Skip to content

Black Catholic civil rights activist Mary Louise Smith, predecessor of Rosa Parks, to receive historical marker in Montgomery

One of the earliest activists against segregated buses in Alabama, she was arrested at 18 for refusing to give up her seat to a White person in October 1955.

Mary Louise Smith-Ware pictured with the Rosa Parks statue in downtown Montgomery after its unveiling in 2019. (Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/AP)

Mary Louise Smith, a Black Catholic forerunner of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, will be honored alongside family members this month with a long-awaited historical marker in the city where she resisted Jim Crow segregation as a teenager.

The event, scheduled for Friday, May 19, in Montgomery, was announced by the Greater Washington Park Community Association (GWPCA). It will pay tribute to three generations of Smiths, each of which was involved in the Civil Rights struggle of the mid-to-late 20th century.

The marker itself was created by William Waheed of Cosmo-D Productions, the Selma-based entity behind a 2005 documentary film on Mary Louise Smith and her fellow plaintiffs in the historic civil rights case Browder v. Gayle, which ended bus segregation in the state of Alabama.

Smith joined the case after being arrested at the age of 18 for refusing to give up her seat to a White person on a Montgomery bus—some six weeks before Rosa Parks rose to international fame for a similar act in the same city on December 1, 1955.

At the time of her incarceration, Smith was a recent graduate of the St. Jude Educational Institute, a Catholic high school connected to her home parish, Sr. Jude Catholic Church—part of a Black Catholic complex known as “The City of St. Jude.”

“Her father, Frank Smith, rescued her from jail [and]represented her in court without the aid of any of the political organizations in Montgomery,” reads a press release from the GWPCA.

The unveiling will take place at Mary Louise’s childhood home, built by her father Frank Smith, who allowed her to join Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, and Jeanetta Reese as plaintiffs in the federal court Browder case. They were represented by the famed attorney Fred Gray, who sought a declaration that the anti-Black bus laws in Alabama violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Their case followed that of Parks, whose legal action was filed in a state court and was expected to face unfavorable odds. The Montgomery Bus Boycott would nevertheless coalesce around Parks, despite the success of the Browder case before a three-judge panel in June 1956, ending the citywide boycott. An appeal to the Supreme Court by White officials in Alabama failed and the state’s buses were desegregated that December.

The Smith family would go on to lead similar efforts concerning the segregation of private facilities in Montgomery, with Mary Louise and her sister Annie Ruth consenting for their own sons to serve as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city’s all-White YMCA in 1969. That case was also successful, with a federal court ruling in their favor in 1972, effectively toppling the remaining Jim Crow laws in Montgomery.

Smith-Ware pictured in 2015 holding one of the various awards she has received for her civil rights efforts in Alabama. (Ashley Cleek/WBHM)

Despite being largely overshadowed by Parks in retellings of Alabama’s Black freedom struggle, Smith and her fellow plaintiffs in Browder were honored with historical markers in downtown Montgomery in 2019—near a statue of Parks at the bus stop where she is believed to have started her iconic bus journey.

At the time of the unveiling, only Smith and Colvin remained alive from among the group. Smith has emphasized that, despite preceding her in the struggle, she and her co-plaintiffs looked up to the older Parks as a “role model.”

Waheed, an author and activist who wrote an educational curriculum to accompany his documentary on the Browder case, has spearheaded efforts to honor the unsung heroes of the Montgomery desegregation struggle for years. He publicized a donation campaign for the Smith family historical marker in summer 2022, which was eventually successful.

Smith, now known as Mary Louise Smith-Ware, is in her late 80s and is expected to attend the marker unveiling at her former home. Montgomery’s city council president, Charles Jinright, and Smith’s city council representative are also expected to appear.

The unveiling, scheduled for 11am CT, will take place at 2408 2nd St, Montgomery, Alabama 36108. Interested parties can email Waheed at for more information.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

Want to support the work of BCM? You have options.

a.) click to give on Donorbox

b.) click to give on Facebook