Sixty years ago today, a Montgomery, Alabama seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a crowded city bus when a white person demanded her seat. Her arrest and the reaction by the local community sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and the modern civil rights movement. Led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then a little known 26-year-old pastor at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the non-violent protest ignited a sustained campaign against de jure segregation that was heard across the nation and around the world. This movement would take many shapes and forms in the years to follow and eventually resulted in the passage of federal civil rights laws and court decisions that dismantled all forms of legal segregation in American public life.
The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) played a critical role in providing legal representation to Ms. Parks and Dr. King during the bus boycott and in litigating Browder v. Gayle, the successful federal court challenge to Montgomery’s segregated bus system that was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. “Our civil rights legal strategy complemented the organizing effort by the local community. Both working together were key to ending racial segregation in Montgomery and elsewhere in the country. Today, LDF remains focused on both roles in challenging racial injustice.” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF President and Director-Counsel. “On this Sixtieth Anniversary, we celebrate Rosa Parks’ singular courage and her vision for dismantling segregation once and for all.”
This history of the legal case challenging segregation on Montgomery’s buses, set out below, is drawn from LDF’s archives. These and other archival materials will be available to the public for scholarly review through LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute in early 2016.
By Leslie Proll, LDF Director of Policy
Contrary to popular myth, Rosa Parks was not just a tired seamstress who merely wanted to sit down on a bus seat that afternoon. She refused to give up her seat on principle. Parks had long served as the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. Challenging segregation in Montgomery’s transportation system was on the local civil rights agenda for some time. Mrs. Parks was intimately familiar with the experience of other Black Montgomery residents who challenged segregation on the buses. Although she became the face associated with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mrs. Parks credited the community’s response to her arrest to the fact that “[t]his incident had been experienced by so many others. Many Negroes had been subjected to this type of humiliation.” She further explained, “I think they responded because each person had experienced something of the same thing.” Read 1956 conversation with Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School.
The legal aspect of Mrs. Parks’ challenge to segregation was developed by local Montgomery attorney Fred Gray and by Thurgood Marshall, founder and then-Director-Counsel of LDF. Gray, who knew Mrs. Parks from her NAACP work, sought Marshall’s counsel after the arrest and the LDF team immediately set to work on the case. LDF filed the lawsuit that challenged racial segregation within the City of Montgomery’s transportation system in the case known as Browder v. Gayle. Thurgood Marshall, who would become the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice, advised Gray through all stages of the case. Another trailblazing LDF lawyer, Robert L. Carter (who years later became a federal district judge in New York), also worked on the case. In addition to Gray, other local Black Alabama attorneys, including Charles Langford, Arthur Shores, Peter Hall and Orzell Billingsley, participated in the case. Read correspondence in the case.
Although today the outcome of Browder may seem as though it were inevitable, it is important to remember that the boycott began only a year after the Supreme Court’s historic and controversial decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Massive resistance to that decision in southern states and counties was solidifying, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown II giving local jurisdictions a lead role in setting the pace of segregation was being viewed as a license to slow-walk and stall the pace of desegregation by southern officials.
The climate in Alabama was particularly hostile to integration efforts. In early 1956, Autherine Lucy, LDF’s client in the lawsuit to desegregate the University of Alabama, was driven from the Tuscaloosa campus by rioters. An Alabama newspaper article from that time demonstrates the aggressiveness of public officials against the bus boycott. On January 30, 1956, Dr. King’s home in Montgomery was bombed.
Three days later, LDF and its cooperating attorneys filed the federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statutes of the State of Alabama and the City of Montgomery that required racial segregation in the operation of buses by Montgomery City Lines, a common carrier. Because Rosa Parks’ criminal prosecution was pending in state court, LDF brought the case on behalf of four other Montgomery female residents subjected to the segregated bus system: Aurelia Browder, a widowed seamstress and mother of six; Susie McDonald, a 77-year-old widow; and Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, both teenagers who had been arrested and convicted for challenging segregated practices on the buses. The defendants included Montgomery Mayor W.A. Gayle and other members of the Board of Commissioners; the Chief of Police; the Montgomery City Lines; and individual members of the Alabama Public Service Commission.
LDF requested a declaratory judgment by a three-judge court that the State and local statutes violated the equal protection, due process and privileges and immunities clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The panel hearing the case consisted of Judge Richard Rives of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Judge Frank Johnson, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, and Judge Seybourn Lynne of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.
On May 11, 1955, the panel of judges held a five-hour hearing at which LDF attorney
Robert Carter and Montgomery attorney Fred Gray represented the plaintiffs and argued against the continuing validity of separate but equal under Plessy v. Ferguson. The four plaintiffs outlined their harsh treatment on segregated City buses. A witness for the bus company testified that Black bus-ridership on a daily basis had decreased from 30,000 to 40,000 persons to 300-400 persons. Montgomery Mayor Gayle, who was a member of the White Citizens Council that ardently supported segregation, testified at trial that eliminating segregation would cause violence and bloodshed.
On June 5, the panel ruled for LDF’s clients in a 2-1 vote. In an opinion written by Judge Rives and joined by Judge Johnson, the court traced the challenges to the separate but equal doctrine since Plessy v. Ferguson, referring to the railway transportation cases that considered segregation an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce, to Shelley v. Kramer which recognized “that the underlying philosophy of the Fourteenth Amendment is the equality before the law of each individual,” and to higher education cases where “the Court has first weakened the vitality of, and has then destroyed, the separate but equal concept.” Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707, 715-17 (M.D. Ala. 1956). The court noted that in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court had repudiated the separate but equal doctrine where it had first developed, in public education, and then extended it to recreational facilities. The court concluded:
“We cannot in good conscience perform our duty as judges by blindly following the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson …. In fact, we think that Plessy v. Ferguson has been impliedly, though not explicitly, overruled, and that … there is now no rational basis upon which the separate but equal doctrine can be validly applied to public carrier transportation within the City of Montgomery and its police jurisdiction…. We hold that the statutes and ordinances requiring segregation of the white and colored races on the motor buses … violate the due process and equal protection of the law clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
Id. at 71. The City of Montgomery and the State of Alabama appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Read LDF’s letter sending its brief to Dr. Martin Luther King. The Montgomery Bus Boycott continued for another five months before the Court ruled. For a long time after issuing their decision, Judges Rives and Johnson received hate mail and death threats.
On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam (summary) decision which cited Brown v. Board of Education and affirmed the lower court judgment that the State of Alabama and local segregation statutes were unconstitutional. 352 U.S. 903 (1956). Later that day, Dr. King assembled thousands of protestors in Montgomery and stated, “Our feet have often been tired and our automobiles worn, but we have kept going with the faith that … at bottom the universe is on the side of justice.”
On December 21, 1956, Black bus riders in Montgomery were finally allowed to be seated on a first-come, first-serve basis. Rosa Parks and Dr. King were among the first passengers to board local buses that day. Dr. King would later send a note of thanks to Thurgood Marshall which stated: “We will remain eternally grateful to you and your staff for the great work you have done, not only for the Negro in particular but American Democracy in general.”