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Claudette Colvin

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Claudette Colvin
Claudette Colvin.jpg
Colvin in 1954
Born (1939-09-05) September 5, 1939 (age 79)
ResidenceThe Bronx, New York
OccupationCivil rights activist, nurse aide
Years active1969–2004 as nurse aide
Children2; one deceased

Claudette Colvin (born September 5, 1939)[1] is an American nurse and was a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. On March 2, 1955, she was arrested at the age of 15 in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus. Colvin acted a few months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, played the lead role, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began that year.

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, to challenge bus segregation in the city. 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 on appeal by the state, and it upheld the District Court 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. She was an unmarried teenager at the time, and was reportedly pregnant by a married man.[2] Colvin has said, "Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn't the case at all."[3][4] Her case did help the cause, however.

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It’s March 2nd, 1955 and the bus going through Highland Gardens in Montgomery, Alabama is filling up quickly. The larger, whites-only section is nearly full and the “colored” section in the back has few seats remaining as well. After letting passengers on at the latest stop, a young white woman is left with no place to sit. The busdriver, acting with the authority of a police officer as per city ordinance, tells four African-Americans seated in the front row of the colored section to move back. For this one white woman to sit, they would all have to move. It is illegal for whites and blacks to even sit in the same row. Three of the black passengers move, but the last one remains. This is not Rosa Parks. Mrs. Parks refusal to give up her seat would not happen for another 9 months. Sitting firmly, steadfastly is a 15-year-old Claudette Colvin. She’s told, commanded again to move by an increasingly hostile bus driver. “It’s my constitutional right!” she declares back at him. What was going through young Claudette’s head at that time? Perhaps it was the previous years’ Brown v Board of Ed decision which ruled Jim Crow, separate-but-equal segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. Perhaps it was her school’s celebration of what was then called Negro History Week for the entire month of February. That month she learned about African American activists like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, recent heroes like Jackie Robinson and Marian Anderson, and for the first time, African history. Perhaps it was her fifteen years of using segregated bathrooms, drinking from segregated fountains, and having to bring a tracing of her foot to go shoe shopping because she wasn’t allowed to try them on before purchase. Whatever it was, Claudette Colvin was not moving. Later she said that she couldn’t. “History had me glued to that seat. Sojourner Truth’s hand was pushing me down on one shoulder, and Harriet Tubman was pushing me down on the other.” But she would be moved. Police officers would board the bus, grabbing her, manhandling her, and dragging her off. 15-year-old Claudette would be arrested and brought, not to a juvenile facility, but to the city jail where she would wait hours for her mother and pastor to pick her up. She was charged and later convicted of assault and battery, disorderly conduct, and violating a city ordinance. But she continued to fight, appealing the decision. Her case, combined with the cases of three other African American women, would be known as Browder v. Gayle, the result of which was a ruling that Alabama’s segregated buses were unconstitutional. It was this case that integrated the buses and ended the need for the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. But then why was it Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat that started the Bus Boycott and not Claudette’s It could be that Claudette within a year of her refusal to give up her seat, became pregnant. A pregnant, unwed teenager in the 1950s would be a challenging figure to base such a movement on. Rosa Parks, on the other hand, was mature and poised, a NAACP secretary, trained in non-violent protest. Still, Claudette paved the way for the modern Civil RIghts Movement. Her act of protest convinced local groups as well as a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. to stage the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, committed her act of defiance deliberately, to challenge and draw attention to a grossly unjust law. Claudette Colvin was too young to think about the consequence of her action. She simply refused to move because she knew it was wrong. And in that instance, she showed how young people can truly change the world. Welcome back class. I’m is Mr. Betts and that was the amazing true story of Claudette Colvin. If you want to learn more about her, why don’t you check out “Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice.” I’ll leave an affiliate link for it down in the description. And if you’re new here, make sure you subscribe because I put out new history videos every Thursday, and there’s a lot to learn but we’re going to learn it together. Be safe, and I’ll see you next time.


Early life

Colvin was born September 5, 1939, and was adopted by C.P Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin. She grew up in a poor black neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama.[5] In 1943, at the age of four, Colvin 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 their colors. Seeing this, her mother slapped her in the face and told her that she was not allowed to touch the white boys.[4]

Bus incident

In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city.[6] She relied on the city's buses to get to and from school, because her parents did not own a car. The majority of customers on the bus system were African American, but they were discriminated against by its custom of segregated seating. She said that she aspired to be President one day. Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and had been learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school.[7] On March 2, 1955, she was returning home from school. She sat in the colored section about two seats away from an emergency exit, in a Capitol Heights bus.

