BY Stephen Nartey, 3:30pm February 10, 2023,

Charles Alston, the 1st Black painter to highlight the forgotten women who made the Montgomery bus boycott successful

Charles Alston and Art Work/Photo credit: Wikipedia/Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Montgomery bus boycott which was staged from late 1955 to 1956 showed what local citizens could achieve through activism. Two faces, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, came to symbolize the people’s protest.

The Montgomery incident was however successful because of the role some women’s political groups and churches played in mobilizing thousands of African Americans to refrain from using segregated city buses, according to American Art.

But, the narrative of these illustrious women did not find the prominence it deserved. The thousands of boycotters who walked to their workplaces day in and day out, the back-wrenching pains they endured and the degradation they soaked in had all been forgotten.

This gap in history is what inspired Charles Alston in 1958 to paint his famous work “Walking”. It captures the dozens of women who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott. He depicts them as tough-shaped personalities in bright slabs of color. He used the abstract approach to bring out the energy the women invested in the civil defiance to ensure their voices were heard.

They were underrepresented in the news headlines but gained prominence in the work of Alston which was solely dedicated to honoring them. He used two unknown women and placed two children at the center to portray an inclusive reality of what transpired in Montgomery in the 1950s.

Though he painted this work in 1958 before the 1965 civil rights marches in Alabama, situating the piece in the light of these events made it prophetic. It sat in a climate where the Black community became self-aware of their power and leveraged marches to demand representation. Alston’s symbolism of walking therefore became a powerful tool that inspired future protests and was seen as epic.  

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alston spent his early childhood in New York where he had his high school and college education. He acquired his MFA at Columbia University. His paintings also touched on the Harlem Renaissance where he experimented with themes focusing on everyday African Americans.

He took on a role as a supervisor for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. He mentored many young artists such as Jacob Lawrence at the WPA-sponsored Harlem Community Art Center. He championed the formation of Spiral, a group of New York African-American artists who engaged during the 1960s on how to use art to portray racial inequality and social injustice.

Alston once said that he was always moved to use his experience to document the poor treatment meted out to African Americans in a racist setting. The painter and sculptor was one of the first Black artists to have his work exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Butler Art Institute, and Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries are littered with his works.

According to Art and Object, a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. created by Alston was the first image of an African American to be exhibited at the White House.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 10, 2023


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