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Mary Louise Smith (civil rights activist)

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Mary Louise Smith (later Mary Louise Smith Ware) (born 1937) is an African-American civil rights activist. She is notable for having been arrested in October 1955 at the age of 18 in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on the segregated bus system. She is one of several women who were arrested for this offense prior to Rosa Parks that year. Parks was the figure around whom the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized, starting December 5, 1955.[1]

On February 1, 1956, Smith was one of five women named as plaintiffs in the federal civil suit, Browder v. Gayle, challenging the constitutionality of the state and local bus segregation laws. On June 13, 1956, a three-judge panel of the United States District Court ruled that the laws were unconstitutional. The ruling was upheld by the United States Supreme Court on November 13 in a landmark decision, and in December it declined to reconsider. On December 20, 1956, the Supreme Court ordered Alabama to desegregate its buses and the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended.

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  • ✪ Phillip M. Hoose & Claudette Colvin: 2010 National Book Festival
  • ✪ William Barker Cushing
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  • ✪ Gary Lavergne talks about his new book "Before Brown" in the Texas Union
  • ✪ 7th Annual CED Soiree, March 4, 2017


>> From the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. >> Mary Quattlebaum: Hi everyone. I'm Mary Quattlebaum. I'm the regular reviewer of middle grade and teen fiction for the Washington Post Book World. And I'm here to welcome you to the National Book Festival. The Washington Post is a charter sponsor of the National Book Festival and has been a big supporter for all 10 years of its existence. I know that you're going to be excited about asking the author questions and I just wanted to remind you that there's going to be a Q and A session at the end of their talk and there are mics right here. So rather than trying to stand up at your seats and shout our your questions you can actually go to the mic. So as I said, the National Book Festival has been going on for 10 years. And it just keeps getting more and more amazing. And what makes the festival amazing is you guys, the attendees, and of course the authors. I'm about to introduce two people who together have an incredible story to share. Phillip Hoose has published a number of books for young people that shine a light on overlooked parts of history. We Were There Too is about young people in United States history. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other titles include It's Our World Too, about youth activism and the Race to Save the Lord God Bird which made the Washington Post's best book for young people in 2004. Phillip's most recent book is Claudette Colvin Twice Toward Justice. And it garnered big awards. A Newbery Honor, a National Book Award and a place on the Washington Post's best books for young people list. It's a book that explores two wrongs done to Claudette Colvin in this segregated south of the 1950's. And we actually very happily have Claudette here today with us to share her experiences. [Applause]. So I just want to say a few words about Claudette. She grew up in Alabama. When she was 15 and arrested on a segregated bus she shouted that her Constitutional rights were being violated. And indeed they were. Claudette later became a nurse's assistant and recently retired from that career. She now lives in the Bronx and is recognized as a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. So let's welcome Phillip Hoose and Claudette Colvin. [Applause]. >> Phillip Hoose: Thank you very much. I will start and then turn the microphone and the show over to Claudette. First of all, I want to thank you all for coming and I want to thank the sponsors of this fabulous event for inviting us to come. I mean, imagine 150,000 book lovers in one place all at once. I mean that's, that's -- there's the shout out right there. [Applause]. I -- just to tell you a little bit about myself, I grew up in Indiana very -- very much convinced that there was nothing good about me. You know, that there was nothing I could do that I had no talent, I wasn't very big, I was -- you know, not very hefty, girls didn't seem to pay any attention to me at all. I wasn't very athletic. And in eighth grade I think it was I wrote a theme in English class that my teacher Mrs. Hilderbrandt praised and in fact put out in the glass case out beside -- out in the hallway and during open house, during parent teacher night my parents saw that and something clicked, the idea that maybe I had some little knack of being a writer. And I think it was that right there that made me get started with this. I started out in my career writing a number of books for adults. I wrote a book called Hoosiers, about high school basketball in Indiana. [Applause]. Thank you. And I wrote a book called Necessities about racial barriers in American sports. My career really took a bend when I started having