Aurelia S. Browder
|Died||February 4, 1971 (aged 52)|
|Alma mater||Alabama State University|
|Occupation||Civil rights activist, seamstress, nurse midwife, teacher, businesswoman|
|Organization||National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Montgomery Improvement Association, Southern Christian Leadership Conference|
|Known for||Plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, case which desegregated public buses|
Aurelia Shines Browder Coleman (January 29, 1919 – February 4, 1971) was an African-American civil rights activist in Montgomery, Alabama. In April 1955, almost eight months before the arrest of Rosa Parks and a month after the arrest of Claudette Colvin, she was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white rider.
Aurelia Browder was born on January 29, 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, where she resided her whole life. She was the sole economic support of her six children after she was widowed. She had several different careers throughout her life including working as a seamstress, nurse midwife and teacher She was a strong, smart woman, one who Jo Ann Gibson Robinson described in her memoir as “well-read, highly intelligent, fearless.”
Browder completed high school in her thirties and eventually earned a bachelor's degree in science from Alabama State University. She graduated with honors and was in the National Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society there. While at Alabama State University, Browder met Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a professor in the English Department, fellow Civil Rights activist, and member of the Women's Political Council. Robinson inspired Browder to get involved and tackle the injustices in the transportation system, encouraging her to participate in the lawsuit proposed by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).
Prior to her involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Browder was active in the voter registration campaigns of the 1950s. She spent time tutoring African Americans who wanted to take the voter registration exam, worked to eliminate poll taxes, and provided transportation to the courthouse for those who wanted to register. Aurelia Browder became associated with several Civil Rights groups during her time including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Aurelia Browder was arrested on April 19, 1955, almost eight months before the arrest of Rosa Parks and a month after the arrest of Claudette Colvin, for sitting in the white section of a public city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was convicted and fined for her alleged crime On February 1, 1956, Fred Gray, the attorney for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court on behalf of five black women who had been the victims of discrimination on local buses, joined by Thurgood Marshall and Robert L. Carter of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Browder v. Gayle was filed listing five plaintiffs—Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, Jeanetta Reese, and Mary Louise Smith. Browder was picked as the lead plaintiff because of her age. Two of the other plaintiffs were teenagers, and the other two were senior citizens. Browder was 37 at the time, putting her in the middle of the other plaintiffs and a good representation of all of them. Jeanetta Reese withdrew from the case soon after it was filed because of intimidation from the white community. William A. Gayle, the Mayor of Montgomery, was the namesake defendant along with Montgomery’s chief of police, Montgomery’s Board of Commissioners representatives, Montgomery City Lines, Inc., two bus drivers, and Alabama Public Service Commission representatives.
On June 5, the judges released their decision: segregated buses violated the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment and were therefore unconstitutional. The City of Montgomery could not enforce any law “which may require plaintiffs or any other Negroes similarly situated to submit to segregation in the use of bus transportation facilities in the City of Montgomery.” Both the city and the state appealed this decision. On December 17, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling, issuing a court order to the state of Alabama to desegregate its buses. While the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks, gained lasting national attention, it was Browder’s court case that resulted in segregation laws being declared unconstitutional.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was not a spontaneous event; various organizations in Montgomery — including the NAACP, MIA, and Women’s political council (WPC) — had been waiting for the right moment to begin protest. After several women, including the plaintiffs of Browder v. Gayle, refused to give up their seats on the bus, the spark for the boycott was ignited when Rosa Parks was arrested. The boycott, primarily led by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, began on December 3, 1955, two days after Rosa Parks' arrest. The boycott lasted a little over a year and served as the face of the movement, gaining national attention and applying pressure on the courts to rule in favor of ending segregation. The less public side of the protest was Browder v. Gayle. The Montgomery Improvement Association filed Browder's case instead of Parks’ because it would be able to skip being heard in the local courts. Rosa Parks' case would have had to go through local courts first, where the case might have stayed pending for years. By filing directly with the District Courts, they would also be able to achieve an injunction against the segregation law at the same time. The boycott ending with Browder v. Gayle’s ruling, a fact often overlooked by history. While the Montgomery Bus Boycott gained lasting national attention, it was Browder’s court case that resulted in segregation laws being declared unconstitutional.
Browder continued to be an activist and involved with the NAACP, MIA and SCLC after her case was settled. She spent some time teaching veterans at the Loveless School and established her own business later in life. Browder's son, Butler Browder, still lives in Montgomery. He feels that his mother's legacy has been overshadowed. In a 2005 article in the Montgomery Advertiser Butler wrote, “The truth is Browder vs. Gayle changed the laws that mandated bus segregation. If it weren't for that case and continued efforts to end segregation in this country, we might still be marching.”
In 2019 a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in Montgomery, Alabama, and four granite markers were also unveiled near the statue on the same day to honor four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, including Aurelia Browder.