October 27, 2020
“That was the whole point of the segregation rules – it was all symbolic – blacks had to be behind whites.”
– Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice
It was Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. A young black girl boarded a city bus and sat down in the front section of the bus. Many of the seats began to fill up as passengers began to board the bus, and with segregation being deeply entrenched in southern society, giving up your seat for a white passenger was a given. However, this special young black girl refused to give up her seat to a white passenger even though all her fellow black patrons got up from their seats and immediately went to the back. After her initial refusal, the bus driver got involved and reported her to the police. The police proceeded to forcibly remove her from her seat and handcuffed her for violating the law. While she was being forced off the bus, she screamed out to the public that the police were violating her constitutional rights. Once incarcerated, this young black girl began to fear for her life, while unknowingly sparking a movement like no other. That movement fought for a world where people of color and whites would be able to live in a society where segregation was a thing of the past. However, this story is different from the one we learned in our history classes or in our textbooks about the famous Rosa Parks, who similarly demonstrated civil disobedience and helped gain mass support for the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to refuse her seat to a white passenger. In fact, her act of civil disobedience was a set-up that was planned by leaders in the Civil Rights movement. Therefore, let me tell you the true story about the woman who wasn’t Rosa Parks but who inspired civil rights leaders to use her actions to spark attention for the Civil Rights movement, and that woman’s name is Claudette Colvin.1
Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin and her classmates—all Booker T. Washington high schoolers—were on their way to catch the Highland Gardens bus at Dexter Avenue and Bainbridge Street. She handed the bus driver her “pink coupon,” which allowed students to ride the bus for five cents – half the fare.2 As she walked into the aisle of the bus, she noticed that there were no whites riding the bus, so she and her classmates were allowed to walk down the aisle to their seats. It was a rule for African Americans to get out of the bus after paying their fare, and re-enter through the rear door of the bus if there was just one white passenger already seated on the bus.3 Colvin, along with her classmates, sat down at a window seat on the left side of the bus, “near the exit door and about halfway back.” While the bus continued to move along Dexter Avenue, many seats were beginning to fill up aisle by aisle with white passengers who were going home from work. As the bus approached Court Square, Colvin noticed a white woman who was standing between the rows that she and her classmates were sitting in, she was expecting Colvin and her three classmates to move from their seats. There was a city ordinance for black people or people of color to yield their seats to white riders if the front half of the bus, usually reserved for whites, was full. The bus driver looked up in his mirror to let Colvin and her classmates know that they must vacate their seats to the white woman, and all of them complied expect Colvin. She considered giving up her seat if the woman had been elderly, but according to Colvin, “she looked about forty” so she didn’t leave her seat; she simply couldn’t give up her seat. It’s important to know that bus companies would only hire white male bus drivers to prevent any type of sympathy towards black patrons; it was another extension of the Jim Crow laws.
Claudette Colvin had rebellion in her mind since all the month of February, she had been learning about people who had taken a stand against injustice in her school. She was taught about her constitutional rights in Miss Nesbitt’s class, so she knew that she had the same rights as everyone else no matter the skin color she was born with. As her classmates moved out of their seats, Colvin remained seated; she made the decision to stay put. Although there were new empty seats on the bus, the white woman refused to sit down because Claudette was still sitting in her seat—she refused to even sit in the row across from the fifteen-year-old black girl. At this point, the bus driver yelled at Colvin, “Why are you still sitin’ there?” but Colvin refused to listen and stayed glued to her seat while the white woman kept standing over her. With the constant yelling from the driver and other white riders, Colvin stayed put. She wasn’t going to move from her seat, and she refused to say another word. Tired of Colvin’s constant refusal, the bus driver continued his drive towards Court Square, and once he arrived there, he hollered to the transit police that were stationed there so that they could come in and arrest Claudette Colvin. “It’s her,” he said to the transit police, who proceeded to walk towards to Colvin. The transit officer ordered young Claudette Colvin to get up, but once again she simply refused. He lacked the authority to make her do anything, so he simply had to retreat to the driver and explain the situation to him.4
“I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other, saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.” – Claudette Colvin, when refusing her seat to a white passenger on the bus.5
So, the bus driver had to drive to the intersection of Bibb and Commerce streets, where a squad car was waiting. The Highland Gardens bus door opened and two Montgomery city policemen climbed aboard. Dead silence set in with all the passengers holding their breath, dreading what was going to happen next. As the police officer approached the young girl, she heard him say, “That’s nothing new… I’ve had trouble with the ‘thing’ before.”6 Colvin found the statement to be disrespectful, because she was not a ‘thing.’ She was a human being just like everyone else, and not an object or an item. He stood over Claudette Colvin and said, “Aren’t you going to get up?” Claudette responded, “No, sir.” Angered by her response, he shouted “Get up,” which made the young girl cry, but she continued to refuse to get up. Instead of listening to the police officer, she shouted, “It’s my constitutional right to sit her as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!”7 She had enough. She knew that her actions would lead to dire consequences, but she couldn’t bare this injustice any longer. Each officer grabbed her hands and pulled her straight out of her seat. She went limp knowing that if she would fight back then she would risk her wellbeing against the two white police officers (you wouldn’t know what they would do to you). While they dragged her off the bus, she continued to scream back, “it’s my constitutional right!”; At this moment, Claudette Colvin hated everything that was happening from being dragged off the bus to letting a white woman take her seat while many black people were forced to stand. The policed kicked her before handcuffing her, and then they sat her in the back seat of the police car. During her time being transported to an unknown place, the two officers swore at her and ridiculed her. They called her many names and even made jokes about parts of her body. Instead of fighting back, all Claudette could do was pray and recite her prayers over and over again trying to push back all the fear she had within her. Since she was only fifteen years old, Claudette assumed that the officers were going to take her to juvenile court, where she would be put out in the fields to pick cotton like all juveniles did when they got punished. Instead, the police pulled up to the police station where Colvin dealt with more name calling, like “Thing” and “Whore,” while she was being fingerprinted. Without a single sign of remorse for her mental health or wellbeing, one of the officers pushed her into a single cell with no request to call her mom to help her out of the situation. Feeling reality finally setting in, Colvin fell to her knees and started to cry again, because she wasn’t placed in juvenile court but instead in an adult jail, and was losing hope as every minute passed by.8
