Know Their Names: The Other Black Women Behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott
If the name Rosa Parks rings any bells today, it’s probably as the woman who was “too tired” to give up her seat to a White man in the “White” section of the city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, as mandated by law. She was immediately arrested. Days later, her arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the yearlong-plus protest that desegregated city buses and catapulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national attention, anointing him as the nation’s de facto top Black leader.
Parks was good and tired, but elements of the story are often condensed or mythologized. Let’s recap the rest of the story, shall we? December 1, 1955, was not the beginning of the fight against Jim Crow laws. In 1943, Parks was tired enough to follow her husband, Raymond, and join the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She wasn’t just a card-carrying member either; she was secretary to the chapter’s president, E.D. Nixon. In 1944, she led the investigation into the gang rape of Recy Taylor by a group of White men and succeeded in garnering national attention for the injustice. She was also registered to vote, which, as illustrated in Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, was no easy feat back then. In the summer of 1955, months before her action, Parks even attended Highlander Folk School, which trained activists. It was also where the great civil rights leader Septima Clark mentored her.
Black women have long been at the forefront of anti-Black racism work but are rarely credited for it.
And she, like other Black Montgomerians, was well aware of the issues of riding the bus. See, Parks didn’t even sit in the “White” section of the bus on December 1, 1955; she was in the Negro or colored section. The “problem” only arose when White driver James F. Blake converted that section to accommodate other White riders because the official “White” section was full. Parks was arrested for not yielding her seat to a White male rider in what was initially marked as the “colored” section.
Black Montgomery sprung to action, most notably Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College and president of the Women’s Political Council. Robinson had her own run-in on a city bus about the “Whites only” section in 1949 and had worked diligently to protest the treatment of Black riders. She had even met with the mayor. When Robinson learned of Parks’ arrest, she mimeographed and led the distribution of over 35,000 handbills announcing a bus boycott.
“We are … asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial,” the handbill partially read. Black ministers announced the boycott in church on December 4, and the local paper, the Montgomery Advertiser, even ran a front-page story on it. The boycott’s December 5 date was strategically planned to coincide with Parks’ trial date. And, despite the rain, nearly 40,000 Black people did not ride the bus on December 5, choosing to walk, take cabs, and other means. That afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, and the members elected 26-year-old pastor Martin Luther King Jr. as their president. The group decided to continue the boycott, which would last for 382 days.
It’s a story that isn’t often told fully. Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed certainly didn’t hear of it when he was growing up, especially not about the key women behind the movement.
“At the time, our public school system wasn’t telling the story of Jo Ann Robinson, they weren’t telling the story of what really happened,” recalls Reed, who just last year became the first Black person ever elected mayor in the city’s 200-year history.
“It was [stories of] Rosa Parks who sat down on the bus, didn’t want to get up, was too tired from working all day to give up her seat to a White man,” he continues. “It was that type of simplistic approach as opposed to the multilayers [that give], I think, a better sense of history and a better sense of culture. And I think it’s not something that is just relevant to Black people in this country. I think it’s relevant to all people in this country because it’s part of the fabric of our history that truly changed the course of this nation.”
Parks did not work alone.
Parks knew the history preceding her on this issue. She knew about Claudette Colvin, the teenager who refused to give up her seat to a White rider just months earlier in March. E.D. Nixon had also been involved in that case, in which the community, including Parks, rallied behind Colvin. One of the problems with Colvin’s case, however, was that the judge dropped the challenge to segregation from her conviction—and not because she was pregnant, as it had been widely reported. Anticipating unlikely success in challenging racial segregation on Montgomery’s buses, the NAACP moved away from the case before Colvin’s pregnancy. Parks not only knew Colvin, a member of the NAACP youth group she led, but had also encouraged Colvin to tell her story repeatedly during those meetings.
Parks also knew Viola White, who challenged bus segregation in 1944. That was another case in which Nixon was personally involved. It didn’t move forward because Alabama’s White power structure stalled it in the state’s courts. As punishment for her defiance, A.A. Enger, a city police officer, kidnapped White’s 16-year-old daughter and raped her in a cemetery. Enger was allowed to flee without ever paying for his crime.
Parks was absolutely aware of the other women. Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith, joined by Colvin, were key in the federal case known as Browder v. Gayle filed just months after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. That case, filed in federal court instead of the Alabama state courts, resulted in the Supreme Court decision legally ending the Montgomery bus system’s policy of racial segregation on December 20, 1956, which was a huge civil rights win.
Black women have long been at the forefront of anti-Black racism work but are rarely credited for it. Parks did not work alone. Other Black women stood up as well.
“In my position as mayor, to celebrate or to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the bus boycott is to commemorate a very important flashpoint in this nation’s history, where common people really led with an uncommon courage,” says Reed.
“I think that is something, when we boil it all down, that is significant because these weren’t people who set out to be quote-unquote heroes or sheroes. They didn’t set out to get likes on Instagram or go viral on TikTok or anything else. They were people who had a plan, had a cause, and they were committed to achieve their goals and objectives, which was to dismantle legal segregation, certainly in the South, and it went far beyond here.”
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