Black History Month: Claudette Colvin

We all learned about Rosa Parks in school – the woman who ‘sat’ for civil rights. But what if I told you that Rosa Parks wasn’t actually the first woman who refused to give up her seat. What if I said Claudette Colvin did the same thing 9 months prior and received little recognition for it.

In 1939, Claudette Colvin was born in Montgomery, Alabama – a state known for its racial hatred, and Colvin fought against it at just 15 years old. On March 2, 1955, she left school and was riding home on a city bus when the driver told her to give her seat to a white woman. She refused, saying, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.” Colvin was arrested for violating city segregation laws.

Photo by NPR

She later told Newsweek, "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.” That night, Colvin and her family stayed up all night, scared that white people would retaliate. And they did. Besides the court placing her on probation (which was considered a light sentence), she gained a reputation as a troublemaker. This forced her to drop out of college and made it impossible to find a job.

At the time, Colvin’s act wasn’t viewed as courageous but rather defiant. But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognized Colvin’s bravery and how it could be useful to end segregation. They wanted to use Colvin’s story specifically to fight Alabama’s segregation laws, but the organization decided against it because Colvin was so young and had become pregnant. The NAACP thought an unwed mother would negatively shift the focus off the case.

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

So, Colvin was given little recognition for pioneering the bus boycotts. On a positive note, she did become one of four plaintiffs for Browder v. Gayle. The 1956 case ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus laws were unconstitutional. After the case, Colvin moved to NYC where she worked as a nurse’s aide in Manhattan for 35 years. Colvin is now 79 years old.

Every time I get the chance to bring up Claudette Colvin, I take it. It is a disservice that Colvin doesn’t get the recognition she deserves for starting a major anti-segregation civil rights movement. She definitely deserves way more than a short article written by me.

Info via Biography