Before Rosa Parks there was Claudette Colvin

Reading time 8 min.

The American Civil War ended slavery without ending racial prejudice. In the decades that followed, Caucasian Americans passed hundreds of laws (primarily in the Southern part of the United States) designed to keep whites and blacks from living, working and riding public transportation together. They were not even allowed to be buried in the same cemeteries. Nicknamed “Jim Crow” after a character in a minstrel song (performed by white entertainers in “blackface” makeup), these laws and rules were often enforced by violence. One of the first successful challenges to Jim Crow came in Montgomery, Alabama, in March of 1955 when a high school junior named Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a public bus to a white passenger and, for the first time in the city’s history, fought the charges in court. Although black leaders did not select Claudette as their “poster child” for the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott — instead opting nine months later for 42-year-old Rosa Parks — the Colvin case provided tactical and political information that was later useful to boycott leaders, including the young Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Significantly, Colvin helped bring the boycott — and racial segregation in intrastate public transportation — to an end by courageously serving as a plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit Browder v. Gayle.

This essay is excerpted from the Living Book Beyond Dr. King: More Stories of African American Achievement.

Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin boarded the Highland Gardens bus in downtown Montgomery, Alabama the afternoon of March 2, 1955, and settled in for the long ride home to her neighborhood across town. She knew the seating rules well — everybody did. The ten seats in front were for white passengers only. The 26 seats behind them were controlled by the driver, who constantly glanced in the mirror above his head to make sure no one violated the seating regulations. After the ten seats up front reserved for whites were filled, the driver ordered black customers to yield their seats in the middle and rear of the bus to incoming white passengers.

When Claudette boarded the bus that day, there were no white people yet present. The passengers were mostly students like her, heading home from school. Claudette slid into a seat in the mid-section, next to the window. Three of her classmates took seats in the same row. Claudette daydreamed as the bus began to fill up. Soon, a Caucasian lady moved into the aisle next to her row and waited pointedly. Claudette snapped out of her daydream, suddenly realizing that she was expected to get up and move for this woman.

The driver cocked his glance in the rearview mirror and ordered the African-American girls to take seats farther back. Claudette’s classmates rose and walked slowly to the rear of the bus. But Claudette did not speak nor did she move. “Hey, get up!” the driver yelled. Claudette remained seated. The driver snapped open the door and hailed a passing transit policeman to hop aboard and help him enforce the seating regulations. But the transit officer had no authority to make an arrest. A block later, the driver summoned two city policemen waiting in a nearby squad car. They boarded the bus and ordered Claudette to rise. When Claudette refused, the officers grabbed her wrists and jerked her from her seat, sending her textbooks flying. Shouting that she had a constitutional right to sit where she chose, Claudette willed herself not to struggle. “I couldn’t get up that day,” recalled Claudette, years later. “History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other.”

The officers handcuffed Claudette, shoved her into a police car, and drove her to City Hall — insulting her along the way. The 15-year-old was booked and escorted to a cell in the adult jail. The iron cell door clanged shut and locked behind her. Claudette found herself alone in a small room containing a rusted toilet and a cot without a mattress. Did her mother have any idea where she was? Claudette fell to her knees, sobbing and praying.

Hours later, Claudette’s mother and pastor bailed her out of jail and took her home. But Claudette was in serious legal trouble. The city had charged her with disorderly conduct, violating the segregation law, and with “assaulting” the policemen who had dragged her off the bus. In the past, other African-American passengers had been arrested for refusing to yield their seat to a white passenger but no one had ever fought the charges. They typically paid a fine and went home. Claudette was different. Funds to hire an attorney for Claudette were raised with help from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and black churches throughout Montgomery.

At Claudette’s hearing, the presiding judge threw out the first two charges but kept the assault charge. Claudette was placed on probation in the custody of her parents. Her attorney appealed, but the effort was futile. No judge in the city was going to overturn the verdict against her.

After the trial, Claudette returned to Booker T. Washington High School and tried to get on with her junior year. Rather than treating her as a hero, many of her classmates mocked her. She became discouraged and depressed. “Sometimes I felt I did something wrong … I lost a lot of friends,” Claudette later admitted.

In December of 1955, nine months after Claudette’s arrest, a 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for taking a similar stand on a crowded bus in the same city. Now prepared, thanks in part to Claudette’s earlier experience, Montgomery’s black leaders rallied around Mrs. Parks and quickly organized a boycott of all the city buses. 35,000 fliers were passed out, urging the black community to walk or carpool until city officials changed the way black passengers were treated on public buses.

Black leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., backed away from Claudette Colvin, choosing instead to use Mrs. Parks alone as the face of the bus protest. Why? Some community leaders assumed that a teenage girl who was rebellious enough to resist authorities trying to drag her from a public bus would be difficult to control in a tightly-organized protest. However, Claudette thought she was overlooked because, in contrast to Mrs. Parks, her skin was dark, her hair coarse, and her family was poorer than the black leaders in town. “We weren’t in the inner circle,” Claudette later said. “The middle-class blacks didn’t want us as a role model.”

After the bus boycott dragged on for months and city officials obstinately refused to negotiate, black leaders decided to sue the city of Montgomery in federal court, alleging that segregation laws violated the U.S. Constitution. But finding plaintiffs was difficult. To put one’s name on a lawsuit publically challenging the Jim Crow system was to risk one’s life. In the end, only four females agreed to serve as plaintiffs, including then 16-year-old Claudette Colvin.

When Claudette was called to testify in this trial held on May 11, 1956, she advanced to the witness stand and sat down, raising her right hand and smoothing her blue dress. She glanced at the three white judges to her right, who sat in grim appraisal of the headstrong young Claudette. The city’s lawyer attacked right away, attempting to trap Claudette into testifying that Dr. King had manipulated Montgomery’s blacks into boycotting the busses against their will.

“Who are your leaders?” the lawyer demanded.

“… Just we, ourselves,” Claudette replied evenly.

“Why did you stop riding on December fifth?” asked the lawyer, referring to the start date of the boycott.

Claudette’s eyes narrowed as she replied, “Because we were treated wrong, dirty and nasty.”

One of the other plaintiffs’ lawyers later recalled, “If there was a star witness… it had to be Claudette Colvin.”

Months later — after the bus boycott had continued for more than a year — the judges ruled 2-1 that Montgomery’s bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision, forcing the city to desegregate its buses.

Two years after the trial, at the age of 18, Claudette Colvin moved to New York City, where she worked for the next 50 years, primarily as a nurses’ aide in a Manhattan nursing home. She told no one in New York about her role in catalyzing the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott as a teen, save a handful of reporters and researchers interested in civil rights who rediscovered her story and sought her out. Claudette, now 70, is retired and is the grandmother of five. She is proud that as a 15-year-old, she set the stage for the first major victory of the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

“When it comes to justice,” says Claudette, “there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’ And I did.”

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