The Women Who Said No.
While we commemorate the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the legacy of Rosa Parks, we cannot forget the sacrifices of the many thousands of Black Americans who walked the extra mile to secure the freedoms that we enjoy today.
Among them were names as much deserving of recognition as Rosa Parks, but names we may never find in a textbook on American history.
Meet the Black women who said "No."
The Chosen One
This single act of nonviolent resistance helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 13-month struggle (381 days in total) to desegregate the city’s bus system.
Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., the boycott resulted in the enforcement of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared public bus segregation unconstitutional. It was an event that catapulted both King and Parks into the national spotlight.
King recalled in his 1958 memoir of the boycott Stride Toward Freedom that 'Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history,' and because 'her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted,' she was 'one of the most respected people in the Negro community.'
Although many news accounts depicted Parks as a tired seamstress, Parks explained the deep roots of her act of resistance in her autobiography:
I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
By that time, she was already a full-fledged activist.
So was her husband, Raymond.
Raymond Parks participated in the effort to free the “Scottsboro Boys” in the 1930's. At the age of 42, Rosa Parks was a secretary and youth leader in the local chapter of the NAACP. As a matter of fact, she had been making preparations for "a major youth conference" at the time that she was arrested on the bus.
The Odd One Out
Colvin remembers how she told the officers that she wouldn't budge an inch.
'I paid my fare and it's my constitutional right.'
The police dragged her off the bus, arrested her, and charged her for assault and battery, disorderly conduct, and violating segregation laws.
Despite early support from the Women’s Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery, a group of Black middle-class educators, and the local branch of the NAACP, Colvin’s case failed to unite the Black community in the early struggle against segregation.
But they tried.
According to the The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, a number of civil rights leaders, including King, E. D. Nixon, and Robinson met with politicians after the Colvin case 'but made little headway.'
Believe it or not, Rosa Parks was also there with them in their meetings with city commissioners and bus company officials.
On May 6th, Judge Eugene Carter dismissed Colvin’s segregation charge, precluding the possibility of a federal challenge on constitutional grounds. The case lost momentum.
Then along came Rosa Parks.
As Stanford's King Encyclopedia says:
The arrest of Rosa Parks gave the WPC the opportunity it had been waiting for.
As Colvin recalled:
My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me to let Rosa be the one: White people aren't going to bother Rosa, they like her.
In a recent interview with NPR, Colvin also said this:
I knew why they chose Rosa. They thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel.
Some time after the incident, Colvin 'had a child born out of wedlock.'
Now, she was 16 and pregnant.
And I didn't fit the image either, of, you know, someone they would want to show off.
E. D. Nixon confirmed this later on, saying that Parks was a more acceptable candidate.
The day after the arrest of Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson and the members of the WPC wrote and distributed a leaflet calling for a one-day boycott of buses the following Monday, December 5th.
It read in part:
Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or to any where on Monday.
That same evening, community leaders - both civic and religious - met at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and planned the boycott. A committee that included Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy edited the leaflet and added a call for a mass meeting on Monday evening.
The protest was publicized in the press, on the radio, and on television.
On December 5, 90% of Montgomery’s Black citizens stayed off the buses.
Those who needed a ride carpooled instead. These carpools were organized by the Black women activists of the WPC.
That afternoon, the leaders met again to form an organization to coordinate efforts towards an extended campaign. They called it the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Without opposition, King was elected president.
The MIA developed the carpool system of the WPC into a program involving about 300 cars.
Rosa Parks has become an icon of Black resistance in the turbulent '60s. She has even been called the "mother of the modern day Civil Rights Movement."
She was the first person to be honored with a holiday while alive. She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, the Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. She also had a museum and library dedicated in her name.
Claudette Colvin served as a secondary plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the Supreme Court case that ultimately overturned bus segregation.
She has had a street named after her. Every March 2nd since 2017, Montgomery observes Claudette Colvin Day. However, Claudette Colvin remains a lesser-known figure in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Significant Others
Mary Louise Smith
On October 15, 1955, two months before Rosa Parks, 18-year-old Montgomery resident Mary Louise Smith Ware had been arrested under similar circumstances, but this case, too, failed to stir community leaders to help launch a mass protest.
In 2015, Smith Ware shared her story with NPR's Alabama affiliate WBHM.
Smith was on her way to her job as a housekeeper for a White family. When no one answered the door, she returned to the crowded bus.
Just then, a White man got on board.
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.
After the man spoke to the bus driver, the driver ordered Smith to stand and let the White man sit.
I am already furious cause I didn’t get paid. I think I said a profanity word. [Laughs]
When the police arrived, Smith was arrested and charged $12. For Smith, this was a full week's pay.
In 1956, when civil rights attorneys sought plaintiffs to file a lawsuit, Smith Ware agreed to testify before three federal judges in Montgomery, Alabama. Three other women who had been arrested for refusing to comply with bus segregation laws also joined the suit.
When the judges asked if she would do it again (refuse to give up her seat), she had only one answer for them. "Yes."
There were two other women who were arrested before Rosa Parks - Sarah Louise Keys and Irene Morgan.
In an interview for Robin Washington's 1995 documentary You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow! Morgan recounted the experience.
[The Bus Driver] got the sheriff, and the sheriff said, 'I'm going to arrest you.' And I said, 'That's perfectly all right.
But when he handed her an arrest warrant, she tore it up and threw it out a nearby window. As the officer proceeded to arrest her, she kicked the officer and bit his arm.
