A Seat on the Bus

Good morning, it’s Monday, November 13, 2017. On this date in 1956 the perseverance of four black women from Alabama — and the acumen of their lawyers — was rewarded by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that constituted a body blow to Jim Crow.

The African-American plaintiffs were Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith. Their attorneys of record were Fred Gray Sr. and Charles D. Langford, though as the case of Gayle v. Browder progressed through the courts they were assisted by an able NAACP in-house counsel named Thurgood Marshall.

These four women had refused to comply with the back-of-the-bus rules used to enforce segregation aboard city buses in the state capital of Montgomery. Today, the world remembers Rosa Parks, as it should. But her iconic act of defiance was part of a wider and well-coordinated campaign of civil disobedience, economic boycotts, and legal challenges.

Aurelia Browder had been cited seven months before Rosa Parks for the same offense. Fred Gray did not include Parks, who was also his client, in the litigation because he didn’t want local officials to muddy the issue by mixing it up with Parks’ criminal prosecution. Gray chose Browder, a hard-working widow and 45-year-old college graduate, as his lead plaintiff because he thought she would make an excellent witness.

It never came to that.

In arguing that state-sanctioned segregation did not run afoul of the 14th Amendment, lawyers representing the city of Montgomery asserted — as did establishment lawyers throughout the South — that as far as they were concerned Plessy v. Ferguson was still the law of the land.

That notorious 1896 Louisiana case dealt with racially based access to railroad cars, and gave rise to the “separate but equal” doctrine that the Earl Warren-led Supreme Court had been gradually dismantling for more than two years. The high court was about to go even further.

Ruling on June 19, 1956, federal Judge Richard T. Rives cited a spate of recent cases in which the Supreme Court and federal appellate courts had eviscerated the flawed logic of Plessy. Rives was part of a three-judge panel hearing the case. Joining him in his ruling was Judge Frank M. Johnson.

“We cannot in good conscience perform our duty as judges by blindly following the precedent of [Plessy],” they ruled.

“We think that Plessy v. Ferguson has been impliedly, though not explicitly, overruled,” the appellate judges added. “There is now no rational basis upon which the separate but equal doctrine can be validly applied to public carrier transportation within the City of Montgomery and its police jurisdiction.”

This verdict was swiftly appealed. Almost as rapidly, the U.S. Supreme Court batted it away. The justices summarily and unanimously upheld the lower court without even holding oral arguments. That decision was rendered 61 years ago today.

“We were all elated that the three-judge district court decision had been affirmed,” Fred Gray wrote in his 1995 memoir. “We knew that segregation was wrong, and we believed it was unconstitutional. Now the highest court in the land had upheld our position.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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