Before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin Stayed in Her Bus Seat
“I wasn’t going to walk off that bus voluntarily.”
These words were spoken by Claudette Colvin during an interview with NPR in 2009. Her remarkable civil rights story was overlooked for decades. But finally, writer Philip Hoose won her trust and wrote about this little-known pioneer in African American women’s history. Now, the full story of a 15-year-old girl’s contribution to the civil rights movement is finally getting its time in the sun. Hoose’s book, Claudette Colvin: Twice toward Justice, details Colvin’s story of courage and humility.
Like most people, I was taught that it was Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience — she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man — that sparked the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955. I felt a sense of pride that this black woman was strong enough to stand up to white racists with quiet dignity and strength. There was so little taught about black history in school that everyone I knew was just glad to have someone to admire. Parks remains a global symbol.
But more than nine months before Parks’ arrest, a 15-year-old high school student, Claudette Colvin, was taken into custody when she refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery bus. It happened on March 2, 1955, during Negro History Week, when Colvin learned about the 14th Amendment and equal protection under the law. Hoose’s book tells how Colvin, who boarded the bus with other students from Booker T. Washington High School, refused to move from her seat for white passengers, even after the bus driver ordered her to. She yelled, “It’s my constitutional right.” Those were powerful words to be uttered by a young girl. Students’ daily lives were affected by injustices under the Jim Crow segregation laws — they couldn’t eat at lunch counters or even try on clothes in a store. Colvin had had enough.
About her motivation, Colvin remembered:
“My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”
The driver called the police, who dragged Colvin off the bus. She was thrown into a police car and handcuffed.
“All ride long, they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me ‘ni–er bitch’ and cracked jokes about parts of my body. I recited the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm over and over in my head, trying to push back the fear.”
Colvin’s arrest was major news, and some thought that it was time to take the issue of bus segregation to the courts. But despite her bravery, initially she was overlooked. Many reasons have been offered over the years — she was too dark-skinned, too young, her family lived in the poorer part of town — but when Colvin became pregnant by an older, married man a few months later, the decision was made. Civil rights leaders felt that it would be difficult for her to undergo the scrutiny required for a legal case.
Months later, 42-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People secretary, seamstress, and respectable married woman Rosa Parks took historic action on a Montgomery bus, which led to the boycott that lasted more than a year. Colvin, who was active in the NAACP’s Youth Council, knew Parks and was advised by her.
Ultimately, Colvin joined Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith as a plaintiff in a suit challenging Montgomery’s segregated public transportation system, a case known as Browder v. Gayle. On June 19, 1956, a three-judge panel ruled that Montgomery segregation codes “deny and deprive plaintiffs and other Negro citizens similarly situated of the equal protection of the laws and due process of law secured by the 14th Amendment.” The U.S. Supreme Court would use this case to strike down bus segregation on December 21, 1956.
Colvin now lives in New York City, where she moved after leaving Alabama in 1958. She is retired and is finally getting the recognition she deserves. The next time you see a school, park, or highway named in honor of Rosa Parks, remember Claudette Colvin and how her bravery and sacrifice changed our country, too.
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