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Claudette Colvin: An Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement


Months before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin challenged the unfair treatment of Blacks

If you've never heard the name Claudette Colvin, you're not alone. Colvin is just one of the many unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, although her actions are just as important as those with recognizable names. Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on December 1, 1955 and suffered arrest as a consequence -- and so, too, did Colvin, nine months *before* Rosa Parks became a household name.

Colvin's arrest occurred on March 2, 1955, when she firmly refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on one of Montgomery's segregated buses – and she was just 15 years old at the time.

Unlike Rosa Parks' famous refusal, Colvin's actions did not start a citywide bus boycott, and she remains unknown to most. The teenager was, however, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Youth Council, and became Rosa Parks protégé. Of Parks, she said, "She made something out of what I started."

Colvin was also named one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the 1956 Supreme Court case that deemed segregation in Alabama's bus system unconstitutional and ended the practice.

March 2, 1955: An ordinary day

15-year-old Colvin was a student at Booker T. Washington High School when she boarded a bus with several other classmates on Wednesday, March 2, 1955. All took seats in the rear of the bus, as the law required, with white passengers seated in front. As the bus became crowded, the driver asked someone to give up a seat for a white woman. Three of Colvin's friends moved, but Colvin stayed seated. As she said, "In my heart I knew it was unfair."

Colvin wasn't breaking Jim Crow laws because she wasn't sitting in a "white" area, and there were empty seats available, including two across from Colvin. The driver simply expected people (including Colvin) to get up so the white woman wouldn't be forced to sit near a person of color.

This struck a chord in Colvin, in part because the breakdown of racial barriers was a major topic of discussion in school, thanks to then-current heroes like Jackie Robinson, and previous trail blazers like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Colvin said, "I felt Harriet on one side holding me down and Sojourner on the other. It was as if I could not move."

The arrest

The bus driver didn't stop when Colvin refused to move, but she was arrested at Court Square for refusing to give up her seat; she protested, "I paid my fare. This is my right!" She was at first "manhandled" by police, she said, and then quickly handcuffed and put in Altmore, a women's prison.

Colvin's friends quickly told her mother, who enlisted the help of NAACP president E.D. Nixon; Colvin remained in jail for a few hours before she was released on bail. She was ultimately charged as a juvenile with violating segregation law, disorderly conduct, and assault and battery on a policeman (because she "scratched" him, something she denied). She was subsequently put on probation.

A plaintiff in Browder vs. Gayle

Local papers wrote about her arrest, and in December of 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. In 1956, NAACP leaders asked her to be one of four plaintiffs in what would become Browder v. Gayle; notably, Rosa Parks was not included. The lawsuit was successful, in that the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. This has made Colvin a major (albeit quiet) player in anti-segregation history.

Colvin moved to New Jersey in 1963, and today is a mother and grandmother at 74.