November 13, 2012
On Nov. 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal District Court ruling, in the Browder v. Gayle case, that Alabama’s laws enforcing the segregation of black and white passengers on buses violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The case sprang from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a concerted protest against segregation that became the seminal moment in the American civil rights movement. The boycott started after the arrest of Rosa Parks on Dec. 1, 1955, for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger. Parks was not the first black arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery (15-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested in March, and, in October, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith), but she was well known in the Montgomery community for her work with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and local civil rights leaders thought her arrest could be the spark that would rally the black community.
They could not have been more right.
Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, had failed in her efforts to have Montgomery Mayor W.A. Gayle relax the demeaning rules of the bus system, and written him a letter, in May 1955, saying that the women’s council would support a city-wide boycott. When Parks was arrested, Robinson knew the community would rally. The council called for a citywide boycott on Dec. 2.
On Dec. 5, ninety percent of Montgomery’s black population refused to board a bus.
That evening, at Holt Baptist Church, the first meeting of a new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association, was held. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told an overflow audience “there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. …
“When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say: ‘There lived a race of people, a black people, ‘fleecy locks and black complexion,’’ a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.'”
They voted to extend the boycott, and over the next weeks supporters created alternative transportation with car pools and other cooperative solutions.
On Feb. 1, 1956, just two days after King’s home was firebombed, Fred Gray and Charles D. Langford (Thurgood Marshall helped during arguments) filed a federal petition on behalf of four Montgomery women (not including Rosa Parks, whose case they thought would get tied up in Alabama courts) challenging Alabama statutes and Montgomery ordinances requiring segregation on city buses. The suit, Aurelia S. Browder v. William A. Gayle (the other three plaintiffs were Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith; the list of defendants included, in addition to the mayor, the chief of police, the Montgomery Board of Commissioners, the Montgomery City Lines, two bus drivers and representatives of the Alabama Public Service Commission), was heard by a three-judge panel who decided, 2-1, for the plaintiffs on June 5, 1956.
When the Supreme Court upheld the decision, King said it was “a reafﬁrmation of the principle that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that the old ‘Plessy Doctrine’ of separate but equal is no longer valid, either sociologically or legally.’’
The court rejected appeals to reconsider on Dec. 17, and ordered the buses desegregated on Dec. 20. The boycott was lifted that day.