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 nearby seats to make room for whites, move further to the back, and stand in the aisle if there were no free seats in that section. When a white woman who got on the bus was left standing in the front, 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 another 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 to move. She was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested by the two policemen, Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley.[8][9][10] This event took place nine months before the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was famously arrested for the same offense.[3] 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".[4]

When Colvin refused to get up, she was thinking about a school paper she had written that day about the local custom that prohibited blacks from using the dressing rooms in order to try on clothes in department stores.[11] 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”.[12] Referring to the segregation on the bus and the white woman: "She couldn't sit in the same row as us because that would mean we were as good as her".[13]

"The bus was getting crowded, and I remember the bus driver looking through the rear view mirror asking her [Colvin] to get up for the white woman, which she didn't," said Annie Larkins Price, a classmate of Colvin. "She had been yelling, 'It's my constitutional right!'. She decided on that day that she wasn't going to move."[14] Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated.[3][9]

Price testified for Colvin, who was tried in juvenile court. Colvin was initially charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and assault.[14] "There was no assault," Price said.[14] She was bailed out by her minister, who told her that she had brought the revolution to Montgomery.[15]

Through the trial Colvin was represented by Fred Gray, a lawyer for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which was organizing civil rights actions.[16] When Colvin's case was brought to the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955, the charges of disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws were dropped.[16]

Browder v. Gayle

Together with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese, Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle. The case, organized and filed in federal court by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, challenged city bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama as unconstitutional.[17] 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."[11]

Browder v. Gayle made its way through the courts. 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 public bus segregation as unconstitutional. State and local officials appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court summarily affirmed the District Court 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.[18]

Life after activism

Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond. He was light-skinned (like his father) and people frequently assumed his father was Elliot Klein (a very prominent white male in the Montgomery community who sympathized with blacks) and they were right. Elliot likely had European ancestry among more distant ancestors. Elliot later admitted to being the father of the child but nobody believed him. Colvin left Montgomery for New York City in 1958,[10] because she had difficulty finding and keeping work following her participation in the federal court case that overturned bus segregation. Similarly, Rosa Parks left Montgomery for Detroit in 1957.[18] Colvin said that after her actions on the bus, she was branded a troublemaker by many in her community. She had to drop out of college and struggled in the local environment.[17]

In New York, the young Claudette Colvin and her son Raymond initially lived with her older sister, Velma Colvin. Claudette got a job as a nurse's aide in a nursing home in Manhattan. She worked there for 35 years, retiring in 2004. She never married. While living in New York, she had a second son. He gained an education and became an accountant in Atlanta, where he also married and had his own family. Raymond Colvin died in 1993 in New York of a heart attack, aged 37.


Colvin was a predecessor to the Montgomery bus boycott movement of 1955, which gained national attention. But she rarely told her story after moving to New York City. The discussions in the black community began to focus on black enterprise rather than integration, although national civil rights legislation did not pass until 1964 and 1965. NPR's Margot Adler has said that black organizations believed that Rosa Parks would be a better figure for a test case for integration because she was an adult, had a job, and had a middle-class appearance. They felt she had the maturity to handle being at the center of potential controversy.[7]

In 2005, Colvin told the Montgomery Advertiser that she would not have changed her decision to remain seated on the bus: "I feel very, very proud of what I did," she said. "I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on."[19] "I'm not disappointed. 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."[18]

Colvin has often said she is not angry that she did not get more recognition; rather, she is disappointed. She said she felt as if she was "getting her Christmas in January rather than the 25th."[20]

Seeking recognition

In an interview, Colvin said,

“I don’t think there’s room for many more icons. I think that history only has room enough for certain—you know, how many icons can you choose? So, you know, I think you compare history, like—most historians say Columbus discovered America, and it was already populated. But they don’t say that Columbus discovered America; they should say, for the European people, that is, you know, their discovery of the new world.”[21]

Colvin and her family have been fighting for recognition for her action. In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution and its National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) were challenged by Colvin and her family, who asked that Colvin be given a more prominent mention in the history of the civil rights movement. The NMAAHC has a section dedicated to Rosa Parks, which Colvin does not want taken away, but her family's goal is to get the historical record right, and for officials to include Colvin's part of history. Colvin was not invited officially for the formal dedication of the museum, which opened to the public in September 2016.[22]

“All we want is the truth, why does history fail to get it right?” Colvin's sister, Gloria Laster, said. “Had it not been for Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith there may not have been a Thurgood Marshall, a Martin Luther King or a Rosa Parks.”[22]

In 2000, Troy State University opened a Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery to honor the town's place in civil rights history. Roy White, who was in charge of most of the project, asked Colvin if she would like to appear in a video to tell her story, but Colvin refused. She said, "They've already called it the Rosa Parks museum, so they've already made up their minds what the story is."[23]

Colvin's role has not gone completely unrecognized. Rev. Joseph Rembert said, “If nobody did anything for Claudette Colvin in the past why don’t we do something for her right now?” He reached out to Montgomery Councilmen Charles Jinright and Tracy Larkin to make it happen. In 2017, the Montgomery Council passed a resolution for a proclamation honoring Colvin. March 2 was named Claudette Colvin day in Montgomery. Mayor Todd Strange presented the proclamation and, when speaking of Colvin, said, “She was an early foot soldier in our civil rights, and we did not want this opportunity to go by without declaring March 2 as Claudette Colvin Day to thank her for her leadership in the modern day civil rights movement.” Rembert said, “I know people have heard her name before, but I just thought we should have a day to celebrate her.” Colvin could not attend the proclamation due to health concerns.[24]

