Saturday, April 13, 2024

Black History Month: Sitting for Equality: The Women Who Came Before Rosa Parks

Sitting for Equality: The Women Who Came Before Rosa Parks

Every February, children throughout the United States are taught the story of Rosa Parks, the black women who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white person. Her refusal, her determination to make a stand – or in this case, take a seat – for equal rights led to a cascade of events. Rosa’s stand – seat – is inspirational, but did you know that she was not the first to refuse to give up her seat?

In fact, Rosa’s lawsuit was not even the one which eventually led to the desegregation of buses. It was the lawsuit of Browder v. Gayle, a federal lawsuit which led to the Alabama being ordered, first by a district court, then by the Supreme Court of the United States, to desegregate the bus system, as segregation violated the 14th Amendment right to protection for equal treatment.

Approximately two months after Rosa began her lawsuit against the state of Alabama, civil rights activists became concerned. Rosa’s lawsuit was likely to be stalled through appeals in state courts. While the bus boycott was going strong, activists knew that they would not be able to sustain the boycott for years, thus they sought a way to take a segregation case to the federal courts.

Fred Gray (a black, civil rights lawyer), E.D. Nixon (president of the NAACP in Montgomery), and Clifford Durr (a white lawyer and civil rights activists) began researching how to bring a case to federal courts. Five women were approached: Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder Coleman, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanette Reese. All these women had refused to give up their seats on a bus and faced discrimination. They agreed to be plaintiffs in a federal civil action lawsuit, allowing them to bypass the Alabama court system.

Browder v. Gayle was filed in US District Court on February 1, 1956. On June 13, 1956, the District Court ruled “the enforced segregation of black and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States.” On November 13, 1956, the District Court’s ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court also ordered the state of Alabama to desegregate their buses. On December 20, W.A. Gayle, mayor of Montgomery was handed an official notice by federal marshals to desegregate the buses.

The lawsuit was named for Aurelia Browder Coleman, who was 35 when she refused to give up her seat, seven months before Rosa. Claudette Colvin was another well-known participant in the lawsuit. She was just 15, compared to 42-year-old Rosa, when she refused to give up her seat. Claudette was ultimately thought to be too young to build a lawsuit around, and she was also considered a bit of a trouble maker; she was and unwed teenager who was pregnant. Mary Louise Smith was 18 when she took her seat in protest. She was also thought to be too young, and there were rumors that her father was an alcoholic. Susie McDonald and Jeanette Reese also participated in the lawsuit, although Jeanette quickly withdrew from the Browder v. Gayle due to pressure from the white community. (Sadly, there is little additional information available about Susie and Jeanette)

Without all these brave women – Rosa, Aurelia, Claudette, Mary, Susie, and Jeanette – who knows what history may look like today. During the month of February, Black History Month, it is important to look back at incidents such as these. As uncomfortable as remembering these events may be, they are party of our history as Americans. To move forward in the present, we must remember the past, but not dwell int it, and, if possible, right the wrongs that have been made.

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