By Jannell McGrew
His mother’s case literally turned things around in segregated America, but he says most people don’t even know about it.
It is the case of Aurelia Shines Browder Coleman, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and squashed segregation in public transportation in America.
That story finds its humble roots right here in Montgomery.
Her son, Butler, still lives here. His mother has long since passed away, but the memory of her brave stand lives with her son, who is perhaps the most ardent champion of efforts to keep her memory alive. Butler said few people know that his mother’s case, along with three other women who were plaintiffs with her, was the one in which segregated busing was ruled unconstitutional, Browder said.
“People obviously jumped over the case and the important issues as it relates to how it got to that point,” Butler said. “Most of the country knows there was another case involved but there are some who just don’t know about its significance.”
His mother died in 1971. Her death, much like the bolted door of his childhood home here, has locked away this little known treasure about his mother that he is adamant in sharing.
“If it were not for her case being filed, the law would not have been changed, and things would still be the same,” Browder said more than 30 years after his mother’s death.
Born Jan. 29, 1919, Aurelia Browder learned quickly of the color wall that separated blacks from whites. But like so many other African Americans during that time, she refused to let that division squash her desire for equal rights and equal treatment.
The law said otherwise.
The law here in Montgomery said blacks and whites did not sit together on the buses, nor did they dine together or go to the movies together.
But she was an educated woman, educated enough to know the law was wrong. She received a bachelor’s degree in science with honors from Alabama State University.
Her affiliations were numerous: the National Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society of Alabama State College; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the Montgomery Improvement Association, which launched the 381-day bus boycott; and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In April 1955, his mother refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white rider and was taken to jail.
That was seven months before Rosa Parks’ historic arrest.
Browder filed suit against the city and Mayor W.A. “Tacky” Gayle. It was on her case, known as Browder v. Gayle, that the Supreme Court ruled in 1956 that segregated busing was unconstitutional. Several other women also were included in the suit, but Browder was the lead plaintiff.
Fred Gray Sr., the prominent civil rights lawyer who argued the case, has said on many occasions that he selected Browder to be lead plaintiff because he was convinced that she could carry that responsibility.
“I chose her because she was a matured person, and I thought she would make an excellent first witness if I needed to put someone on,” the witness stand, he said.
The famous Tuskegee attorney makes it a point whenever he speaks about the famous case.
Rosa Parks’ arrest is a far more prominent part of the nation’s history than the earlier one, but Butler Browder said his mother’s stand has become no more than a small footnote in history.
“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.
But over the years, Browder has drawn the attention of numerous groups, public officials and civic entities, in hopes of turning the tide and getting his mother more recognition.
Browder said he can’t count the number of times he’s been told that it was Rosa Parks’ court case that led to the desegregation of city buses.
He believes that some have confused Parks’ activities with his mother’s case. Both were seamstresses, and both were arrested and fined for refusing to give up their seats.
Yet, he added, Parks was never part of the federal court case. He said he takes nothing away from Parks and her courageous stand.
Aurelia Browder, too, had courage.
The truth of the matter is, Butler Browder said, the Browder v. Gayle case “changed the laws that applied to bus segregation,” he said.
If it weren’t for that case and continued efforts to end segregation in this country, he added, “We might still be marching.”