Claudette Colvin (b. 1939) was a pioneer of the African American Civil Rights Movement. On March 2, 1955, she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, nine months prior to Rosa Parks.
Colvin was among the five plaintiffs originally included in the federal court case filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray on February 1, 1956, as Browder v. Gayle, and she testified before the three-judge panel that heard the case in the United States District Court. On June 13, 1956, the judges determined that the state and local laws requiring bus segregation in Alabama were unconstitutional. The case went to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld their ruling on December 17, 1956. Colvin was the last witness to testify. Three days later, the Supreme Court issued an order to Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was called off.
For many years, Montgomery's black leaders did not publicize Colvin's pioneering effort because she was a teenager who was pregnant by a married man; words like "feisty", "mouthy", and "emotional" were used to describe her, while her older counterpart Rosa Parks was viewed as being calm, well-mannered, and studious. Because of the social norms of the time and her youth, the NAACP leaders worried about using her to symbolize their boycott.
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Colvin was born September 5, 1939, and was adopted by C. P. Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin. Her father mowed lawns, and her mother worked as a maid. Claudette Colvin grew up in a poor black neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama. In 1943, at the age of four, she received her first impression on the struggles of segregation. She was at a retail store with her mother when a couple of white boys entered. They asked her to touch hands in order to compare them. Seeing this, her mother slapped her face and told her that she was not allowed to touch the white boys.
In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city.She relied on the city's buses to get to and from school, because her parents did not own a car. She said that she aspired to be President one day. Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and had been actively learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school. On March 2, 1955, she was returning home from school, and in a Capitol Heights bus downtown she sat down about two seats away from an emergency exit in the colored section.
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The convention of the time was that if the bus became so crowded that all the so-called "white seats" in front were filled and a white person was standing, any African Americans were supposed to get up from these seats, move to the back, and stand if there were no free seats. When a white woman who got on the bus was left standing, the bus driver, Robert W. Cleere, commanded Colvin and three other black women in her row to move to the back. The other three moved, but a pregnant black woman, Ruth Hamilton, got on and sat next to Colvin.
The driver looked at them in his mirror. "He asked us both to get up. [Mrs. Hamilton] said she was not going to get up and that she had paid her fare and that she didn't feel like standing," recalls Colvin. "So I told him I was not going to get up either. So he said, 'If you are not going to get up, I will get a policeman.'" The police arrived and convinced a black man sitting behind the two women to move so that Mrs. Hamilton could move back, but Colvin still refused. She was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested by the two policemen, Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley. This event took place nine months before the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was famously arrested for the same offense. Claudette Colvin: "My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me to let Rosa be the one: white people aren't going to bother Rosa, they like her".
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When Colvin refused to get up, she was thinking about a school paper she had written that day about the local custom which prevented blacks from using the dressing rooms and trying on clothes in department stores. In a later interview, she said: "We couldn't try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot [...] and take it to the store”; and "She couldn't sit in the same row as us because that would mean we were as good as her".
"The bus was getting crowded, and I remember the bus driver looking through the rear view mirror asking her to get up for the white woman, which she didn't," said Annie Larkins Price, a classmate of Colvin's. "She had been yelling "It's my constitutional right!". She decided on that day that she wasn't going to move." Colvin was handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated. Price testified for Colvin in the juvenile court case. Colvin was convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault. "There was no assault," Price said.
Together with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanette Reese, Colvin was also one of the five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle. The case, organized and filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, determined that bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama was unconstitutional. Partly thanks to the degree of support being provided to the plaintiffs by the black community, the country ultimately found itself with no option but to suspend its segregationist policies and implement ones that were fairer. During the court case, Colvin described her arrest:
"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."
On June 5, 1956, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama issued a ruling declaring the state of Alabama and Montgomery's laws mandating bus segregation was unconstitutional. State and local officials appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court summarily affirmed the decision on November 13 1956. One month later, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider, and on December 20, 1956, the court ordered Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation permanently.
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