TheGrio Daily

Real Gangstas of Black History: Black Women of Montgomery

Episode 175

Was it the boycott in Montgomery, Alabama that led to the end of segregated buses? It played a part, but the real gangstas of Black History were the Black women who stood up to the injustice and racism in Alabama. Wypipologist Michael Harriot reminds us it wasn’t just Rosa Parks who led the battle of the buses.

“According to these unwritten rules, white people never sat behind Black people.”

Music courtesy of Transitions Music Corp.

Full Transcript Below:

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Michael Harriot: The Montgomery bus boycott is often cited as an example of what Black people can do with their economic power. But, the story is much different than what you think it is. And that’s why I want to welcome you to theGrio Daily. The only podcast that’ll tell you the true story of the gangstas who desegregated Montgomery buses.

I’m world-famous wypipologist, Michael Harriot. And this is theGrio Daily.

Welcome back to theGrio Daily. I’m your host, Michael Harriot. And of course, if you’ve been listening, you know, that all Black History Month, we’ve been doing the gangstas of Black history, not necessarily people who were criminals, but people whose quest for freedom turned them into outlaws and enemies of the state.

And today, we’re going to talk about the Black women who helped desegregate buses in Montgomery, Alabama. But the first thing you got to know is the story of the Montgomery bus boycott doesn’t even begin in Montgomery. It doesn’t even begin in Alabama. It begins in South Carolina. And it starts with a Black woman named Sarah Mae Fleming. She was 21 years old and one day on June 22, 1954, she was working as a maid and boarded a bus in Columbia, South Carolina, and sat down in front of a white person. Now, of course, in segregated America, this was unthinkable, but this comes back to the second thing you need to know. A lot of people think that segregated buses meant that there was a Black section and there was a white section, but that’s not true.

In reality, all the seats belong to white people. So there was a designated area where Black people could sit, but If more white people got on the bus, then the white section allowed, then the Black people, who were sitting in the Black section, had to move back and give white people their seats. So in essence, the white people owned all of the seats on segregated buses.

So when Sarah May Fleming sat down, she was sitting in the Black section, but there was a white man sitting behind her and according to these unwritten rules, white people never sat behind Black people. It was offensive for some reason. The bus driver told her to move and she moved but she later filed suit against the company, South Carolina Electric and Gas, that ran the bus company.

Fleming initially lost the case, but then she appealed to a federal court, and she won the case against South Carolina Electric and Gas. Almost a year later, Claudette Colvin, she was coming from school, she was in high school, right? And she was mad because one of her best friends, this guy named Jeremiah Reeves, was wrongfully convicted in a rape case because he was having an affair… this high school kid was having an affair with a white woman. Someone peeped through the window and saw them undressing. And the woman said that Jeremiah Reeves raped her. He was sentenced to death for essentially sleeping with a white woman. 

The NAACP fought against it. It was really big news.  And he was Claudette Colvin’s friend, and she was upset about it. So one day after school, she had just written a paper about it got onto the bus, they told her to move and she said she thought about Jeremiah Reeves. She even thought about Harriet Tubman and all the Black women who had fought for their freedom. She refused, and she was arrested.

Now, if you’re a student of Black history, you probably know about Claudette Colvin, because she came before Rosa Parks, and that’s the story that most people know that Claudette Colvin came before Rosa Parks, but Rosa Parks is given the credit. But that’s not necessarily true. See, after Claudette Colvin came Aurelia Browder.

Aurelia Browder was a widow with six children who lived in Montgomery. Now, because after her husband died, she enrolled in Alabama State University and she met Joanne Gibson Robinson. She was Joanne Gibson then, a professor in the English department, and she inspired Aurelia Browder to get involved with the civil rights movement. She was arrested on April 19th, 1955, for sitting in the whites-only section of a Montgomery bus. And she later graduated from Alabama State with honors, earning a bachelor’s degree in science. And Rosa Parks still wasn’t next. 

Then came Susie McDonald, who was known around Montgomery as Miss Sue. She was an older lady who owned a bunch of land, and she made a park so that Black people could chill, cause like, Black people would get in trouble for just going to the city park. But Miss Sue was also very light-skinned, and sometimes people mistook her for a white woman. So, she got on the bus one day, she, again she sat down in what was the Black section. Nobody said anything because, again, they thought she was white until somebody got on the bus who knew her, because she was kind of popular in Montgomery, told the bus driver, and they kicked her off the bus and arrested her. That same day, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested for the same thing. And then on Thursday, December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks sat down on the bus too. 

Now, unlike all of the other women, Rosa Parks protest was planned. She was selected because she was a secretary for the local chapter of the NAACP. And she presented as someone who was acceptable to be the face of this protest movement, right? She was light-skinned. She was older. Claudette Colvin was pregnant and single. So Rosa Parks. Fit the bill of someone who the NAACP wanted to be the face of this movement. Now, when Rosa Parks was first arrested, it wasn’t the NAACP or the Montgomery Improvement Association that first organized this boycott.

It was Aurelia Browder’s mentee, Joanne Robinson, who we talked about earlier, that professor at Alabama state, and she got her students together and typed up these flyers to pass out at all of the churches. And here is what the card said, word for word. 

“Another woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the bus, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested or have to stand over empty seats. 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. This woman’s case will come up Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab or walk, but please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday.”

So when a group of Black leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, They asked Robinson to lead it, but she didn’t want to endanger her job at Alabama State, so she declined. And then they asked this local civil rights leader and preacher, E. D. Nixon, but like he was a thorn in the city’s side so long that he declined. So they asked this young minister who had just moved to town and was preaching at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, some dude named Martin Luther King Jr. 

Now, Martin Luther King Jr. originally was against the bus boycott. He had a plan that was basically asking the city to allow first come, first served seating. He wanted more Black drivers. And he wanted courteous treatment of Black people who rode the bus, but they went further and organized that bus boycott. And meanwhile, NAACP attorney Fred Grey got involved and he tracked down Colvin, Crowder, McDonnell, Reese, and Smith and filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

Reese eventually dropped out of the suit because white people in Montgomery were bombing people and harassing people who boycotted the buses. But Grey actually won the lawsuit. Of course, the city of Montgomery appealed, and it went to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

On December 17th, 1956, they issued their, it wasn’t a ruling because they declined to hear it, but the reason they gave was because a federal court already decided this, and the court decision that they cited to show that it was illegal to segregate Montgomery buses was Fleming vs. SCE&G

And so it wasn’t necessarily the bus boycott that ended segregation in Montgomery, it was the Black women who stood up for their rights. It was them fighting for their rights in court and the combination of the support that they received from the Black community. And that’s how Montgomery buses were desegregated. And that’s also why you got to listen to this podcast. That’s why you got to tell a friend about it. That’s why you got to subscribe and download that Grio app.

And that’s why we always leave you with a Black saying. And today’s Black saying comes from Claudette Colvin, who said, “History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other. We’ll see you next time on theGrio Daily.

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