Constitutional Places: Browder v. Gayle (1956) and Letter from Martin Luther King

January 18th, 2014

On November 13, 1956, in Gayle v. Browder, the Supreme Court issued a one line per curiam affirmance from a judgment of a three judge panel in the Middle District of Alabama.

In Browder, the court found Montgomery’s segregated buses unconstitutional under Brown. The value of these per curiam opinions cannot under understated. When Brown concluded, “all deliberate speed,” nearly all lower court decisions enforcing Brown were affirmed unanimously without any argument.

Slate links to a remarkable letter that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent on behalf of the Montgomery Improvement Association, dated November 19, 1956 (6 days after the Supreme Court’s decision), offering advice to the African-American community about how to handle the desegregation order, and end the bus boycott.

The letter begins:

This is a historic week because segregation has now been declared unconstitutional. Within a few days the Supreme Court mandate will reach Montgomery and you will be re-boarding integrated busses.

Rehearing was denied on December 17, 1956. This report from Stanford says the mandate issued “three days later,” on December 20.

On 20 December 1956 King and the Montgomery Improvement Association voted to end the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott. In a statement that day, King said: ‘‘The year-old protest against city buses is officially called off, and the Negro citizens of Montgomery are urged to return to the busses tomorrow morning on a non-segregated basis’’ (Papers 3:486–487). The Montgomery buses were integrated the following day.

This letter is remarkable. The Supreme Court’s decision not to take cases in the 1950s had such a huge impact.