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On This Day: Supreme Court Outlaws Bus Segregation

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On Nov. 13, 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed a ruling that found the segregated bus laws in Montgomery, Ala., to be unconstitutional.

Browder v. Gayle Ends Bus Segregation

The city of Montgomery, Ala., like many Southern cities, had laws enforcing racial segregation in many public places. The Montgomery bus system forced blacks to sit at the back of the bus and, if all the seats were taken, give up their seats to whites.

In 1955, a number of black women were arrested refusing to give up their seats to white passengers, beginning with 15-year-old Claudette Colvin in March. The Montgomery NAACP considered launching a protest based on her arrest, but it instead chose a more respected member of the community, NAACP secretary Rosa Parks, to be the symbol of the protest.

Other women—including Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith—would be arrested before Dec. 1, 1955, when Parks’ arrest served as the spark for a boycott of Montgomery buses.

The NAACP legal team, led by Fred Gray and Charles D. Langford, decided to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Browder, Colvin, McDonald and Smith. They excluded Parks so that the case would be entirely separate from the disorderly conduct case against Parks. Gray explained that he “wanted the court to have only one issue to decide—the constitutionality of the laws requiring segregation on the buses.”

The case was filed Feb. 1, 1956; in June, a three-judge panel for Alabama’s Middle District Court ruled 2-1 that the city’s bus segregation laws were in violation of the Constitution.

After Montgomery Mayor W.A. Gayle appealed the decision, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and issued a ruling on Nov. 13. In a brief decision that cited the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case and other cases that banned segregation in public parks and playgrounds, the court unanimously upheld the district court’s ruling.

It refused to hear city and state appeals, and issued an order to Montgomery on Dec. 20, 1956, to integrate its buses. The next day, after 381 days, the Montgomery bus boycott ended.

The full text of the Alabama District Court decision is provided by the University of Washington.

The Significance of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Civil Rights Movement OTDs

Though the boycott did not directly bring about an end to bus segregation, it had a far reaching effect on the burgeoning civil rights movement. It transformed King into a national figure, attracted galvanized support for civil rights, and provided a model for future protests.

“The bus boycott demonstrated the potential for nonviolent mass protest to successfully challenge racial segregation and served as an example for other southern campaigns that followed,” writes Stanford University’s King Institute. “In ‘Stride Toward Freedom,’ King’s 1958 memoir of the boycott, he declared the real meaning of the Montgomery bus boycott to be the power of a growing self-respect to animate the struggle for civil rights.”

Key Players: Aurelia Browder and Claudette Colvin

Sources in this Story

  • Encyclopedia of Alabama: Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Montgomery Bus Boycott: Overview
  • Stanford University: King Institute: Browder v. Gayle, 352 U.S. 903 (1956)
  • Stetson University College of Law: Desegregation of Public Transportation: The Montgomery Improvement Association And The Montgomery Bus Boycott Case (PDF)
  • Montgomery Bus Boycott (Montgomery Advertiser): Supreme Court Outlaws Bus Segregation
  • Stanford University: King Institute: Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956)
  • The Montgomery Advertiser: Aurelia Shines Browder Coleman
  • Newsweek: A Forgotten Contribution

Aurelia Browder
Aurelia Shines Browder was the lead plaintiff in the case, a role for which lawyer Fred Gray found her well-suited: “I chose her because she was a matured person, and I thought she would make an excellent first witness if I needed to put someone on.”

Claudette Colvin
Claudette Colvin was the first person in 1955 to challenge Montgomery’s bus segregation, refusing to give up her seat on March 2. The 15-year-old high school student had to be dragged of the bus by police as she screamed “It’s my constitutional right.”

Local civil rights activists considered making her the face of the protest against bus segregation, but there were concerns about her age and her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. While Parks became the face of the bus desegregation movement, Colvin became a largely forgotten figure. She moved to New York in 1958 and lost touch with Alabama’s civil rights activists.

“Claudette gave all of us moral courage,” Gray said recently. “If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks.”

Learn about the life of Rosa Parks.

The Civil Rights Movement

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to the Civil Rights Movement features links to the best primary and secondary sources on the movement.

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