Browder v. Gayle: Court Case, Arguments, Impact

African Americans board an integrated bus following the successful end of a 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
African Americans board an integrated bus following the successful end of a 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

Don Cravens / Getty Images

Browder v. Gayle (1956) was a District Court case that legally ended segregation on public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, allowing the District Court's judgment to stand. 

Fast Facts: Browder v. Gayle

Case Argued: April 24, 1956

Decision Issued: June 5, 1956

Petitioner: Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese (Reese withdrew from the case prior to the finding)

Respondent: Mayor William A. Gayle, Montgomery, Alabama's chief of police

Key Questions: Can the state of Alabama enforce the separate-but-equal doctrine on public transportation? Does enforcement violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Majority: Middle District of Alabama Judge Frank Minis Johnson and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Rives

Dissenting: Northern District of Alabama Judge Seybourn Harris Lynne

Ruling: A majority of a district court panel found that enforcement of the separate-but-equal doctrine on public transportation was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

Facts of the Case

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The bus driver called the police and Parks was arrested. Close to two weeks later, the NAACP state field secretary, W.C. Patton, met with Parks, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Fred Gray (Montgomery Improvement Association Chief Counsel). Gray agreed to represent Parks in a lawsuit against Montgomery. He would be advised by Thurgood Marshall, Robert L. Carter, and Clifford Durr. 

On February 1, 1956, two days after segregationists had bombed King's house, Gray filed Browder v. Gayle. The original case included five plaintiffs: Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese. Each woman had experienced discrimination as a result of state statutes allowing segregation on public buses. Gray opted not to include Park's case. The decision was supposedly made because she still had other charges against her. Gray did not want to make it seem like she was trying to evade prosecution on those counts. Reese withdrew from the case before the findings phase, leaving Gray with four plaintiffs. The plaintiffs sued Mayor William A. Gayle, the city's chief of police, Montgomery’s Board of Commissioners, Montgomery City Lines, Inc., and representatives of the Alabama Public Service Commission. Two bus drivers were also named in the suit.

The case questioned the constitutionality of several state and local statutes promoting segregation on public transportation. It went before a three-judge panel in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. On June 5, 1956, the panel ruled 2-1 in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the statutes that allowed segregation on public buses unconstitutional. The city and state filed an appeal, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the judgment.

Constitutional Question

Did the segregation statutes in Alabama and Montgomery violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Arguments

Gray argued on behalf of the plaintiffs. In applying laws that treated Browder, McDonald, Colvin, and Smith differently than other passengers based on the color of their skin, the defendants had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Gray used a similar argument to the one that Thurgood Marshall introduced in Brown v. Board of Education.

Attorneys on behalf of the state argued that segregation had not been explicitly outlawed in terms of public transportation. Separate-but-equal did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment because it ensured equal protection under the law. Attorneys for the bus company argued that the buses were privately owned and operated in accordance with Alabama laws.

The District Court's Opinion

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Rives delivered the opinion. He was joined by the Middle District of Alabama Judge Frank Minis Johnson. The District Court looked to the text of the Fourteenth Amendment in its findings. The amendment provides that, "No State shall (...) deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." These provisions do not come into play as long as the state exercises its police power and laws equally over all citizens and property. Segregation singles out certain groups of people and enforces a special set of rules against them. It inherently goes against the Equal Protection Clause, Judge Rives wrote. "The equal protection clause requires equality of treatment before the law for all persons without regard to race or color."

Enforcing segregationist policies on a public transit violates equal protection, the judges found. The judicial panel relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, noting that the separate-but-equal doctrine has been rejected even in the field it was developed: public education. Plessy v. Ferguson, the case which allowed the doctrine to flourish throughout the U.S., had been overruled by Brown v. Board of Education. Separate is not equal, the judges opined. The doctrine cannot be "justified as a proper execution of state police power." 

Dissenting Opinion

Northern District of Alabama Judge Seybourn Harris Lynne dissented. Judge Lynne argued that the District Court should defer to the U.S. Supreme Court's precedent. According to Judge Lynne, Plessy v. Ferguson was the only guiding principle for the District Court. Brown v. Board of Education had not explicitly overturned the "separate-but-equal" doctrine established in Plessy. The Supreme Court had only ruled that the doctrine was unconstitutional in terms of public education, Judge Lynne opined. Based on the holding of Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed the separate-but-equal doctrine beyond education, Judge Lynne argued that the Court should have rejected the plaintiffs' claims.

Supreme Court Affirms

On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Justices cited Brown v. Board of Education along with the affirmation. A month later, on December 17, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court formally declined to hear the state and city appeals. Allowing the District Court's judgment to stand effectively ended segregation on public buses.

Impact

The ruling in Browder v. Gayle and the Supreme Court's decision to decline review marked the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Three days after the Supreme Court declined the appeal, Montgomery received an order to integrate buses. The boycott had lasted 11 months (381 days). On December 20, 1956, King gave a speech in which he officially announced the end of the boycott, "This morning the long awaited mandate from the United States Supreme Court concerning bus segregation came to Montgomery... In the light of this mandate and the unanimous vote rendered by the Montgomery Improvement Association about a month ago, the year old protest against city busses is officially called off, and the Negro citizens of Montgomery are urged to return to the busses tomorrow morning on a non-segregated basis."

Browder v. Gayle spurred a number of court cases that resulted in the integration of restaurants, swimming pools, parks, hotels, and government housing. Each subsequent case chipped away at any remaining legal arguments defending segregation.

Sources

  • Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (M.D. Ala. 1956).
  • Cleek, Ashley. “Plaintiff in Landmark Civil Rights Montgomery Bus Case Shares Her Story.” WBHM, 10 Dec. 2015, wbhm.org/feature/2015/plaintiff-in-landmark-civil-rights-bus-case-shares-her-story/.
  • Wardlaw, Andreia. “Reflecting on the Women of Browder v. Gayle.” Women at the Center, 27 Aug. 2018, womenatthecenter.nyhistory.org/reflecting-on-the-women-of-browder-v-gayle/.
  • Bredhoff, Stacey, et al. “The Arrest Records of Rosa Parks.” National Archives and Records Administration, Social Education, 1994, www.archives.gov/education/lessons/rosa-parks.
  • “Browder v. Gayle 352 U.S. 903.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 4 Apr. 2018, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/browder-v-gayle-352-us-903.
  • Glennon, Robert Jerome. “The Role of Law in the Civil Rights Movement: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1957.” Law and History Review, vol. 9, no. 1, 1991, pp. 59–112. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/743660.