There were others!
In the words of Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” When there is a social ill, the people must force change for it to come. That collective action was seen most often during the Civil Rights Movement, particularly with the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by Rosa Parks.
What some people don’t know is that Parks’ work started long before she refused to give up her seat. In fact, Parks was a secretary for the local NAACP, and there had already been talks within Montgomery, Alabama among the Black community about boycotting the buses as a result of segregation, TIME reports. By the time Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. Another [woman has been] arrested for the same thing. Don’t ride the buses,” read the flyers prompting the Montgomery bus boycott, written by Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson.
The history books held up Parks for a long time as the sole catalyst. But the message was clear from the jump: “another woman” had been arrested. To give you better context, let’s meet the other Black women who refused to give up their seats before Rosa Parks.
Claudette Colvin was just 15 years old when she was catapulted into the movement on March 2, 1955. In school, they were learning about freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. They had also been discussing the case of a classmate who was being indicted for an alleged rape of a white woman. Fresh off of discussing the rampant injustices in the country, Colvin boarded a bus with a group of other classmates after school when a driver asked her and three other Black children to give up their row seat so one white woman could sit.
“All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily. We couldn’t try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag, draw a diagram of your foot, and take it to the store. Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of Black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up,” Colvin previously told reporters.
While Colvin’s classmates moved, she did not. Police officers subsequently boarded and dragged Colvin off the bus where she was incarcerated. While Colvin admits she was scared of what might happen to her, she said years later that even then, she knew she was doing the right thing.
“I wanted the young African-American girls also on the bus to know that they had a right to be there, because they had paid their fare just like the white passengers. This is not slavery. We shouldn’t be asked to get up for the white people just because they are white. I just wanted them to know the Constitution didn’t say that,” recalled Colvin.
Before Colvin, there had been others, like Sarah Keys, a member of the Army Corps who refused to give up her seat in 1952, Woodstock Whisperer reports. After Colvin, there were more. 37-year-old Aurelia S. Browder was arrested a month after on April 29th and later that year, on Oct. 21st, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested.
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Mary Louise Smith-Ware
According to WBHM, Smith-Ware had just begun her job as a housekeeper for a white family in Montgomery, Alabama. She had a long work week and on Friday, she was supposed to get paid but did not. That Monday, she took the bus back to the house to collect payment, but no one was there. She then turned around to get back on a crowded bus where Smith-Ware headed to the back and sat behind the sign that read “colored.”
“A white man got on the bus. He had gave his seat to a white woman, so he was going to stand. So now, he was going to make me get up and give my seat to him,” she recalled.
The man went to the front of the bus and alerted the bus driver who then looked at Smith-Ware in the rearview mirror and requested she stand up to let the white man sit.
“I am already furious cause I didn’t get paid. I think I said a profanity word. I said, ‘I am not moving. Not one step,’” Smith-Ware told reporters.
The bus driver then pulled over, alerted the police and she was subsequently arrested, taken to jail to be fingerprinted and fined $12, the equivalent to her entire week’s pay. Two months later, Parks refused, ultimately sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for more than 380 days.
According to The King Institute, Colvin and Smith-Ware would go to trial together, along with other original plaintiffs including Browder, Susie McDonald, and Jeanatta Reese. Parks’ trial remained separate.
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While these women definitely sparked the bus boycott, there had been a century of resistance against segregated public transportation. More than 100 years prior, schoolteacher Elizabeth Jennings was also arrested for traveling in a whites only section of a streetcar in New York City. During her trial, she was defended by lawyer Chester A. Arthur, who would go on to become the future United States President. It was Jennings’ trial that led to the desegregation of New York’s street cars. Frederick Douglass had also protested a few years prior, being kicked out of a whites-only train car in 1841. Similarly, baseball legend Jackie Robinson also once refused to move to the back of the bus and was court-martialed as a result.
“I’m hard-pressed to find what’s different between Elizabeth Jennings being arrested and Rosa Parks being arrested, except for the 100-year gap…There’s no one moment to cite as a pivotal moment. There is a continuum of people who did not believe that second-class treatment was fair or right or just and who were brave enough to fight against it,” said Blair L.M. Kelley, the author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy V. Ferguson.
Ultimately, it was America’s own wars that eventually caused a shift in attitude. The Cold War forced America to take a look at its own practices as other nations pressured the U.S. to prove that its systems were better and more just than the Soviet Union. Montgomery was also home to a desegregated Air Force base and integrated trolleys, Black veteran troops annoyed by the segregated city buses they had to board when traveling home. That, coupled with the integration of schools as a result of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, meant that there could be a victory for integration in other areas of life as well.
Today, we give honor to all of those who paved the way and made the sacrifices for us to enjoy the freedoms we have now. Just last year, at the age of 82, Ms. Colvin finally had her arrest record expunged, nearly seven decades later.
“I’m not doing it for me; I’m 82 years old. But I wanted my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to understand that their grandmother stood up for something very important and that it changed our lives a lot, changed attitudes… [I want to] show the generation growing up now that progress is possible, and things do get better…The struggle continues. I just don’t want us to regress as a race, as a minority group, and give up hope. Keep the faith, keep on going and keep on fighting,” said Colvin.
Thank you all for your sacrifice. Because of you all, we can!
Meet the Black women who refused to give up their seats before Rosa Parks. (l to r) Sarah Keys, Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, & Mary Louise Smith-Ware. Photo Courtesy of Zinn Education Project/Alamy/TIME/Woodstock Whisperer