daughters and I began to, you know, just listen to what they had in mind. I wrote a book called, It's Our World Too about young social activists when my elder daughter Hannah did something really good at school and I thought there must be, you know, dozens and dozens of stories like this and I collected them into a book. I then wrote a book -- you know, I interviewed a girl named Sara Rosen who was a 13 year old girl from South Bend, Indiana during that process and we were talking and she said you know what the real crime is? I said, no, what's the real crime? She said, the real crime is that there's nobody my age in my United States history book. I said, that can't be true. She said, go find a middle school history book and see for yourself. So I did. I borrowed a book, took it home, it took me a while to read it. And she was almost right. There were two teens in a 676 page book, Sacagawea and Pocahontas both teenage girls who guided whites you kept journals and thus they got into history. I went back to Sara and said, you know, you're right. How does that make you feel? And Sara said, it makes me feel as though I'm not real and I won't be real until I'm about 20. And I -- something about it got to me and I wanted to change that. So I spent the next six years reading and researching and writing a book entitled We Were There Too, young people in U.S. history trying to restore or bring to the national story the experiences, the bravery, the courage, the muscle, the hope and righteousness of youth into the national story. [Applause]. Thank you. When I was doing this research it occurred to me that there was no episode in United States history in which young people played a stronger role or made more of a difference than the Civil Rights movements. And if you think about it it makes sense because the first major episode in the Civil Rights Movement was all about -- all about young people. It was about students, it was the Supreme Court ruling, Brown versus The Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 that said that public school had to be segregated -- had to be integrated, rationally integrated with as they said all deliberate speed. And some communities sure took there time, some up to 20 years to integrate their schools. And during my research for that I found all sorts of stories about young people who had been courageous and who had really stuck their necks out for -- for equal rights and for justice. And I started looking for a character, a person that I could write one book about. You know, just one single person out of all those really dozens and dozens of young people and I came upon this story about a girl named Claudette Colvin who as a 15 year old growing up in Montgomery, Alabama took the stand that Rosa Parks became famous for, but did it nine months earlier. That is she refused to surrender her public bus seat to a white passenger when ordered to do so by a bus conductor. And according to the story she, you know, caught the worst of it. She was treated very, very roughly, arrested by police, dragged off the bus, thrown into a police car, jailed. But I had really never heard anything about this. I began to research it and became more and more intrigued for a couple of reasons. One was not only did she refuse to surrender her seat and take a private stand on this public bus system, but she had the guts a year later and almost nobody knew this, to join a lawsuit, a class action law suit, claiming that the segregation laws on the buses of Alabama were unconstitutional. It violated the Constitution to separate people by race. When I was doing this research I came across a couple of articles and a chapter in a children's book that made it seem as though if I could find Claudette Colvin if she were still alive and I could find her and she would agree to be interviewed by me that it would be a terrific story. Because I don't think a story is any good really unless the person inside it really comes out. And I thought from what I had read that you could still find the girl in that story, that -- how she felt about this, what made her so angry, why she did what she did, what did that do to her popularity at school. Did she get in trouble with her parents? The kinds of things that young readers want to know and that I want to know I felt would be available if I could find Claudette Colvin and she would agree to work with me on a story about her youth. Finding Claudette Colvin was not and is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Claudette lives in New York City, has an unlisted telephone number and I tried for quite some time to find a way to reach her. Finally I read an article in USA Today by an author -- a journalist who I kind of hope is here today, Richard C. Willing in 1995 did a retrospective on the Montgomery bus boycott and included what two teenage girls had done, Claudette and Mary Louise Smith, another bus protestor. And when I read the article that Richard Willing had written it was clear that he had talked with Claudette Colvin so she must still be alive and this person must still know how to reach her. So I called USA Today and found Richard Willing and talked with him. And I said, would you be willing to relay a message to Claudette