the West Indian Development Council called a press conference and Owen Henry deliberately climbed on a bus and went to stand at the back to draw a parallel between black Southerners forced to stay at the back and British bus conductors who generally stood there as well: “I boarded the bus there and stayed at the back… especially for the photographers to take a photograph of a black person at the back of the bus” (“Sir Learie Joins in Colour Bar Issue”). As expected, this caught the imagination of the press and they added their own touch of media sensationalism, as demonstrated by this editorial from the Bristol Evening Post: “This is a time for Cool Heads. We want no Little Rock in Bristol” (“Sir Learie Joins in Colour Bar Issue”). Little Rock is a town in Arkansas where in 1957 nine black students had to be escorted by armed federal troops to the previously all-white Little Rock Central High to protect them from a howling white mob. Of course both events were hardly comparable but it turned out to be very effective propaganda material. During the following days, several famous figures came out in support of the boycott such as various local Labour MPs (Tony Benn, Fenner Brockway and Stan Awbery) along with Harold Wilson who was at that time the leader of the Opposition. Sir Learie Constantine, a world-famous Trinidadian cricket player who had been appointed High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago, also joined the fight and played a very important part in vehemently condemning the colour bar.

A successful tactic

19Finally, diffusion concerns mainly the practices of movements which come out victorious. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was seen as having brought about the desegregation of Southern buses. Regardless of the historiographical debate on the role of the Supreme Court and of the American legal system in general (Glennon, 59-112; Kennedy, 999, 1067), it is the perception that the protesters had triumphed that convinced people that their actions could have an impact on decision-makers.

Although the boycott did not produce integration, that was the perception, and perceptions may be more important than reality. The boycott came to exemplify the power of an African American community to mobilize and successfully resist and defeat segregation. A recalcitrant Montgomery yielded before the power of the people. […] The influence of this perception was enormous. […] Even though the boycott itself failed to integrate the city buses, it stimulated other communities to stand up against injustice (Glennon, 60).

  • 5 In the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the African American community staged a boycott of the city (...)

20The 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott5 fell into oblivion precisely because it ended with a compromise solution. The activists called off the boycott because they had managed to obtain substantial gains: opening all bus seats except two at the front which would be reserved for whites and two at the back for blacks (“First Civil Rights Bus Boycott”). But they had fallen short of obtaining the complete desegregation of their city buses. That is why today, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is remembered as the event which initiated the Civil Rights Movement and gave it national prominence. It also explains why its tactics were adopted outside the United States. By choosing a successful strategy, the West Indian Development Council also influenced the perceptions of its potential recruits who would deem the protest more likely to succeed and join in greater numbers.

An endless chain of influence

  • 6 Gandhi launched his first civil disobedience campaign while he was working as a lawyer in Pretoria (...)

It could also be argued that Martin Luther King had himself been inspired by Mohandas Gandhi and his strategy of non-violent resistance deployed both in South Africa when he struggled for Indian rights there6 and during the movement for Indian independence. King visited India in 1959 and wrote an account of his experience in the black magazine Ebony in July of the same year in which he also acknowledged the significant influence of the Mahatma. “While the Montgomery boycott was going on,” he declared, “India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change” (King, 84). The leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association had preached the doctrine of non-violence since the first day of the boycott, with King stressing that the only weapon they would use was “the weapon of protest” (Branch, 140). Gandhi’s principle of Satyagraha, which can be literally translated into “Truth-Force”, referred to the power of non-violence as being a spiritual force which could overcome physical strength. By choosing religious values as the ethos of their protest movements, both Gandhi and King were defining their practices as morally right while presenting their opponents and the systems they represented as morally wrong. Both leaders had read Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience — “Resistance to Civil Government — and had endeavoured to apply its principle of non-cooperation with unfair, immoral systems. Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930 was both an example of long spiritual march (Padyatra) and of boycott since it involved the refusal of paying the British tax on salt and the organisation of an alternative system of illegal salt production. The American Civil Rights Movement would later use the same techniques, as for instance during the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and during the 1955-56 bus boycott. The African Americans refused to abide by the bus segregation laws of their city and set up their own efficient system of car pooling to replace it. After the city police commissioner threatened to arrest taxi drivers who undercut their fares to drive protesters, the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association managed to convince car owners to lend their vehicles to voluntary drivers providing up to 20,000 rides a day (Branch, 146). But this successful protest was far from being the first boycott in history. The etymology of the verb “to boycott” can be traced back to the British Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott who demanded unfair rents from his Irish tenants and then evicted those who could not pay up. In 1880, Charles Stewart Parnell — the President of the Irish National Land League — asked the local farm labourers to refuse to harvest Boycott’s crops, leaving them out to rot. The name stuck to the strategy which then spread quickly all over Ireland (Dooley, 4, 18). Although it is probably impossible to pinpoint the first use of the practice with certainty, it appears that it had already been used before 1880. The American colonists had purposefully avoided buying British goods over a hundred years earlier because of the duties imposed by Westminster, while radical Quakers had launched the free produce movement in the 19th century, calling for people to stop purchasing products made from slave labour. Thus it would seem that the roots of this particular protest technique run deep in British colonial history.


