Before Rosa Parks: 6 Facts About Civil Rights Activist Mary Louise Smith and the Other Women Who Refuse To Be Moved

Mary Louise Smith (born in 1937)

On Oct. 21 1955, Smith boarded a Montgomery bus on her way home. The bus driver asked Smith to give up her seat to a white passenger but she refused to do so. At only 18-years-old, Smith became one of the sparks of the burgeoning civil rights movement when she was arrested for defying the unjust segregation law. Her father bailed her out of jail and they took immediate action. This event happened only 40 days before Rosa Parks was arrested. Smith did not become the face of the movement because her father was an alcoholic and the NAACP thought that would not look well.

Aurelia Browder (Jan. 29, 1919 – Feb. 4, 1971)

Browder was one of the first women to defy the segregation law. On April 19, 1955, she decided not to give up her seat for a white passenger eight months before Parks. What makes Browder different from her counterparts is that she was a civil rights activist before her arrest. While attending Alabama State University, Browder became close friends with activist Jo Ann Gibson Robinson who inspired her to get involved in tutoring Black voters who needed help reading.  She was diligent in her efforts to eliminate the poll tax charged to registered voters. She transported voters to the polls and would-be voters for registration, according to Civil Rights Movement Veterans.

Claudette Colvin (born Sept. 5, 1939)

Nine months before Parks, Colvin was the first woman on record to refuse to give up her seat. On March 2, 1955, Colvin was seated near the emergency exit on the bus along with a pregnant woman, Ruth Hamilton. The bus was filling up and a white woman wanted to sit where Colvin was. The bus driver wanted both Hamilton and Colvin to move and both women refused to relinquish their seats. An man sitting behind them allowed Hamilton to take his seat. However, at 15, Colvin decided to take a stand by not giving up her seat and was arrested for it.  “And I said, ‘I paid my fare and it’s my constitutional right,’ ” she recalls. “I remember they dragged me off bus because I refused to walk. They handcuffed me and took me to an adult jail.”

Why Rosa Parks? 

Parks was a 42-year-old professional and an officer in the NAACP. She was the symbol that civil rights leaders were looking for. In an interview with NPR, Colvin believes that the NAACP thought that she was too militant and Parks was mild and genteel. “Later, I had a child born out of wedlock. I became pregnant when I was 16,” Colvin says. “And I didn’t fit the image either, of, you know, someone they would want to show off.”

Browder v. Gayle 

Smith, Colvin and Browder were plaintiffs in the case along with Susie McDonald, another woman who also refused to give up her seat in 1955. On Feb. 1, 1956, civil rights attorney Fred Gray started the process that would take most of the year to show any real results. A few months later, on June 13, 1956, the District Court ruled that “the enforced segregation of black and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States.” The court decided that the precedent of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) could be applied to the Browder case. The U.S. Supreme Court went on to affirm the decision in December.


After the court decision, the Montgomery bus boycott was officially over. However, the Browder case changed the lives of the women involved. Smith went on to be a prominent activist leading the charge for Black voters and being involved with the 1963 March on Washington. Browder also had a long career in the NAACP, MIA and SCLC. However, Colvin did not fair so well. She had to move to New York because the case brought too much attention to her. Within the Black community, Colvin was called a troublemaker. She could not find work or support her son. While in New York, she forged a life and had a long career as a nurse’s aide.

source: by



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