On this day in 1955, a 15-year-old refuses to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks would become famous for the same act of civil disobedience nine months later—but Claudette Colvin did it first!
At this point in history, as you know, passengers were segregated aboard buses in places such as Montgomery. Colvin’s defiant act was one of the dominoes that fell, eventually bringing these unjust segregation laws to an end.
On March 2, Colvin and her friends were taking a bus home from school. When they first boarded the bus, there were no white people aboard, so she and her friends were permitted to sit in the middle section of the bus.
The bus began to fill up at subsequent stops. Soon, the white section in front of the bus was full, and a white woman was looking for a seat. Colvin’s friends got up to clear the row for white people, as they were supposed to do. But Colvin found that she couldn’t move, even when the bus driver ordered her out of her seat.
The bus driver soon brought a police officer in to help. Yet Colvin still refused to move. “I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right” was her simple response to the police officer.
“I couldn’t get up that day,” Colvin later said of the experience. “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.”
Well, the police officer would have none of that! Colvin was dragged off the bus, handcuffed, and taken to an adult jail. She was charged with violating the segregation law, disorderly conduct, and assaulting a police officer. Fortunately, one of her classmates called her parents, and she was bailed out a few hours later.
That night, at home, her parents were so terrified of retribution from the Ku Klux Klan that her father sat up all night with a loaded gun.
In the days that followed, Colvin took an unusual step. She wouldn’t just pay a fine and move on with her life, as so many did. She decided to fight the charges! Funds were raised for her defense, but the judge ended up throwing out the segregation charge. Only the assault charge stood.
To be honest, civil rights leaders really seemed to want another face for their cause anyway. Colvin might not garner the most public sympathy, instead seeming too much like a rebellious teenager. Moreover, she got pregnant not too long after her arrest. Would a young, unwed teenage mother be the most likable defendant? Perhaps not. When Rosa Parks came along a few months later, she seemed like a better candidate to represent the civil rights movement.
Nevertheless, Colvin had done something important: In part because of her actions, civil rights leaders were prompted to prepare for what was coming next. When Parks was arrested on her bus in December 1955, a bus boycott was ready to go. But for Colvin’s contributions, would Rosa Parks have been able to have such a big impact?
When a case was finally filed challenging the constitutionality of segregation laws, Colvin was one of the few people brave enough to add her name to the list of plaintiffs.
Her fight against segregation may not have made history books, as Parks did, but it was important, nonetheless.
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Claudette Colvin: an unsung hero in the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Jet Mag.; Feb. 28, 2005) (archived HERE)
Eliza Gray, A Forgotten Contribution: Before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus (Newsweek; Mar. 2, 2009) (archived HERE)
Ellen Levine, Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories (2000)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (2010)
Radio Diaries, Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus (NPR; Mar. 2, 2015)