Colvin if you're still in touch with her and he said -- you know, and I said that I would like to work with her on a book project. And he said I would. And a couple of months later I got a response back from Richard Willing saying I have talked to Claudette Colvin and her answer is maybe when I retire. So I made a little note in my calender to ask the same question six months later. So I did this twice a year for four years. And always Richard relayed this message back that Ms. Colvin says maybe when I retire. I was never going to give up, but I certainly didn't want to harass Claudette Colvin and even indirectly. And I had really lost much hope that this project would ever occur. And one night I think it was in the fall of 2006 I came home from something and the red light was beeping on my telephone answering machine. And it was a message from Richard Willing, the reporter from USA Today and his message was very brief. It said Claudette Colvin says she'll talk with you, here is her telephone number, good luck. Well, I couldn't sleep that night. You know, I stayed up scribbling questions and so forth. And the next day, the next morning I called the number that Richard Willing had given me and a woman answered and she said yes indeed she was Claudette Colvin and we talked for I guess about an hour and at the end of the conversation, you know, we -- I thought it was a great conversation and I said may I come visit you to talk further about whether we'd want to do this together and she permitted me to do so. Maybe a month later I went down to New York City and we met in a restaurant and spent gosh, you know, most of the day talking and agreed to do this project together, to write this book together. I asked her -- I asked Claudette at that time -- we had a big decision to make. Do we want this book to be mainly for adults or did we want the book mainly to be for young readers. And Claudette said very emphatically I would like this book to get into schools. So that was the answer to the question right there. [Applause]. You know, so we launched and the process of writing this book took, I don't know, maybe about a year and a half. It involved a number of interviews with Claudette, long interviews. Some in person, some over the phone. And it also involved Claudette was wonderful in that she encouraged people who were important to her to talk with me. So I had full access not only to Claudette who has an incredible memory for detail how she felt and what happened during those years which were, you know, a while ago. But also I was able to talk to some of her friends, I was able to talk to other characters who were important and I did a fair amount of traveling during this time too. I went to Montgomery, Alabama where this story was staged a couple of times and talked with people. And I also went to the Library of Congress right here which had a great deal of information and some photographs, some images that we included in the book. And it was quite wonderful to work with the Library of Congress. And you know as the story developed, as I learned more about Claudette and what she went through and the courage that it took to do the things that she -- that she did, my eyes really, really opened. For one thing I worry that the memory of how Jim Crow felt, you know, how it felt to live in segregated society with all those rules and all those horrible signs and all the customs and all the demeaning traditions and so forth. I'm worried that the feeling of it will be lost. You know, that yeah we'll have Dr. King day every -- once year and yes we'll have Black History Month, but the same stories will get told over and over and over again and the same heros will shrink and congeal and curl up at the edges and that the day to day memory of what it was like for people will be lost. The feeling, the feelings of humiliation, the feelings of anger, just what it felt like day to day would be lost. And that was one thing that I as an author wanted to do. That was one aim of mine to do what I could through this story to restore and refresh how horrible that -- and unjust that indignity was. And of course, you know, as I went through it and I went through the process of it my respect and admiration for Claudette and the enormous courage that it took and the enormous contributions that she made grew and grew and grew almost by the day. I mean, imagine being 15 and taking the stand that she did, that is refusing to get up, being hauled off to jail, having that cell door close. And then having the courage, you know, I mean, she can tell you herself what the reaction was to the stand she took, but then having the courage to do round two. Very little is known about Browder versus Gayle which is the lawsuit that really ended the Montgomery bus boycott and it's really curious. I have no idea why this is the case. I really do think that most people who care about the Montgomery bus boycott see it as something that ended in quite a different way than it did. I think most people think that, you know, Dr. King and all the boycotting and all the days of not riding the bus just wore the bus company down until they gave up. That's not true at all. I mean, they weren't going to give up. They were digging