21The Bristol Bus Boycott is therefore related to the American Civil Rights Movement in so far as it is an instance of cross-national diffusion. Paul Stephenson, who had visited the US to study Martin Luther King’s movement, acted as the relational tie directly connecting both communities. On his arrival in Bristol, he triggered the identification process of the adopters (the black Bristolians) with the transmitters (the African Americans). By doing so, he amplified the effects of the information already available through non-relational ties which had been relayed by the mass media and drew upon cultural similarities between the two communities. The transfer of tactics and ideology can be explained by the fact that they were associated with the personal prestige of Martin Luther King and because they were effective in generating propaganda to attract media attention and shame the authorities. But most of all, it was the perception that these practices would lead to social change which caused their diffusion. Although both the Montgomery Improvement Association and the West Indian Development Council managed to obtain guarantees that their demands would be met, they did not achieve complete, immediate change due to the reluctance of the local whites to comply. In the days following the inauguration of desegregated seating, white supremacists turned to violence to express their resentment including physical assaults, gunshots and even bombings (Kennedy, 1055). In practice, many African Americans continued to avoid taking the buses while most of those who did went to sit at the back to avoid any kind of friction (Kennedy, 1057). As for the Bristol Omnibus Company, the colour bar was immediately replaced by the introduction of a five per cent racial quota. In 1965, black bus crews remained a rare sight, representing less than two and a half per cent of the city’s bus drivers and conductors and, by the early 1970s, the only positive change achieved was the increase of the quota to six per cent (Dresser, 1986, 48).

22A similar process of cross-national diffusion occurred in Northern Ireland when Catholic activists decided to adopt the tactical repertoire, ideas, slogans and songs of the American Civil Rights movement. Of course cultural similarities between white Irishmen and black Southerners are not apparent, but it all the more highlights the process of conscious social construction of the protesters’ collective identity. What is more, as black Bristolians had done before them, they also exploited the analogy to portray both their Loyalist opponents and the Northern Irish authorities in a very negative light. Thus, the American Civil Rights movement remains a source of influence both as an inspirational theoretical model for staging a successful protest but also because it summons images of a struggle between the progressive forces of racial equality and justice against the reactionary powers of racism and discrimination.

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“First Civil Rights Bus Boycott.” Narr. Debbie Elliott. All Things Considered. 24 December 2003. NPR. 24 December 2013

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“Sir Learie Joins in Colour Bar Issue,” Bristol Evening Post, 1 May 1963.

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1 Although it should be noted that there had been no form of slavery on British soil since the Middle Ages and that the practice was abolished in the British colonies in 1833. Another specificity of the Afro-American experience is that, unlike the Afro-Caribbeans, they had no country to come back to and were bound to share their former masters’ land.

2 In Bristol in 1958 the black unemployment rate amounted to 5% (Dresser, 1986, 11).

3 At the time most trade unions in Britain had closed-shop agreements forcing their management to recruit union members only.

4 In early January 1956, the managers of the Montgomery City Lines admitted that they were facing impending bankruptcy (Branch, 150).

5 In the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the African American community staged a boycott of the city buses which lasted from 20 to 28 June 1953 (“First Civil Rights Bus Boycott”).

6 Gandhi launched his first civil disobedience campaign while he was working as a lawyer in Pretoria where he was subjected to the discriminatory laws against “coloured” people. He formed the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and organised a series of successful protest for Indian rights. He came back to India in 1914 after having negotiated an agreement with the South African government.

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Electronic reference

Claire Mansour, The Cross-National Diffusion of the American Civil Rights Movement: The Example of the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963Miranda [Online], 10 | 2014, Online since 23 February 2015, connection on 20 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Claire Mansour

Université Toulouse 2-Jean Jaurès

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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