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. 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.”
Before Rosa Parks there was Claudette Colvin.
Born September 5, 1939, Ms. Colvin was on of four Black women ( Aurelia S. Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese [outside pressure convinced Ms. Reese to withdraw from the case]) who challenged the racist segregation of city buses in Alabama. On March 2, 1955, at the age of 15, while rising on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama she refused to give up her seat to a White passenger citing “It’s my constitutional right to sit here”. This put her in direct violation of the city’s law on where Black and White passengers could sit on city buses. She was arrested, jailed, convicted and placed on probation. Ms. Colvin was the first Black woman to challenge bus segregation, nine months before Mrs. Rosa Parks, on December 1, 1955, made her stand by remaining seated. Ms. Colvin’s court case, decided by the United States District Court, ruled racial segregation on city buses unconstitutional.
Because she was a teenager and was an unmarried mother, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) leaders of the bus boycott refused to use Ms. Colvin for their boycott, even though they knew of her case before the SCOTUS, and instead opted to have Mrs. Parks as their representative to challenge passenger segregation on city buses in Birmingham, Alabama.
Retiree Claudette Colvin was 15 the day she refused to give up her seat on the bus. “My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through,” she says.
Here is an excerpt from her book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice:
One [of the policemen] said to the driver in a very angry tone, “Who is it?” The motorman pointed at me. I heard him say, “That’s nothing new . . . I’ve had trouble with that ‘thing’ before.” He called me a “thing.” They came to me and stood over me and one said, “Aren’t you going to get up?” I said, “No, sir.” He shouted “Get up” again. I started crying, but I felt even more defiant. I kept saying over and over, in my high-pitched voice, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!” I knew I was talking back to a white policeman, but I had had enough.
One cop grabbed one of my hands and his partner grabbed the other and they pulled me straight up out of my seat. My books went flying everywhere. I went limp as a baby—I was too smart to fight back. They started dragging me backwards off the bus. One of them kicked me. I might have scratched one of them because I had long nails, but I sure di’n’t fight back. I kept screaming over and over” “‘It’s my constitutional right!” I wa’n’t shouting anything profane—I never swore, not then, not ever. I was shouting out my rights.
It just killed me to leave the bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat when so many black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door. They stood outside and talked to each other for a minute, and then one came back and told me to stick my hands out the open window. He handcuffed me and then pulled the door open and jumped in the backseat with me. I put my knees together and crossed my hands over my lap and started praying.
All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me “nigger bitch” and cracked jokes about parts of my body. I recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm over and over in my head, trying to push back the fear. I assumed they were taking me to juvenile court because I was only fifteen. I was thinking, Now I’m gonna be picking cotton, since that’s how they punished juveniles—they put you in a school out in the country where they made you do field work during the day.
But we were going in the wrong direction. They kept telling me I was going to Atmore, the women’s penitentiary. Instead, we pulled up to the police station and they led me inside. More cops looked up when we came in and started calling me “Thing” and “Whore.” They booked me and took my fingerprints.
Then they put me back in the car and drove me to the city jail—the adult jail. Someone led me straight to a cell without giving me any chance to make a phone call. He opened the door and told me to get inside. He shut it hard behind me and turned the key. The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard. It sounded final. It said I was trapped.
When he went away, I looked around me: three bare walls, a toilet, and a cot. Then I feel down on my knees in the middle of the cell and started crying again. I didn’t know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there. I cried and I put my hands together and prayed like I had never prayed before.
On May 11, 1956, Ms. Colvin, along with three other women, testified in a Montgomery federal court about her incident on the bus. The case became known as Browder v. Gayle and was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorneys decided not to use Colvin in the lawsuit because they wanted to build a case that challenged the legality of bus segregation. Because of her resisting the infringement on her rights to sit anywhere on the bus, Ms. Colvin had been charged with disorderly conduct. Because Browder v. Gayle challenged the constitutionality of a state statute, the case was brought before a three-judge U.S. District Court panel. On June 5, 1956, the panel ruled two-to-one that segregation on Alabama’s intrastate buses was unconstitutional, citing Brown v. Board of Education as precedent for the verdict. On December 17, 1956, the United States Supreme Court rejected city and state appeals to reconsider their decision, and three days later the order for integrated buses arrived in Montgomery, Alabama on December 20, 1956.
On December 21, 1956, the boycott ended and buses were desgregated.
When the driver of the segregated bus, like the one shown above, ordered Claudette Colvin to get up, she refused, saying she’d paid her fare and it was her constitutional right. Two police officers handcuffed and arrested her. (Photo courtesy of Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)
After the bus boycott, Ms. Colvin found it difficult to obtain employment because of her arrest, so she moved to New York. She worked for thirty-six years as a CNA at the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home, retiring in 2004. Ms. Colvin never married. Her first child at the time of the boycott was a son, Raymond, whom she gave birth to in 1955. He died at the age of 37. A second son, an accountant, lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Ms. Claudette Colvin is still proud of what she accomplished by standing up for her rights as a citizen and as an activist in the fight for equality and recognition of her humanity and her fellow Black citizens. Her brave actions paved the way for Sister Parks and many others who fought against a repressive and racist regime with their civil disobedience.
I’m not disappointed,” Ms. Colvin said. “Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation”.
FROM FOOTNOTE TO FAME IN CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY
NPR: BEFORE ROSA PARKS, THERE WAS CLAUDETTE COLVIN
BROWDER vs. GAYLE: THE CASE THAT ENDED BUS SEGREGATION ON MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA PUBLIC BUSES