in their heels. And the boycott itself was in a bit of trouble. That boycott was ended by a lawsuit called Browder versus Gayle in which four plaintiffs representing the ridership, the African American ridership of Montgomery, Alabama lodged a suit in Federal court claiming that segregation on the buses, the public buses, interstate buses was unconstitutional. Well, I mean, the odds weren't really very good that they would win something like that because the Federal Courthouse was down in Montgomery, but the people who organized the lawsuit thought that because it was in a Federal jurisdiction, the United States and not a local jurisdiction, you know, they just might have a chance. But the big problem that they had was getting anyone to be on the lawsuit, to sign up for the lawsuit publicly, to put your name on a lawsuit as the plaintiffs. After all the trying that they did they only found four people who had the guts to put their name on that lawsuit. All four were women and two of them were teenagers, Claudette who was 16 at the time of the lawsuit and Mary Louise Smith who I think was 19 by then. She was probably -- I think she was 19. Claudette's testimony, what she said to the three judge panel, the questions she was asked, the responses that she gave are in this book Claudette Colvin Twice Toward Justice, but I can tell you that it couldn't have been easy. And I don't think you can read what she did without just swelling up in admiration. It was just an incredible contribution to U.S. history and one that just we couldn't afford to lose. And I'll just conclude by saying you know as an author I was -- I was really worried about two things when I finally came to understand Claudette's story a little bit. I was afraid first of all that the story itself would be lost. That, you know, we wouldn't -- we wouldn't know about this person. I mean, I don't know if a story and I've researched this as much as anybody where one single teen, one single young person made as much a difference as Claudette Colvin did. I don't think there's a -- there's a parallel to it. But in addition to just being ignored and overlooked a lot of the mainstream, the big deal history books would include her, they did include her in a paragraph, but it was the wrong paragraph. She was in danger of being portrayed wrongly, as the person who was not Rosa Parks, as somebody who was, you know, sort of mouthy and a teenager and somebody that you really kind of didn't have to take seriously. And, you know, the more I talked to her and the more I understood who she was and what she had done I realized what a terrible injustice it would be if that were the last word. If it were left to that. So not only did I want to restore her story, but I kind of wanted to straighten out the picture on the wall, you know, to make a right picture. [Applause]. I have to say that it's been one of the great pleasures of my life to get to know Claudette. I mean, not only do I admire her and thank her for sharing that part of her life with me, but she's just a wonderful friend and that's been a great joy. So I will leave the stage and without further ado I will introduce you to my partner in literature Claudette Colvin. [ Applause ] >> Claudette Colvin: Good afternoon, everyone. It is an honor to be invited to participate in this festival. And to share my story with you although Mr. Phil Hoose has explained everything in full details. But I'm going to give you a little of the emotional side of it going back to March the 2nd, 1955. It was an impulsive act, it wasn't staged and I told most of the reporter ask me I just want to try to answer one question that reporters have asked me and that is why didn't you move when asked? And my answer is I tell them all the time history had me glued to the seat. [Applause]. And you know what they say, now how is that? I say, well, remember March -- February month is Negro history. Well, we wasn't exactly celebrating the whole month, but because we went to segregated school we did it for a whole month because most of the teachers felt that we had been left out of the American history. And only two men was in the Encyclopedia and that was George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. That was no history books -- I'm going to say no books in our library. Maybe other cities, but not Montgomery. So that month Mrs. Geraldine Nesbit and Mrs. Josie Laurence [assumed spelling]. Mrs. Josie Laurence was my history teacher and Mrs. Geraldine Nesbit was my literary teacher. And we discuss all the injustices that was perpetrated on the black community in Montgomery City and then we discussed the heros and amongst them some of the heros two of my favorite are females. That was Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Then we discussed other heros like Jackie Robinson breaking a baseball barrier. Then we go into W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglas. What we did we did the whole thing, the whole month. So I said that's why I said it was -- it felt like Harriet Tubman was pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth were pushing me down on the other shoulder. [Applause]. I was embarrassed spiritually by the struggle and the bravery of these two women. So