On 2 March 1955, 9 months before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, AL. Sometimes overlooked because of the popularity of Rosa Parks, Ms. Colvin was, in fact, one of Ms. Parks’ inspirations. Join us at The Researcher’s Gateway as we learn more about this fascinating woman!
Claudette Colvin was born in Pine Level, Alabama on 5 September 1939.
Born to Mary Jane Gadson and C. P. Austin, Colvin and her family moved to Montgomery, AL, when she was eight years old. She had two sisters, Delphine and Velma. Delphine, the younger sister, died from polio two days before her 13th birthday.
Because her parents could not financially support her, Colvin eventually was adopted by her mother’s Great Aunt and Uncle, Mary Anne and Q. P. Colvin. Colvin was raised in a poor black neighborhood of Montgomery and eventually attended Booker T. Washington High School, a segregated school. She was intelligent and inquisitive and aspired to be President one day. She took the bus from home to her school and back every day.
While in High School, Colvin became a member of the NAACP Youth Council. Here, she developed a friendship with her mentor, Rosa Parks.
Claudette Colvin was the first person arrested by the police in Montgomery, AL for refusing to give up her bus seat.
She said these women were in her thoughts one day when she took the bus home from school. In her class studying Black History, they also had conversed on the inequities of the Jim Crow Laws. These laws were still being lived under at the time.
On 2 March 1955, with all of this in her head, the bus driver told her and another passenger that they needed to move. Ms. Hamilton, the other woman, pregnant, refused, and so did Colvin. When he asked her to give her seat to a white woman, Colvin stated that she had paid her fare and insisted that she had a right to the seat. The police officers eventually convinced Ms. Hamilton to move, but Colvin refused.
“Whenever people ask me: ‘Why didn’t you get up when the bus driver asked you?’ I say it felt as though Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women because my teacher taught us about them in so much detail.”— Claudette Colvin (Rumble, 2018)
The reports of her resistance vary. She persistently insisted that she did not resist arrest. Other people claimed that the police officers had to drag her down and restrain her. They handcuffed and arrested her. She kept insisting that it was her constitutional right. She was 15 years old.
The Police Officers frightened Collette Colvin after her arrest.
One sat in the back seat with her in the cop car while they mocked her, swore at her, and made sexual comments about her body. The experience terrified her, and she thought that they might rape her.
Because of her age, she assumed that they would take her to juvenile court. Instead, however, they decided to take her to an adult jail. She was not allowed to make any phone calls before they locked her up. Luckily, her classmates, also on the bus, saw the arrest and called her mother, Mary Jane Colvin. Ms. Colvin contacted Reverend H. H. Johnson, her pastor, and paid for Colvin’s bail.
Because of the turbulent times, once home, Colvin and her family feared reprisal from the Klu Klux Klan. On a stressful night, her family and neighbors stayed awake and watchful. Her father, Q. P. Colvin, sat up all night with a shotgun just in case.
She said she wasn’t guilty of the charges when she returned to court. The judge eventually dropped the charges for disturbing the peace and breaking segregation laws. However, he kept the third charge of assaulting a police officer. Because the charge of violating the segregation laws was dropped, activists couldn’t use it to challenge segregation in the courts.
Her arrest helped inspire later actions that resulted in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Claudette Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle.
The other four plaintiffs were Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese. Reese, however, resigned from the case. Browder v. Gayle was organized and filed in federal court by civil rights attorney Fred Gray. Its purpose challenged city bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, as unconstitutional. He filed the motion on 1 February 1956.
“I kept saying, ‘He has no civil right… this is my constitutional right… you have no right to do this.’ And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person.”— Claudette Colvin regarding her testimony during the court case (Ghogomu 2014)
On 5 June 1956, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama issued a ruling declaring the state of Alabama and Montgomery’s laws mandating public bus segregation as unconstitutional. State and local officials appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, where on 13 November 1956, they confirmed the District Court’s ruling.
On 20 December 1956, the court ordered Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation permanently.
Why was Rosa Parks more famous than Claudette Colvin?
In Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, 75% of the bus systems riders were black. 10 seats were customarily held (about 28% of the 36 seats) for white riders. If more whites boarded than seats in the white section, the bus drivers could insist that blacks move to create additional white-only rows.
Before Colvin’s arrest, there was already talk about boycotting the bus system in the black community because of segregation. Colvin’s youth and her story spurred the resistance, but the NAACP felt that teenagers were unreliable and needed someone else to be the image of the resistance.
Rosa Parks fit that image much better. She was a middle-class adult and very well known. The community widely respected her as well.
After her arrest, Claudette Colvin struggled greatly.
Within the black community of Montgomery, Alabama, she was thought of as trouble. She had become a teenage single mother and couldn’t find employment. Due to the issues, she even withdrew from attending Alabama State, where she had a scholarship.
Eventually, in 1958, Colvin moved north to New York City, where her older sister Velma lived. She and her son Raymond moved in with Velma while Colvin looked for work.
In 1969, years after moving to NYC, she acquired a job working as a Nurse’s aide at a Nursing home. She worked there for 35 years until her retirement in 2004.
Despite her struggles, she expressed hope for America:
“Being dragged off that bus was worth it just to see Barack Obama become president, because so many others gave their lives and didn’t get to see it, and I thank God for letting me see it.”— Claudette Colvin (Gier, 2010)
There has been much controversy over the lack of acknowledgement of Claudette Colvin over the years.
While she has said that she is not angry over the lack of recognition, it has impacted her over the years. She once refused to record a video when approached by the curate of the Rosa Parks Museums, stating, “They’ve already called it the Rosa Parks Museum, so they’ve already made up their minds what the story is.”
Her family has challenged many places, such as the Smithsonian Museum, to get her story better included in the narrative. They thought that without Colvin and the other plaintiffs in 1956, it’s probable that the Montgomery movement toward better Civil Rights would have continued to stagnate. Perhaps, even, they suppose, it might have significantly affected the prominence of people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Notable moments of Legacy and Recognition
- 1990 New York Governor Mario Cuomo awarded her the Martin Luthar King, Jr. Medal of Freedom.
- 2010s – a street in Montgomery was named for her.
- 2017 – March 2 became Claudette Colvin Day in Montgomery, Alabama.
- 2019 – The statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in Montgomery, Alabama and surrounding her were granite markers to commemorate Colvin and her three co-plaintiffs.
Sources for further Research
- Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Paperback) by Phillip Hoose
- Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin. (Garrow)
- The Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (Adler)
- Claudette Colvin: The Brave Young Woman Who Went Before Rosa Parks. (Gier)
- The 15-Year Old Girl Who Refused to Give Up Her Seat 9 Months Before Rosa Parks (Ghogomu)
- Claudette Colvin: The 15-year-old who came before Rosa Parks. (Rumble)