Claudette Colvin’s name has become a footnote in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, superseded by that of Rosa Parks – who was made famous for doing exactly what Claudette had done months before.
Claudette Colvin was born in 1939 and grew up in Montgomery, Alabama – the city which would later become famous for the bus boycott which many consider to be the start of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
As a young black girl, she was forced to go to a segregated school. Fortunately, the education she received her inspired her mind and taught her about the long struggle for civil rights. When asked by her teacher to write down what she wanted to be when she grew up she wrote ‘President of the United States’!
Her school wasn’t nearby, so Claudette relied on buses to get her there and home again. On March 2nd 1955 15 year-old Claudette boarded the bus on Dexter Avenue, just a stone’s throw the church pastored by Martin Luther King Jnr.
To explain what happened next it’s important to understand the way buses were segregated in Alabama at that time. Any white people who got on the bus would fill up the seats from the front, as black people got on the bus they were meant to fill up the seats from the back. Somewhere in the middle the two would meet. If the bus was full and more white people boarded the bus all the black people on the next row were expected to stand up to make a new row for the whites (they couldn’t share the row.)
It was this situation which Claudette found herself in on her journey back from school that day. When a white woman climbed aboard the already full bus Claudette and her classmates were asked to move. Her three friends did, but Claudette remained seated. When a pregnant black woman also boarded and sat next to her, she was also asked to move – she refused and so did Claudette. The bus driver called the police.
When the police arrived they managed to convince a black man in the row behind to give up his seat for the pregnant woman and she duly moved back a row. But Claudette remained fixed. As the police officers repeatedly asked her to move she firmly refused. She later said,
(She had been learning about these inspiring black sheroes at school that month.)
The police then became aggressive with her, kicking her and dragging her off the bus. She was handcuffed, arrested and taken to the police station. She was the first person in the state of Alabama to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, nine months before the same thing happened to Rosa Parks.
Claudette pleaded not guilty in court, but was convicted none-the-less, for disturbing the peace & violating segregation law.
Leaders of the local NAACP branch heard about Claudette’s case, including Rosa Parks – not yet a well known name – who went to Claudette’s house to speak with & encourage her. In 1956 Claudette was one of four women who testified in the landmark Browder v. Gayle case which eventually ruled that bus segregation in Alabama was illegal.
In court she described what had happened that day on the bus:
“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.”
Despite this Claudette never became the symbol of peaceful resistance that Rosa did; she never had a statue made of her, was never mentioned in a president’s speech and isn’t taught about in schools around the world. Why was this?
Just as it looked like the NAACP might use Claudette as the rallying cry they had been looking for she became pregnant. She was now an unmarried, pregnant teenager – as well as being from a poor background. Leaders of the movement recognised that in the traditional, religious communities which were beginning to galvanise, she would be seen as a ‘fallen woman’ – and not the character they needed to unite people for the bus boycott they had planned. Rosa was able to become the respectable face of the boycott which people would more readily accept.
And so Claudette quietly faded into obscurity. She gave birth to her son and moved to New York, as it had become hard for her to find work in the South. She found a job in a nursing home where she worked until her retirement in 2004.
What Rosa Parks did was brave – and history is right to celebrate her for her courage and for the significance of what her actions began. However, some have argued that without Claudette’s actions on that bus nine months earlier, Rosa Parks’ decision to stay seated on the bus that day would have never happened.
Claudette was only 15, just a girl on her way home from school, but what she did helped change the course of history.
Find out more….
Read an interview with Claudette here.