Women in history

Rosa Parks: A chosen symbol

Montgomery, Alabama. 1955.

            Before Rosa Parks was arrested in December of that year for refusing to surrender her seat to white passengers, four black women are also known to have been arrested on similar charges. These four women, without Rosa Parks involved, were the main plaintiff in the Browder v. Gayle case which was taken to the U.S Supreme Court. With this case, the U.S Supreme Court ruled out on December 17th,1956 that bus segregation was unconstitutional and ordered Alabama and Montgomery to desegregate the bus, ending, as a result, the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott.

            The plaintiffs, who have not gone down into history as famously as Rosa Parks, are Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith.

Claudette Colvin was a 15-year-old girl on March 2nd, 1955, when she stayed on her bus seat while the bus driver asked her to move back to leave space for white passengers. Claudette Colvin was forcibly removed from the bus while she shouted that her constitutional rights were violated.  A month later, on April 19th, 1955, Aurelia Browder, a working mother involved in the Civil rights movement from the 1940s, was also arrested and fined for sitting in the white section of the bus. On October 21st, 1955, the last two women were arrested on separate buses. Susie McDonald, a widow in her 70s and Mary Louise Smith, an 18-year-old girl, both refused to comply with the bus driver’s demand to surrender their seat for white passengers who boarded after them.

            Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and gained attention across the United States, and later across the world. Yet, it was the court case of Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith that resulted in bus segregation laws being declared unconstitutional by the U.S Supreme Court, one of the major steps forward for the Civil Rights Movement.

            In our memories of this event, Rosa Parks’ example of Civil Disobedience has been passed on to the following generations. Her story has been shared in books, she has been listed as one of the most inspirational female historical figures, she was honoured and awarded, her name given to streets, her face to statues…

            Researching into this event, it becomes clear that Rosa Parks was chosen to become the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and to encourage activists across the country to be inspired by her act of defiance. The four other women who were arrested on similar charges that same year did not receive as much attention at the time, but also ever since. Their stories were overshadowed, and their names left to a footnote of Rosa Parks’ story.

            There is a variety of reasons explaining this memorialization on resistance in segregated buses and Rosa Parks’ stories prevailing over others.

            I don’t think there’s room for many more icons. I think that history only has room enough for certain—you know, how many icons can you choose? So, you know, I think you compare history, like—most historians say Columbus discovered America, and it was already populated. But they don’t say that Columbus discovered America; they should say, for the European people, that is, you know, their discovery of the new world.

— Claudette Colvin

First of all, Rosa Parks was directly involved in a Civil Rights organisation, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) as a secretary. NAACP had helped organised several protests and boycott actions over the years and took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her activism but also her status as a middle-aged working married woman without children in charge, Rosa Parks seemed to be the perfect face for a movement that needed a model to follow.

            As a result, when Rosa Parks was arrested, Civil rights leaders of the city seized the opportunity and organized within a few days what would become the Montgomery Bus boycott using Rosa Parks as the example case to challenge bus segregation in Alabama. Rosa Parks, herself, was ready to become the face of resistance.  

            Before her, Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith, were not considered to be the right persons around whom a movement could be triggered.  Mary Louise Smith’s arrest was known only to her family who did not want the attention on them, and Susie McDonald was a 70-year-old woman.

As for Claudette Colvin, the first black woman arrested in Montgomery, several elements are at play that contributed to her not being chosen as the face of the resistance. Claudette Colvin, as an activist in the Youth section of NAACP, was known to city leaders of the movement, including Rosa Parks.  Her arrest, at the beginning of the year 1955, initially triggered plans from the civil rights activists to organise a protest. However, plans were dismissed, and Claudette Colvin’s pioneering arrest was left out in the memories of Montgomery’s bus segregation protests. Recently, there has been more and more discussion around Claudette Colvin with questions rising wondering why she was left out. Answers to these questions point out that Claudette Colvin was a 15-year-old girl who may have lack the maturity to handle being the figure of a movement. She also got pregnant soon after her arrest, which worried black city leaders that a movement around her arrest would be tarnished by her controversial pregnancy as a teenager.

“If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have [had] a field day. They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance.”

– Rosa Parks

Nevertheless, Claudette Colvin’s lack of accreditation for several years for her pioneering arrest clearly demonstrates how organisers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and leaders of the civil rights movement in Montgomery chose the face of the resistance not based on who showed the first defiance to the bus segregation law but based on whose image could be best used for the time. This choice also means that Rosa Parks has remained in our memories of this event while Claudette Colvin and the other plaintiff of the Browder v. Gayle case, were forgotten.

            In recent years, attention has been given more and more to their stories. Their families have expressed their wish for their stories to come out of Rosa Parks’ shadow. While not taking away anything from Rosa Parks’ brave resisting act, Claudette Colvin Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith should not be the only footnotes of a story. Alabama’s desegregation movement in transports was made possible thanks to their case.  

“While there are buildings, museums, streets, historical monuments and holidays named for individuals who sacrificed their lives … for the civil rights movement, my mother has been all but forgotten,” Butler Browder once wrote in a letter to Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright.

“If I had not made the first cry for freedom, there wouldn’t have been a Rosa Parks, and after Rosa Parks, there wouldn’t have been a Dr King.”

– Claudette Colvin

In 2019, in Montgomery, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled. Next to her, four granites markers were also unveiled. The names of Claudette Colvin Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith lie on these markers, highlighting that their stories need to be acknowledged and need to remain in the memories of Montgomery.