I said they picked the wrong day to pick on me, the bus motorman. But anyway he told you this story, but as a child past experience my being able to go in the store and [inaudible] in those days, not today, but in those days. The popcorn, the peanuts and then we couldn't sit at the lunch counter where white children would sit. And then they made it where you couldn't pass by that aisle anyway. So if I was -- as a little girl I would look across that aisle and see the white kids and I don't know whether they was eating anything any better. But my momma said, honey, are you hungry? She said I will take you to get you a hot dog that is in the back section where only a little counter for Negroes. So anyway those childhood experiences and furthermore you couldn't [inaudible] hats and -- but may I demonstrate. Let me take off my shoes. Now do you think a white person would try on a pair of shoes that you -- a black person has taken their feet out of in 1950, do you think so? So that's what we went through. That was one of the things -- that was while I -- that's the reason I said history. The history of how we was treated had me glued to the seat and I wasn't going to move that day. Nothing. I refused. They said, oh, my God you refuse? I refuse to walk off the bus so two policeman they manhandled and pulled me off the bus. Put me in the patrol man car and handcuffed me and took me to jail, booked me and everything and a horror that I said I really went through what some of Edgar Allan Poe poems and explain. I really went through [inaudible], but when that door of the jail went [noise] I knew I was shut in. But you know what? I hate to say that. I feel like one of those sisters in a Baptist Church after Barack Obama became president I said I feel good. [Applause]. That God Almighty. Martin Luther King is not here and all the people -- first of all I was crying tears because [inaudible] were murdered because of equal rights. So I feel good Barack Obama became president of the United States. So I don't care whether he's a -- come out as being a good president, a bad president he broke that barrier. He went in the front door of the White House and thank God. [Applause]. I think that I played a significant role in the beginning of that. Thank you, Lord. [Applause]. >> Phillip Hoose: We would be glad to answer any questions that -- that we can. And I think you go to the -- there are microphones in the aisle. >> Good morning. >> My question what happened the next day at school when you got back to class -- >> Claudette Colvin: I didn't -- excuse me. I didn't go back to school the next day. I was too traumatized. I was too traumatized. Ah, but when I did go back the parents had -- the other parents, not my parents, but the student parents had convinced oh, my God that Claudette Colvin that girl is crazy. Stay away from her. >> That's funny. I was just about to ask you, like, how did everyone in your neighborhood, like, react or we got it. >> I [inaudible] yet, but what happened after you -- how did you get out of jail? Did your parents come get you? >> Claudette Colvin: My mother and Reveren H.H. Johnson came and got me out of church. >> And what did your mother say to you? >> Claudette Colvin: Well, I had been discussing that because or before this happened this -- this is just one of the stories. When I was in the ninth grade one of the students -- a male student was arrested for allegedly raping a white woman, but he was actually having consensual -- I cannot say it -- consensual sex. >> Phillip Hoose: Consensual sex. >> Claudette Colvin: Consensual sex with this white woman, but they had him. They demonized him and said that he was a serial rapist during the summer and he was on death row when I was arrested. So my parents they said -- they wanted to remain seated, but my mom said I just couldn't ride that bus. She would have just gotten off the bus. >> Thank you for what you did. >> How did they treat African Americans in jail? >> Phillip Hoose: Did you hear that, Claudette? >> Claudette Colvin: Beg pardon? >> Phillip Hoose: How did they treat African Americans in jail? >> Claudette Colvin: I don't know. I don't know really. I didn't say -- I didn't spend the night. But you know I never -- you know, there if a white person got fair treatment then you know they got worse than the white person. >> So were there people who were not surprised that you did this? >> Claudette Colvin: People were not surprised -- >> Were there people who knew you who were not surprised that you had done this? >> Claudette Colvin: Yes, everybody was surprised that I didn't remove when a policeman asks you to get up. >> But was there anybody who knew something about you that would help explain -- >> Claudette Colvin: They knew that I was going through this what they call -- I had [inaudible] because I was study for pre nursing so I know [inaudible]. The identify crisis that I was going through right as a teenager where the role that I fit in and the first process was when I went to school without straightening my hair. [Applause]. >> I have a question about how the writing collaboration worked. Claudette, did you read the chapters as they were being written or did you read it at the end? How did it work where the two of you were working together? >> Claudette Colvin: Interviews on the telephone and in my apartment. >> And then did you read just -- you didn't read it until it was finished? >> Phillip Hoose: At the end when I had a draft finished that I felt was getting there I went to Claudette's apartment and read the entire thing to her. It took one afternoon and then we took a break that -- you know, and then the following day and we had a tape recorder on the table, on her kitchen table in between us and I, you know, encouraged her to stop me any time anything seemed wrong either factually wrong or wrong in emphasis or just, you know, got it wrong and so we'd stop and, you know, she'd try to correct it, make it right, you know, and then I kept a recording of it so that I could, you know, sort of fix it later. But that's what happened. I ended up reading these manuscripts or this manuscript which really helped me to hear it out loud so that -- anyway that's how it happened. There are people over here. I'm sorry. >> What changes would you like to see take place, realistic changes, in this country? >> Claudette Colvin: What realistic change? My goodness that is too big a question for me to answer. There are so much going wrong now and realistically first I want all children to get a good education, that's the first thing. [Applause]. >> My question is you kept -- you kept saying that you wouldn't tell your story until you retired and you might tell it when you retired. What changed your mind? >> Claudette Colvin: Oh, well, what changed my mind is that I did a interview with Richard Willings from USA Today he did a story and that was I think November the 28th, 1995. And our -- my working environment is mostly immigrants and when then they saw the picture, this Filipino nurse said, oh my goodness Ms. Colvin I didn't know that you would do that. The [inaudible] because I am a softy. It's not that I'm a softy, but I have this southern attitude. Not that I'm not a softy. So they wanted to know the story and so I said, well, then my [inaudible] said you should tell the story. Because everyone thought that Ms. Colvin just sit down and that ended the desegregated the buses. So I said well I wait til I retire because it's unionized and I didn't want no more labors on me being a -- and that was being too much tension on the job you know. So I said wait until after I retire so I can give you details like I wanted. >> So are you retired? >> Claudette Colvin: Yeah, four years. >> Thank you very much. >> Phillip Hoose: Yes, ma'am. >> Have you ever thought about writing an autobiography? >> Phillip Hoose: Have you ever thought about writing an autobiography? >> Claudette Colvin: Yes. Right now I have -- wait one more thing. My grandson is in medical school and I want him to get out of medical school before I do it because what I would write we're going to be criticized because I would write stories that happened in the 1950's -- from 1939 when I was born up until the '50s and these are not beautiful stories and I want to thank all -- I don't like to use this label, please I don't like. White liberals for helping us end change this flaw in our country. They march with us and they help the world see that African American was discriminated against. So I'm not going to do it until I -- until my son graduate that's what [inaudible]. >> Phillip Hoose: Yes, sir. >> Can you tell us what you did between the time of the incident through the time you were named the plaintiff on the suit. How active were you in the movement during that period and especially after the Rosa Parks incident? >> Claudette Colvin: Be real brief. I was not active at all. I wasn't active at all physically active because I was [inaudible] into that movement. I wasn't active. I was busy trying to support my children. I have two boys. I'm a single mother and I have two boys. I was busy working. >> And how did you become a plaintiff on the suit? >> Claudette Colvin: They had no other -- they didn't have anyone else. >> Phillip Hoose: They -- just to elaborate they tried, you know, to find people, but the stakes were too high, the price was too high to pay to put your name on a law suit against those bus laws then was to expose your family, you know, the people that you knew, your neighborhood. And I talked to Fred Grey [assumed spelling] interviewed him about that, the lawyer who put that lawsuit together and it was hard sledding tyring to find anybody who put their name on it. And as I say, in the end he found only four people, Claudette and three others. Yes, ma'am. >> Ms. Colvin, thank you so much for coming here today to share your aspiring story. I love you and you're one of my heros and thank you Mr. Hoose for writing this story. What advice would you have for young people today who want to stand up for something that they believe in? >> Claudette Colvin: To do it. Stand up if you have to stand up alone. [Applause]. >> Phillip Hoose: Any further questions? Yes. >> [Inaudible]. >> Phillip Hoose: The question was who was supporting the bus company financially during those times because they must have been losing money. And they were losing money. They were losing a ton of money, but there was such cultural support in the city that they just wouldn't let them go down. I mean, I don't know where the money was coming from to keep them going because they had -- in the end -- first of all, at the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott about 75 percent of all the ridership was African American and the boycott really did work in that sense in that not many African Americans rode the bus. So they were losing a ton of money, but I suspect that they were getting some subsidy from the cities, from the -- you know, the business elite in the cities who wanted that to keep going. Because it was a symbol, if they went down, if they stopped operation that was a concession. So that's the way -- may I leave with a brief reading so you can -- oh, sorry. >> Were you surprised that you could actually be arrested by that? >> Claudette Colvin: No, I wasn't surprised. >> Phillip Hoose: We'll leave with -- I have a brief reading from the book and it's about what happened on the bus and what happened afterwards. So it goes like this. This is in Claudette's voice, so just so you can have some sense -- some more sense of just what she went through. One cop grabbed one of my hands and his partner grabbed the other and they pulled me straight up out of my seat. My books went flying everywhere. I went as limp as a baby. I was too smart to fight back. They started dragging me backwards off the bus, one of them kicked me. I might have scratched one or two of them because I have long nails, but I didn't fight back. I kept screaming over and over it's my Constitutional right. I wasn't shouting anything profane, I never swore, not then, not ever. I was just shouting out my rights. It just killed me to leave that bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat when so many black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door. They stood outside and talked to each other for a minute and then one came back and told me to stick my hands out the open window. He handcuffed me and then pulled the door open and jumped in the back seat with me. I put my knees together and crossed my hands up over my lap and started praying. All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They cracked jokes about parts of my body. I recited the Lord's Pray and the 23rd Psalm over and over in my head trying to push back the fear. I assumed they were taking me to juvenile court because I was only 15, but we were going in the wrong direction. They kept telling me I was going to Atmore the women's penitentiary. Instead we pulled up to the police station and they led me inside. More cops looked up when we came in and started calling me thing and whore. They booked me and took my fingerprints. Then they put me back in the car and drove me to the city jail, the adult jail. Someone led me straight to a cell without giving me any chance to make a phone call. He opened the back door and told me to get inside. He shut it hard behind me and turned the key. The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard. It sounded final. It said I was trapped. When he went away I looked around me. Three bare walls, a toilet and a cot. Then I fell down on my knees in the middle of the cell and started crying again. I didn't know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there. I cried and put my hands together and prayed like I had never prayed before. Meanwhile -- this is my voice -- schoolmates who had been on the bus had run home and telephoned Claudette's mother at the house where she worked as a maid. Girls went over and took care of the lady's three small children so that Claudette's mother could leave. Mary Ann Colvin called Claudette's pastor the Reverend H.H. Johnson. He had a car and together they drove to the police station. Now back to Claudette. When they led mom back there I was in a cell. I was crying hard and then mom got upset too. When she saw me she didn't [inaudible] she just asked are you all right? Reverend Johnson bailed me out and we drove home. By the time we got to my neighborhood, King Hill, word had spread everywhere. All our neighbors came around and they were just squeezing me to death. I felt happy and proud, but I was afraid that night too. I had stood up to a white bus driver and two white cops. I had challenged the bus laws. There had been lynchings for that kind of thing. Wetumpka Highway that led out of Montgomery ran right past our house. It would have been easy for the Klan to come up the hill in the night. My dad sat up all night long with is shotgun. We all stayed up. The neighbors facing the highway kept watch. Probably nobody on King Hill slept that night. But worried or not I felt proud. I had stood up for our rights. I had done something a lot of adults hadn't done. On the ride home from jail coming over the viaduct Reverend Johnson said something to me I'll never forget. He was an adult who everyone respected and his opinion meant a lot to me. Claudette, he said, I'm so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We've all been praying and praying and praying, but you're different. You want your answer the next morning and I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery. [Applause]. >> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at