Councilman Larkin's sister was on the bus in 1955 when Colvin was arrested. A few years ago, Larkin arranged for a streetcar to be named after Colvin.[24]  

In culture

Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove memorialized Colvin in her poem "Claudette Colvin Goes To Work"[25], published in her 1999 book On the Bus with Rosa Parks; folk singer John McCutcheon turned this poem into a song, which was first publicly performed in Charlottesville, Virginia's Paramount Theater in 2006.[26]

In a 2014 episode of Drunk History about Montgomery, Alabama, Claudette Colvin's resistance on the bus was shown. She was played by Mariah Iman Wilson.[27]

In the second season (2013) of the HBO drama The Newsroom, the lead character, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), uses Colvin's refusal to comply with segregation as an example of how "one thing" can change everything. He remarks that if the ACLU had used her act of civil disobedience, rather than that of Rosa Parks' eight months later, to highlight the injustice of segregation, a young preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may never have attracted national attention, and America probably would not have had his voice for the Civil Rights Movement.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "Claudette Colvin". Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  2. ^ Kramer, Sarah Kate (March 2, 2015). "Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus". NPR. Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Brookes Barnes (November 26, 2009). "From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History". The New York Times.
  4. ^ a b c Hoose, Phillip (2009). Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice. Melanie Kroupa Books. ISBN 978-1-4299-4821-0.[page needed]
  5. ^ Blattman, Elissa "#ThrowbackThursday: The girl who acted before Rosa Parks" Archived 2016-07-29 at the Wayback Machine. National Women's History Museum. Retrieved February 9, 2016.
  6. ^ "Claudette Colvin: an unsung hero in the Montgomery Bus Boycott". Jet. FindArticles. 2005-02-28. Archived from the original on 2005-05-23. Retrieved 2009-11-27.
  7. ^ a b Adler, Margot. "Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin". NPR. March 15, 2009. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  8. ^ Greenhaw, Wayne (2007). Thunder of Angels : The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ a b Gray, Eliza (2009-03-02). "A Forgotten Contribution: Before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus". Newsweek. Archived from the original on April 1, 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-26. On March 2, 1955, nine months before Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a skinny, 15-year-old schoolgirl was yanked by both wrists and dragged off a very similar bus.
  10. ^ a b Younge, Gary (2000-12-16). "She would not be moved". London: The Guardian.
  11. ^ a b Brinkley, Douglas (2000). Rosa Parks. Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-89160-3.
  12. ^ Addler, Morgot. "Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin". National Public Radio. Retrieved 12 May 2014.
  13. ^ Barnes, Brooks (2009-11-25). "No Longer a Civil Rights Footnote: Claudette Colvin". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-10-27.
  14. ^ a b c Dawkins, Amanda (2005-02-07). "'Unsung hero' of boycott paved way for Parks". The Huntsville Times. p. 6B.
  15. ^ "Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin". Retrieved 2017-09-17.
  16. ^ a b "Colvin, Claudette (1935-   ) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". Retrieved 2018-04-13.
  17. ^ a b "Claudette Colvin Biography". Bio. Retrieved February 8, 2016.
  18. ^ a b c Spratling, Cassandra (2005-11-16). "2 other bus boycott heroes praise Parks' acclaim". Chicago Tribune. p. 2.
  19. ^ Kitchen, Sebastian (2005-02-04). "Colvin helped light flame of civil rights". Montgomery Advertiser. p. 1.
  20. ^ Kitchen, Sebastian. "Claudette Colvin". Montgomery Advertiser. The Mongomery Bus Boycott. Retrieved February 8, 2016.
  21. ^ "The Other Rosa Parks: Now 73, Claudette Colvin Was First to Refuse Giving Up Seat on Montgomery Bus". Democracy Now!. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
  22. ^ a b "Claudette Colvin Seeks Greater Recognition For Role In Making Civil Rights History". Retrieved 2017-11-03.
  23. ^ Younge, Gary (2000-12-16). "Weekend: Civil rights heroine Claudette Colvin". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
  24. ^ a b "Claudette Colvin honored by Montgomery council". The Montgomery Advertiser. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ "Drunk History" Montgomery, AL (TV Episode 2014), retrieved 2018-02-01
  28. ^ Eric Geller (2013-11-11), The Newsroom - Will McAvoy On Historical Hypotheticals, retrieved 2017-10-27

Further reading

  • Phillip Hoose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice. (2009). ISBN 0-374-31322-9.
  • Taylor Branch. New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Parting The Waters - American in the King Years 1954-63. (1988). ISBN 0-671-68742-5.

External links

This page was last edited on 4 April 2019, at 22:47
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