Gayle v. Browder (1956) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Civil Rights Lawyer Fred Gray, Image Courtesy of Fred Gray, Encyclopedia of Alabama

In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004), Michael Klarman argues the direct and indirect effects of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and debates its impact and connection with the Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott marked the first major direct-action protest of the post Brown civil rights era and a “decisive turning point” for southern Negroes. While Gayle v. Browder (1956)invalidated bus segregation laws and effectively desegregated Montgomery buses, Klarman downplays the court decisions significance on the modern civil rights movement and highlights the actual boycott as having the lasting impact, noting that the Montgomery bus boycott “demonstrated black agency, resolve, courage, resourcefulness, and leadership” and “enlightened millions of whites about Jim Crow” (372).

The Montgomery bus boycott originally did not call for the desegregation of city buses. In March 1954, President of the Women’s Political Council, Jo Ann Robinson and other members met with Montgomery Mayor William A. Gayle requesting modest changes for fairer treatment of blacks, not integration of the bus transit system. When the changes were not made, Robinson wrote a letter to the mayor in May warning of a potential boycott. On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin became the first person arrested for challenging the segregation laws for buses. Colvin as well as Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia S. Browder and Susie McDonald were all arrested that year for violating segregation bus laws. All four women would serve as the plaintiffs in Gayle v. Browder (1956). It was the arrest of Rosa Parks for disorderly conduct on December 1, 1955 that set the Montgomery bus boycott in motion, mobilizing the public to finally take action. On December 5, Fred Gray defended Parks in her trial while Robinson and other black leaders called for a one day boycott of the Montgomery buses. With over 90 percent of blacks staying off the buses, local leaders pressed for further action and formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected Martin Luther King Jr. as its president. The MIA submitted a resolution asking for three small actions for fairer treatment: for drivers to display more courtesy toward colored riders, seating be arranged on a first-come first-serve basis, and for colored drivers to be hired for bus routes that were predominately black. None of their demands were  met and the boycott continued.

The city refused to make the concessions and adopted a “get tough” policy, believing that the boycott would not last as blacks were seen as undisciplined and unorganized. Boy-cotters were arrested while King and civil rights activist Edgar Daniel Nixon had their homes bombed. Many of these actions brought negative national publicity to Montgomery furthering the support for the case. With their demands not being met, the MIA decided to challenge the legality of bus segregation. On February 1, 1956, two days after the bombing of King’s house, Gray and Charles D. Langford filed a federal district court petition that became known as Gayle v, Browder. The case, featuring the four women, Browder, Smith, Colvin and McDonald as plaintiffs who had been arrested on city buses, challenged “the constitutionality of the laws requiring segregation on the buses in the city of Montgomery” (Gray, 69). Because the case challenged a state-statute, the case was heard by a three-judge United States District Court panel. On June 5, 1956, Judge Richard T. Rives wrote the 2-1 decision ruling that segregation on Alabama buses was unconstitutional citing Brown as precedent. The decision was appealed by Mayor Gayle and the case reached the Supreme Court where it was upheld unanimously on November 13, 1956. On December 17, 1956, Alabama tried to appeal the Gayle v. Browder decision again but their plea was rejected by the Supreme Court. Three days later it was ordered for Montgomery buses to be integrated which led to the MIA calling off the 381-day boycott.

Many of the actors involved in the boycott and case wrote books about the events as well as their own lives. Fred Gray’s Bus Ride to Justice (Montgomery, 1995) contains his first hand account of the events and is partially available on Google Books. Martin Luther King Jr.’s intimate account of the successful nonviolent protest Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York, 1958) is another great source for readers. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It (Tennessee, 1987) is the account and memoir of Jo Ann Robinson. Klarman utilizes Stewart Burns’ Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (North Carolina, 1997) as his main source for the boycott and case.

An invaluable online resource is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. The site features an encyclopedia with various entries on the events, cases, organizations and people involved with the civil rights movement. Each entry contains references, links to relevant entries as well as primary documents related to the entry. Another helpful free online resource is the Encyclopedia of Alabama which contains numerous articles on the events and people involved.

For other references on people involved in the case and boycott, there are numerous sources available in books and online. Claudette Colvin is the subject of Phillip M. Hoose’s new book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (New York, 2009). There is an article in the Montgomery Advertiser which explores the life of Aurelia Browder that is available online. Their site has a feature on the Montgomery bus boycott and offers other materials including video. Judge Richard T. Rives, who wrote the 2-1 decision that ruled segregation unconstitutional in the case, had his obituary printed in the New York Times on October 30, 1982. The other judge who ruled in the majority was Frank Minis Johnson Jr, who is the subject of many books including Jack Bass’ Taming the South: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson and the South’s Fight Over Civil Rights(New York, 1993) which is considered the most complete biography and available at the Dickinson Library. Seybourn Lynne, the dissenter in the case, had his obituary published in the New York Times on September 12, 2000.

About jakerainwater

Dickinson College Student
This entry was posted in Supreme Court Cases. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Gayle v. Browder (1956) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

  1. John R. Stasny Sr. says:

    Why isn’t the fact that Mayor Gayle was a Democrat? Why isn’t the fact pointed out that Democrats were segragationists? Why isn’t it pointed out that Republicans, 82%, passed the 1964 Civil Rights act? Why isn’t it pointed out that Democrats aka Dixiecrats hijacked the Civil Rights movement when they saw their racist voting block disappear after 1964, and jumped on the bandwagon to garner black votes? The answers may be inflamatory but the truth should be known in spite of party loyality.

    • Jay B says:

      … On the surface it would indeed appear that the Republicans, and not the Democrats as commonly assumed, were the champions of civil rights in the 1960s.

      However, a slightly more careful analysis of the Civil Rights Act voting record shows a distinct split between Northern and Southern politicians. Among the southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia), Senate Democrats voted 1-21 against the bill (5%) while Republicans voted 0-1 (0%). In the House, southern Democrats voted 7-87 (7%) while southern Republicans voted 0-10 (0%). Among the remaining states, Democrats voted 145-9 in favor of the bill (94%) while Republicans voted 138-24 for the bill (85%). In both the North and the South, Democrats supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act at a higher rate than the Republicans.

      retrieved on March 28, 2012

  2. Katie says:

    John, valid point, but it bears stating that the Democrats were actually far more right-leaning before the 60s and it isn’t until the expansion of social welfare programs that we begin to the see the Republican party become more conservative. For both parties, they did not become anything like what they resemble today until that point. So if you are hoping to link a legacy of past racism to the modern-day Democratic party, that would be erroneous.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *