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 mid-wife 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 Robert L. Carter of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund 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. W.A. Gayle, the Mayor of Montgomery, was the defendant. The Montgomery Improvement Association had its sights set on ending segregation and was fueled by the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was led primarily by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. The boycott began on December 3, 1955, two days after Rosa Parks’ arrest. The Montgomery Improvement Association filed Browder’s case because it would be able to skip being heard in the local courts. Rosa Park’s 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.
Browder v. Gayle was filed listing five plaintiffs—Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, Jeanette 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. Jeanette Reese withdrew from the case soon after it was filed because of intimidation from the white community.
On June 5, the judges released their decision—segregated buses violated the equal protection and due process guarantees of the 14th 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. The Montgomery bus boycott ended on December 21, after 381 days.
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 change 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.”