Colvin’s classmates who witnessed everything that went down, ran and telephoned Colvin’s mother Mary Ann Colvin to inform her about what had just happened to her daughter. Mary Ann Colvin called the neighborhood pastor Reverend H.H. Johnson, and both sped to the police station where they were holding Claudette. Luckily for the young girl, Reverend Johnson was able to bail her out of jail and return her back home. Everyone in her King Hill neighborhood was glad that she was safe, but they all feared for her life because she had challenged the bus law; not only did she stand up against a white bus driver, but also two white police officers. There had been lynchings and cross burnings for what Claudette had done. So that night an uneasiness settled on Kill Hill, and Claudette Colvin’s father stayed up all night with a shot gun in hand to ensure the protection of his daughter, and the neighbors facing the highway kept watch too, since it would be an easy access for the Klan to go through once they heard about what Claudette had done. After that ordeal was over, Claudette Colvin became well known throughout her community for standing up against the bus system laws. She became more vocal about her thoughts of the injustice black people faced and became an active member in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Youth Council that was advised by Rosa Parks herself. Rosa Parks was moved by Claudette’s actions because Claudette was just a young girl who stood up against the social norms of society, since she didn’t agree with the laws that were set upon black people.8
Days after her arrest, Claudette Colvin was charged for her actions, and she was found guilty on three charges—disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and assaulting a police officer. Luckily for Claudette Colvin, two out of the three charges were dropped, the assaulting a police officer was the only charge that wasn’t dropped because she had accidently scratched an officer’s arm when they were dragging her out of the bus. After that, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was now seen as ‘feisty’ and ‘uncontrollable’ black girl, which became one of the major reasons why she wouldn’t become the face of the Civil Rights movement. Instead of using the young girl, the civil right leaders decided to use Rosa Parks as the face of the movement for five reasons, one being that she was an adult, which meant she was seen as more trustworthy than a child. The second reason was because Parks had a lighter skin tone than Colvin, which was socially more acceptable at this time. Third, Parks was from the middle class, while Colvin was of more modest means. Fourth, Parks was a well-known and respected black political figure. And fifth, Colvin became pregnant a few months after she was arrested, which made it a bigger reason why black leaders didn’t believe she would be the right face for the movement.10
Once they finally decided who was going to be the face of the movement, the civil rights leaders decided to pull out all their best cards to help promote their cause. First, after Rosa Parks was arrest for protesting the segregation in the Montgomery’s bus system, civil rights and community leaders immediately began to organize their protest with a one-day boycott of Montgomery’s public system that would take place on December 5—the same day as Park’s trial—and sending out flyers about what had happened to Rosa Parks. Although the district court found Rosa Park guilty, the bus boycott was proven successful. The organizers met again that same day and they decided to extend the boycott to send a message to the local government. This move helped reduce the revenues for the bus system since nearly three-fourths of all passengers were black. At the same time the boycott was occurring, civil rights lawyers came together on behalf of four women to file against the segregation of the bus system. Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith served as plaintiffs or petitioners in a legal case challenging Montgomery’s segregated public transportation system.11 On November 15, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling that public buses in Alabama could no longer segregate passengers according to race, and blacks and whites were now able to sit in whatever seat without having to worry about breaking laws or city ordinance. This very campaign was the first major success that the Civil Rights movement had accomplished, and it was the campaign that changed America as we know it.12
Claudette Colvin is now an 81-year-old retired American nurse aide who lives in the Bronx, New York. She can still remember what happened that fateful day on March 2, 1955 when she climbed on the bus home from high school.
I would like to thank several individuals who helped me throughout this process. I’m grateful for all the support my friends Yairy and Chiara have given me in my writing process and in motivating me to finish my article. I’d like to thank my former high school history teacher Ms. Hibbert for giving me great advice on who I could write about surrounding my topic. I’d also like to thank Daniela Durán for giving me best advice when it came to how I should approach my storyboard. She made it easier for me to figure out how I was going to write my story. Lastly, I’d like to thank Dr. Whitener for giving me this opportunity to help develop and improve my writing skills.
Civil Rights Movement
I am a Criminology major at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, Class of 2024. I was born and raised here in San Antonio, Texas. I am passionate about anything involving history and teaching individuals about the great achievements people of color have done in the past. I also enjoy giving a helping hand to others whenever they are struggling, spending time with friends and family, and listening to music.Author Portfolio Page
I really enjoyed reading this article about the story of Rosa Parks. I knew that Rosa Parks was not the original person who refused to give up her seat but I was never able to hear their side of the story. Although making Rosa Parks the face of the Civil Rights Movement was smart for the overall picture, I think it is also important to recognize the bravery of Colvin. It also amazes me how she is still alive today, highlighting how these events were more recent than it seems.