Editor’s note: At the Center for Women’s History this summer, we were lucky to have two fantastic interns, whose work has been featured on this blog. Their research will be incorporated into many ongoing initiatives, including our digital interactive exhibition, Women’s Voices, and our curriculum guide, Women and the American Story. Today, college intern Andreia Wardlaw explores the case of Browder v. Gayle and the four women whose testimony convinced the federal court system that segregation on city buses was unconstitutional, using their stories to reflect on the making of historical narratives about women in the Civil Rights Movement.
Fifty years have passed since 1968, a year heralded as a major turning point in American history. This is especially true for the Civil Rights Movement, from the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, to an explosion of riots and rebellions in Northern cities, to the massacre of three college students by police in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Across the nation, activists and organizers faced the question “where do we go from here?” In 2018, it is equally important to ask, “where have we been?” Doing so means not just touching on the well-known figures and events that feature in institutionalized Civil Rights education, but also illuminating the stories of those who made a big difference, then faded into obscurity.
Revisiting the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Thirteen years before the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the young reverend from Atlanta, Georgia was a virtually nameless figure in the nascent Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t until King became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the spokesperson for the demands of the black population in Montgomery that he emerged as a leader. The boycott also marked a turning point for another eminent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks, whose image became one of the dominant representations of women in movement. This boycott raised the visibility of two of the most illustrious names in American history and it was also celebrated as one of the most successful protests of its day.
The pressure the thirteen-month-long grassroots demonstration put on Alabama and the federal government cannot be underestimated. However, it was the court case Browder v. Gayle that defined segregation on buses as unconstitutional everywhere. Legal scholars of the Civil Rights movement have long emphasized the male attorneys who argued the cases. While they deserve the recognition they already receive, we must not forget the stories of the individuals who bravely acted in defiance of an unjust law. Their actions were the basis upon which these landmark cases were built. In the case of Browder v. Gayle those stories belong to four black women: Aurelia S. Browder, 37 years old; Susie McDonald, 77 years old; Claudette Colvin, 16 years old; and Mary Louise Smith, 19 years old. They remained unacknowledged for far too long, but recent scholarship and journalism have begun to bring their stories to light.
Claudette Colvin: Fearless Young Woman
Our foray into the lives of the historically silenced actors of the Montgomery Bus Boycott begins with the youngest member on the list of witnesses in Browder v. Gayle. On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin boarded a segregated bus in Montgomery along with three of her friends. They took seats in the middle section of the bus, knowing that the first ten seats were reserved for whites only. As the bus picked up more white passengers, the four black girls in the middle section were expected to give up their seats to accommodate the increasing number of white patrons. Her friends moved, but Colvin refused to do so. She was arrested on three charges: assaulting an officer, disturbing the peace, and breaking the segregation law.
A year later, she would retell her story before the U.S. District Court. She would recount the terrifying moment she was kicked and dragged crying off the city bus by two officers, and how she was held in the adult jail for over an hour. Years later, Colvin also described the sexual harassment she experienced — and her fear of sexual assault — while riding in the police cruiser, because the officers were making lewd comments about her body.
Colvin’s brave actions were met with mixed reactions within the African American community. Her parents were fearful that their daughter’s defiance would lead to retaliation from the Klu Klux Klan. Her friends at school either painted her as a troublemaker or praised her as a hero. However, the opinions that had the power to change the course of the historic record were those of local black community leaders. The amount of attention surrounding Claudette’s case made it a potential moment to mobilize the community to protest segregation on the bus system. Claudette Colvin’s name might have been written in history books where Rosa Parks’ is recorded now. Both Colvin and Parks were incredibly brave and deserving of credit for their actions. However, at the time — before Parks’ arrest — local leaders decided Colvin was not fit to be the face of what would later become the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
To set the record straight about Colvin’s story: a myth that continues to circulate among those more “in the know” about little-known black history facts is that Colvin was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and that this fact was the reason she did not become the face of the protest. This is not the case. Colvin was arrested in March of 1955 and did not discover she was pregnant until later that summer. It was her strong determination, outspoken objection to subjugation, and her appearance that turned the black community organizers away from her, and in the direction of a stately, older, and lighter-complexioned figure like Rosa Parks. This aspect of Colvin’s story illuminates the issues of colorism that still plague the black community. Questions about her virtue did not emerge until later when it was discovered she was pregnant, and then only to reinforce the idea leaders had made the right decision in not choosing Colvin. This judgment spotlights the misogynistic idea that female “purity” is a reflection of character.
Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder, and Susie McDonald
Another young and little-known witness in the Browder v. Gayle case was 19-year-old Mary Louise Smith. A frequent city bus rider, she made the decision to protest on October 21, 1955, a month and a half before Rosa Parks. “I am not going to move out of my seat. I am not going to move anywhere. I got the privilege to sit here like anybody else,” she replied, when asked to give up her seat to a white woman. She was arrested and held in jail for over two hours. She was eventually fined $14 (the equivalent of $127 today).
The other two witnesses in the case of Browder v. Gayle were Aurelia S. Browder (the namesake for the historic case because her last name came first alphabetically), and Susie McDonald. These two older women were frequent bus riders who could testify to being asked to give up their seats to white patrons. Their bold decision to testify in open court against the laws of Alabama segregation could have been deadly, as it challenged the nefarious forces of Jim Crow its violent supporters. Browder’s home in Montgomery is now a museum.
Testimony and Victory at the Supreme Court
Browder v. Gayle was brought before the United States District Court in Alabama. On June 5, 1956, it was decided in a two-to-one vote that segregation on Alabama’s intrastate buses was unconstitutional. Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the constitutional underpinnings of segregation in 1954 by declaring that “separate but equal” facilities were inherently unequal, was used as legal precedent in the case. So, too, were the arguments that bus segregation was a violation of Reconstruction-era Civil Rights statues and of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Montgomery Bus Boycott put pressure and financial strain on the city bus system, and Rosa Parks’ example mobilized hundreds, but her case was not included in the legislation that legally desegregated buses.
Instead, these four women — Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith — bravely sat as witnesses in open court, withstanding questioning from a defense that was intent on proving that their actions and convictions against segregation were not their own. As if their own dangerously defiant actions did not prove that they were capable of coming to their own conclusions about segregation, defense attorneys contended that the women were not acting of their own volition, but simply being used by the male puppeteers of the movement, mainly Martin Luther King Jr. to push the desegregation agenda. The defense seemed to suggest that living under the duress of Jim Crow from the time they were born, and being strong and capable female citizens, had not already given them the right to question the laws at hand. In this case, however, their testimony won out over this misogynistic assumption. The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in Browder v. Gayle in November 1956.
A Lasting Legacy and Recognition in New York City
The two youngest witnesses in the case are both still living. Mary Louise Smith, age 81, remains a resident of Montgomery, Alabama. Claudette Colvin, age 78, lives in New York City, where she moved soon after the landmark decision. Like Rosa Parks, who moved to Detroit in the years after the boycott, Colvin found both job opportunities and her own safety under constant threat in Montgomery, after her stand against segregation. In New York, Colvin’s story has begun to be told. She was honored both at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and in her home borough of the Bronx on the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 2015. She continues to share her experiences with young people to teach the importance of speaking out against injustice.
We often think of the events of the Civil Rights Movement as distinctly Southern. However, what these women did not only affected their own state, but protected the rights of African American public transit riders everywhere. They bravely remained seated in the face of violence, racism, sexual harassment, and criminal charges. These four women made up the backbone of Civil Rights legislation that changed segregation laws forever.
– Andreia Wardlaw, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: Browder v. Gayle plaintiffs, compiled by the Birmingham Times, February 16, 2017. Left to right: Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Sue McDonald.