The two Gilmore v. City of Montgomery cases (1959 and 1974) dealt with segregation and its effects in Montgomery’s public parks. The first case ended the city’s policy of segregating city parks, and the second case, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, ended Montgomery’s policy of allowing whites-only schools to use public parks, which they did primarily for athletic events.
Mark Gilmore In the mid-1950s, Montgomery was wholly segregated and firmly enmeshed in the institutional racism of the Jim Crow South. Segregation was understood by all the city’s citizens to be the de facto rule for city parks and the zoo, but specific laws segregating the parks were not passed until June 1957. Three years after the Supreme Court ruled to end segregation in public education in Brown v. Board of Education, the city passed an ordinance banning African Americans from using city parks and recreational facilities. This left the city’s black residents with few or no parks. In September 1957, African American Mark Gilmore was arrested while taking a shortcut home from work across Oak Park, which at the time housed the zoo and a park. He first sought to have the arrest voided as being illegal, arguing that the park should not have been segregated. When that approach failed, he challenged the arrest and failed again. Solomon Seay Jr., a notable black civil rights attorney from Montgomery and partner of Fred Gray, then turned the case into a general attack on the zoo’s segregation as an easier way to fight the arrest. Seay first filed a petition to end the segregation with the city in August 1958 and then turned to the City Council of Montgomery in September. When that failed, he filed suit in December.
The case was named for lead plaintiff Georgia Theresa Gilmore, Mark’s mother, who also was a member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, but many other African Americans were represented in it. The city lost the case in 1959, and federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ordered the city to integrate its recreational facilities. Instead of integrating the city’s parks, recreational centers, pools, and tennis courts, however, city officials promptly closed all of them and filled its eight swimming pools with dirt. The animals in the zoo were sold off or given to other zoos.
In a secret agreement that would have bearing on another civil rights lawsuit, Smith v. YMCA, the city turned over responsibilities, including maintaining segregation, for some of the cities recreational facilities to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Operation of other facilities was handled in other ways. The city library, for instance, remained open and chose to integrate, but staff removed all of the patron chairs to ensure that whites and blacks would sit not together. By the early 1970s, the city had reopened and integrated its parks but occasionally allowed whites-only private schools to use them on an exclusive basis. (These segregated academies were established in large numbers in Alabama in response to the 1963 Lee v. Macon County Board of Education school integration case and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) Gilmore sued again in 1971 on the grounds that taxpayers were improperly subsidizing segregation. The case was based on the desegregation ordinance that had been entered in the 1959 case as well as evidence presented in Smith v. YMCA, which forced the Montgomery YMCA to integrate facilities and treat African American members equally.
The U.S. District Court found in favor of Gilmore, ordering the city to stop allowing segregated academies to have exclusive use of the facilities and banning their use by any other group that practiced racial discrimination. The Supreme Court upheld part of the order, banning the exclusive use of the facilities by segregated groups. Its ruling noted that the city had, throughout the 1960s, tried to maintain a segregated school system. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, did however find it legal to allow the segregated groups to use the parks as long as other groups were allowed to use it as well. Non-school groups were also allowed, as there had not been enough findings at the lower court level of these occurrences, and the court held that it was unclear whether or not use by private non-educational groups constituted state action. Three other justices concurred with the judgment, but former civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, who had successfully argued the Brown v Board of Education case in 1954, dissented. Marshall believed that the District Court order of Judge Johnson should have been upheld in its entirety, as Johnson had a better familiarity with the issues than the Supreme Court. This case forced private schools in Montgomery to build their own recreational facilities and served as a precedent to prevent other cities from trying to favor segregated schools in a similar fashion.
- Dees, Morris, with Steve Fiffer. A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story. Chicago: American Bar Association Publishing, 2001.
- Seay, Solomon, Jr. Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer. Montgomery, Ala.: New South Books, 2009.
- Yarbrough, Tinsley. Judge Frank Johnson and Human Rights in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1981.