Early life and education

Mary Louise Smith was born in Montgomery, Alabama into a Catholic family. She and all her siblings attended and graduated from St. Jude Educational Institute. She is still a member of St. Jude Church, where she was baptized.

At the age of 18, on October 21, 1955, Smith was returning home on the Montgomery city bus, and was ordered to relinquish her seat to a white passenger who had boarded later. She refused to do so and was arrested. She was charged with failure to obey segregation orders, some 40 days before the arrest of Rosa Parks on similar charges. Her father bailed her out of jail and paid her nine-dollar fine. The incident was initially known only to family and neighbors.

Later a cousin, at a mass meeting to support a planned bus boycott, discussed her case with organizers. Attorney Fred Gray asked Smith and her father to become plaintiffs in a civil rights class-action lawsuit to end segregated seating on city buses. Her father agreed, for he wanted justice.

Browder v. Gayle

On February 1, 1956, Gray and other attorneys filed a civil suit, Browder v. Gayle in the United States District Court, challenging state and local laws on bus segregation. Smith was one of five plaintiffs, including Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, and Jeanetta Reese. (Reese left the case that month because of intimidation.)[2][3] The women, other than Reese, testified before a three-judge panel, and on June 13, 1956, the court ruled that the laws were unconstitutional, based on equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Appealed by the city and state, the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, it affirmed the lower court's ruling. On December 17, it declined an appeal by the city and state to reconsider, and on December 20 ordered the state to desegregate its buses. This ended the Montgomery Bus Boycott with success.

Later years

Smith married a Mr. Ware and they had four children together. They later divorced. Smith Ware continued to work for civil rights beyond the boycott and trial. For instance, she worked on voting rights campaigns before passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, and participated in the 1963 March on Washington. In 1969, Smith contacted civil rights attorney Morris Dees to sue the Montgomery Y.M.C.A for not allowing her and her sister's children into their summer camp program.[4][5]

Smith is active with her 12 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She enjoys reading, and she is active in several of her church auxiliaries and senior citizen clubs.

In 1995, Smith was told by a news reporter, that she had been discussed as being a test case by black leaders in relation to organizing a bus boycott. She was told they had not picked her because her father was said to be an alcoholic,[6] and they did not want any grounds for criticism of participants. Smith said this was untrue, and she was bothered more by the rumor than by having had her own contributions overlooked. Given the national attention commanded by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks is the woman most associated with the issue. Smith was proud to be among the four women who took their case to the United States Supreme Court.

When Rosa Parks died in October 2005, Smith Ware, then 68, attended the memorial service in Montgomery. "I had to pay my tribute to her," Ware said. "She was our role model."[7]

Representation in popular culture

  • Rita Dove, a United States poet laureate, mentions Mary Louise Smith in her poem "The Enactment", in her collection, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999). She also referred to the young activist in her magazine article "The Torchbearer Rosa Parks".[8]

See also


  1. ^ Horace Randall Williams; Ben Beard (2009). his Day in Civil Rights History. NewSouth Books. p. 319. ISBN 978-1-58835-241-5. Retrieved 11 January 2011.
  2. ^ Dr. Gwen Patton. "Montgomery Bus Boycott — Biographic Sketches". Trenholm State Technical College Archives. Retrieved February 4, 2013.
  3. ^ "Aurelia S. Browder et al. v. W. A. Gayle et al., No. 1147". National Archives. Retrieved October 22, 2016.
  4. ^ Dees, Morris (2001). A Lawyer's Journey: The Morris Dees Story. Chicago: American Bar Association Publications. pp. 108–12, 131–33. ISBN 1570739943.
  5. ^ "Smith v. Young Men's Christian Association". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 2016-10-22.
  6. ^ Brookes Barnes (November 25, 2009). "From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-26.
  7. ^ "Other heroes of bus boycott". Retrieved 12 March 2015. External link in |website= (help)
  8. ^ [1], TIME, June 14, 1999

External links

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