Eventually, Morgan was arrested. She refused to pay the $10 fine for violating the state segregation law, and, with the help of several lawyers, including future Justice Thurgood Marshall, her case went to the Supreme Court.
The result was that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against state-mandated segregation on interstate transportation on June 3, 1946.
The Virginia law was successfully struck down.
However, there remained a pervasive fear among Blacks and a bitter resistance among Whites across the South. Therefore, segregation continued in all forms of transportation.
Sarah Louise Keys
When the driver was through collecting tickets, he directed all of the passengers to board another bus - everyone except for 'the woman who refused to move.' He said:
She could stay there but this bus isn’t going anywhere.
Keys tried to join the other passengers, but the driver blocked her path.
She went around the station looking for help but the attendant refused to serve her. Two policemen arrived shortly afterwards and she was arrested.
As they drove in the dark, Keys asked them where they were going.
We’re taking you to the police station and locking you up for the night.
When she asked them why, they said:
We can get you for anything – disorderly conduct – whatever we want.
When they reached the jail, she was cold and afraid, but grateful to be alive.
The next morning, she was made to pay a $25 fine for her release.
This was all the money she had on her at the time.
Later, she took her case to court and lost.
But her father encouraged her along.
On May 12, 1954, Sarah Keys testified before the Interstate Commerce Commission about her case with no luck. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr and other lawyers helped her to appeal and she testified again before the ICC in November 1955. This time, she won.
Now, Black Americans could travel all over the country without being harassed or asked to move to the back of any bus anywhere.
When she was asked how she felt on the same day the ruling was announced, her response was this:
At long last, I feel free. I’ve never been so happy in my life. It is just the greatest thing for my people – also a wonderful thing for all American people as well.
Although it was not for another six years (in 1961) when this ruling was enforced, the Keys case signaled the down of a new era in America.
What the Struggle Meant Then
At the time, the stories of these women may not have been known to the masses, but those who had been immediately involved in the leadership of the civil rights struggle were well aware.
That is why Robinson's leaflet read:
Another Negro woman has been arrested and put in jail because she refused to give up her bus seat.
Rosa Parks inspired some 40,000 Black citizens to boycott the buses in Montgomery. She served as a dispatcher to coordinate rides for other protesters and was indicted, along with King and over 80 others, for her participation in the boycott.
Parks also traveled to churches and worked with other organizations, including some in the North, to raise funds and to publicize the work of the MIA.
She was not alone in her efforts.
There were other women who led and assisted the movement.
Stanford acknowledges their role.
Although most of the publicity about the protest was centered on the actions of Black ministers, women played crucial roles in the success of the boycott. Women such as Robinson, Johnnie Carr, and Irene West sustained the MIA committees and volunteer networks. Mary Fair Burks of the WPC also attributed the success of the boycott to ‘the nameless cooks and maids who walked endless miles for a year to bring about the breach in the walls of segregation.’
King was reported to have said during a MIA meeting:
We got more out of this (boycott) than we went in for. We started out to get modified segregation (on buses) but we got total integration.
What The Struggle Means Now
Prior to the integration of public transportation, African-Americans in Montgomery had to enter buses from the back even though they paid their fare at the front. African-Americans had to leave their designated place to make room for other people.
Segregation was more than a set of rules and regulations.
For Black Americans, the stigma of segregation meant that they were subjected to a constant and permanent state of humiliation. It meant that they were supposed to suffer verbal insults in silence. They were supposed to take physical assaults without reciprocity.
One woman was slapped as she exited a bus.
But who would care?
White issues came first.
White comfort came first.
For many, many years, Black people paid their fair share. They poured their all into a system that promised liberty and justice for all.
Meanwhile, White America pushed Black society into a corner and when things got 'complicated' (read: politics as usual), when "democracy" was no longer convenient, they were ready to throw us under the bus.
But thank God for Black women.
These women were instrumental in the progress of our society.
Their courage brought us Brown v. Board. Their courage opened the doors for the integration of all public spaces - hotels, restaurants, theaters, libraries, schools, parks, bathrooms, beaches, hospitals, churches, and many, many more.
It's all because a Black woman said, "No."
But make no mistake - the struggle continues.
Colvin, Smith, Keys, and Morgan are still waiting to be heard.
In his memoir, King quoted an elderly woman who said that she had joined the boycott not for her own benefit, but for the good of her children and grandchildren.
We are those grandchildren.
The many Black women who spread the word, called for protests, led sit-ins and demonstrations, and sent letters to city officials continue to be ignored in mainstream academia.
They were ostracized. They were abandoned.
Some lost their jobs. Some lost it all.
They did it for you and they did it for me.
Let us cherish their memory. Let us learn their stories. Let us celebrate their victory. Because their story is our history.
They sat for us. Let us stand for them.
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
The King Encyclopedia - 1, 2, 3, 4
Rosa Parks Institute for Self Development - Rosa Louise Parks Biography
New York Daily News - Mineola Dozier Smith, 94, recalls witnessing arrest of Rosa Parks on Montgomery bus in 1955
Montgomery Advertiser - Claudette Colvin honored by Montgomery council
NPR - Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus
Our Heritage Magazine - An Unsung Hero in the Fight for Civil Rights: A Story of Quiet Courage
Public Radio WBHM 90.3 FM/University of Alabama at Birmingham
Obscure Histories - Irene Morgan: Before Rosa Parks, a Woman Refused to Give Up Her Seat
Black Research Central
When Negritude Meets Pettitude.