On November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found segregated bus laws in Montgomery, Alabama were in violation of U.S Constitution laws of “due process and equal justice under the law.” Four brave African American women, Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith, served as plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that struck down Montgomery’s segregated public transportation system and ended bus segregation throughout the land. The case also ended the 381 day Montgomery Bus Boycott, and put another nail in the “separate but equal” coffin. All 4 women had been either arrested for refusing to give up their seats to white passengers or harmed by being forced to comply with segregation codes several months prior to Rosa Parks’ famous arrest on December 1, 1955.
The catalyst for this historic case began on March 2, 1955, when Claudette Colvin, a 15-year old student at Booker T. Washington High School, refused to give up her seat to a white man. Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus as she screamed that her constitutional rights were being violated. Colvin was the first person in 1955 to challenge the City of Montgomery and State of Alabama’s bus segregation ordinances and laws. Her defiance, and those of a few other courageous men and women that followed, eventually led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott which started on December 5, 1955. In a city of 20,000 bus riders, these heroic women (Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith) were among a handful of riders willing to endure the physical and psychological threats associated with being a plaintiff.
Shortly after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, the city of Montgomery refused to meet the bus passenger terms created by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which included courteous treatment by bus operators; ﬁrst-come, ﬁrst-served seating; and employment of Negro bus drivers. This refusal prompted Montgomery Leaders to start determining the best strategy to end Alabama bus seating laws. Attorney Fred Gray proposed to the MIA that the best way to attack segregation laws would be in federal court. NAACP Attorneys Robert Carter and Thurgood Marshall; Birmingham Attorneys Arthur Shores, Ozell Billingsley, and Peter Hall; Clifford Durr of Montgomery; and the Howard University Law School assisted Gray and Co-Counsel Charles Langford in preparing the case to challenge the constitutional legitimacy of Montgomery and Alabama bus segregation laws.
On February 1, 1956, Gray filed the case, Browder v. Gayle, in U.S. District Court. The specific legal question before the court was whether the segregation of the Whites and African Americans on “privately” owned buses operated by the City of Montgomery violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection and treatment under the law. On June 19, 1956, the three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama ruled that Montgomery segregation codes “deny and deprive plaintiffs and other Negro citizens similarly situated of the equal protection of the laws and due process of law secured by the Fourteenth Amendment.” The federal court essentially decided that the precedent of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) could be applied to Browder.
The State of Alabama and the City of Montgomery appealed to The U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court while agreeing with the reasoning of Brown, attached their ruling to the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896. Brown did not argue the 14th Amendment; it merely said there was no room for Plessy in the field of Education, thereby leaving Plessy intact. The highest court in the land upheld the decision on November 13, 1956, outlawing bus segregation laws. Browder v. Gayle rivaled Plessy and set the stage for Civil Rights Legislation in the 1960’s and beyond.