On this day in 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks is jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. She was arrested for violating a city law requiring segregation on public buses. On city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, the front 10 seats were permanently reserved for white passengers. Park was actually seated in the first row behind the 10 seats reserved for white passengers, but when the bus became crowded, the driver asked her and three other African American passengers to move. Eventually the other three passengers moved, but Parks remained seated, arguing she was not in a seat reserved for white passengers. The driver said he had discretion to move the racial line separating white and black passengers on his bus, and called the police when Parks refused to move.
Parks was arrested and charged with “refusing to obey orders of bus driver.” She was not the first black person in Montgomery, Alabama arrested for violating the city bus segregation laws. Her arrest made a huge impact in large part due to her stature in the civil rights community. She was an active member of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and served as secretary to E.D. Nixon, then president of the Montgomery chapter.
Parks’ arrest became the catalyst for the African American community to organize a sustained bus boycott to protest discrimination and segregation laws on public transportation. Martin Luther King, Jr., then only 26 years old, emerged as the leader of a 381 day peaceful, well-organized boycott that captured the nation’s attention.
Browder v. Gayle: The Other African American Women Who Fought Segregation on Public Transportation
While Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience was unquestionably the act that galvanized the African American community to engage in a sustained bus boycott, it was the acts of four other African American women – Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith — who served as plaintiffs in a court case challenging Montgomery’s segregated public transportation system after each had been arrested. Their case Browder v. Gayle went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where the Court held in a per curiam opinion that racially segregated transportation systems enforced by the government violate the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The District Court opinion, upheld by the Supreme Court, described the case this way –
The purpose of this action is to test the constitutionality of both the statutes of the State of Alabama and the ordinances of the City of Montgomery which require the segregation of the white and colored races on the motor buses of the Montgomery City Lines, Inc., 711*711 a common carrier of passengers in said City and its police jurisdiction.
The plaintiffs are four Negro citizens who bring this action for themselves and on behalf of all other Negroes similarly situated. The defendants are the members of the Board of Commissioners and the Chief of Police of the City of Montgomery, the members of the Alabama Public Service Commission, The Montgomery City Lines, Inc., and two of its employee drivers.
Each of the four named plaintiffs has either been required by a bus driver or by the police to comply with said segregation laws or has been arrested and fined for her refusal so to do. The plaintiffs, along with most other Negro citizens of the City of Montgomery, have since December 5, 1955, and up to the present time, refrained from making use of the transportation facilities provided by Montgomery City Lines, Inc. Plaintiffs and other Negroes desire and intend to resume the use of said buses if and when they can do so on a non-segregated basis without fear of arrest.