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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 80)
OccupationCivil rights activist, nurse aide
Years active1969–2004 (as nurse aide)

Claudette Colvin (born September 5, 1939)[1] is a retired American nurse aide who was a pioneer of the 1950s 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. This occurred nine months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.[2]

Colvin was one of five plaintiffs in the first 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. In a United States district court, she testified before the three-judge panel that heard the case. 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's ruling on November 13, 1956. One month later, the Supreme Court affirmed the order to Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation. The Montgomery bus boycott was then 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 impregnated by a married man.[3][4] 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."[5][6] It is widely accepted that Colvin was not accredited by the civil rights campaigners at the time due to her pregnancy shortly after the incident, with even Rosa Parks saying "If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have [had] a field day. They'd call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn't have a chance." [3]

Early life

Colvin was born September 5, 1939. Her parents, Mary Jane Gadson and C.P. Austin were not able to financially support Claudette, so she was adopted by Mary Anne and Q.P. Colvin, great aunt and uncle to Mary Jane Gadson.[7] She grew up in a poor black neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama.[8]

She went to Booker T Washington High School. Colvin was also a member of the NAACP Youth Council, where she formed a close relationship with her mentor, Rosa Parks.[9]

Bus incident

In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city.[10] 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.[11] 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 "white seats" in the front of the bus were filled until white people were 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.[12][13][14] This event took place nine months before the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was famously arrested for the same offense.[5] Colvin later said: "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".[6] Colvin did not receive the same attention as Parks for a number of reasons: she did not have ‘good hair’, she was not fair skinned, she was a teenager, she got pregnant. The leaders in the Civil Rights Movement tried to keep up appearances and make the ‘most appealing’ protesters the most seen. Recognition is due for the other people who participated in the movement.[15] Aetonormativity contributed to the decision to make Rosa Parks the face of the movement.[16]

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.[17] 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”.[18] 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".[19]

"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."[20] Colvin recalled, "History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other."[21] Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated.[5][13] Claudette Colvin said, "But I made a personal statement, too, one that [Parks] didn't make and probably couldn't have made. Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one."

The police officers who took her to the station made inappropriate comments about her body and took turns guessing her bra size throughout the ride. [22]

Price testified for Colvin, who was tried in juvenile court. Colvin was initially charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and battering and assaulting a police officer.[20] "There was no assault," Price said.[20] She was bailed out by her minister, who told her that she had brought the revolution to Montgomery.[23]

Through the trial Colvin was represented by Fred Gray, a lawyer for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which was organizing civil rights actions.[24] She was convicted on all three charges in juvenile court. When Colvin's case was appealed to the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955, the charges of disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws were dropped, although her conviction for assaulting a police officer was upheld.[24]

Colvin's moment of activism was not solitary or random. In high school, she had high ambitions of political activity. She dreamed of becoming the president of the United States. Her political inclination was fueled in part by an incident with her schoolmate, Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves was found having sex with a white woman who claimed she was raped though Reeves claims their relations were consensual. He was executed for his alleged crimes.[25]

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. Jeanetta Reese later resigned from the case. The case, organized and filed in federal court by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, challenged city bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama as unconstitutional.[26] 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."[17] Momentum on the case started to slow down until stopping after finding out that Claudette Colvin was several months pregnant and has been prone to outbursts and cursing.[27] Therefore the case was dropped and a boycott and legal case never materialized.

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.[28]

The Montgomery bus boycott was able to unify the people of Montgomery, regardless of educational background or class.[29]

Life after activism

Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond in March 1956. He was light-skinned (like his father) and people frequently assumed his father was Elliot Klein who was a very prominent white male in the Montgomery community who was known for sympathizing with black people.[citation needed] Elliot later admitted to being the father of the child, but nobody believed him.[citation needed] Colvin left Montgomery for New York City in 1958,[14] 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.[28] 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.[26]

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, from 1969 till retiring in 2004. 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.[11]

Colvin was not the only woman of the Civil Rights Movement who was left out of the history books. In the south, male ministers made up the overwhelming majority of leaders. This was partially a product of the outward face the NAACP was trying to broadcast and partially a product of the women fearing losing their jobs which were often in the public school system.[30]

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."[31] "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."[28]

On May 20, 2018 Congressman Joe Crowley honored Colvin for her lifetime commitment to public service with a Congressional Certificate and an American flag.[32]


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."[33]

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.”[34]

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.[35]

“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.”[35]

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."[36]

Colvin's role has not gone completely unrecognized. Councilman Larkin's sister was on the bus in 1955 when Colvin was arrested. In the 2010s, Larkin arranged for a street to be named after Colvin.[37]  

Later, 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.[37]

In 2019 a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in Montgomery, Alabama, and four granite markers were also unveiled near the statue on the same day to honor four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, including Colvin.[38][39][40]

In culture

Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove memorialized Colvin in her poem "Claudette Colvin Goes To Work"[41], 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.[42]

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.[43]

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.[44]

See also


  1. ^ "Claudette Colvin". Retrieved 2018-01-29.
  2. ^ "Before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin Stayed in Her Bus Seat". 2012-03-21. Archived from the original on 2019-11-22. Retrieved 2019-05-26.
  3. ^ a b Staff, Guardian (2000-12-16). "Weekend: Civil rights heroine Claudette Colvin". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-10-24.
  4. ^ Kramer, Sarah Kate (March 2, 2015). "Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus". NPR. Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c Brookes Barnes (November 26, 2009). "From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History". The New York Times.
  6. ^ a b Hoose, Phillip (2009). Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice. Melanie Kroupa Books. ISBN 978-1429948210.[page needed]
  7. ^ Gordon, Samantha. “Power Dynamics of a Segregated City: Class, Gender, and Claudette Colvin's Struggle for Equality.” Digital Commons @ Sarah Lawrence, 2015,
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Garrow, David J. “The Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Southern Changes, vol. 7, Oct. 1985, pp. 21–27.,
  10. ^ "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.
  11. ^ a b Adler, Margot. "Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin". NPR. March 15, 2009. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  12. ^ 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]
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ a b Younge, Gary (2000-12-16). "She would not be moved". The Guardian. London.
  15. ^ Adler, Margot. “Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin.”, National Public Radio Inc, 15 Mar. 2009,
  16. ^ “INTERSECTIONALITIES AND MULTIPLICITIES: Race and Materiality in Literature for the Young.” Twenty-First-Century Feminisms in Children's and Adolescent Literature, by ROBERTA SEELINGER TRITES, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2018, pp. 31–58. JSTOR,
  17. ^ a b Brinkley, Douglas (2000). Rosa Parks. Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-89160-3.
  18. ^ Addler, Morgot. "Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin". National Public Radio. Retrieved 12 May 2014.
  19. ^ Barnes, Brooks (2009-11-25). "No Longer a Civil Rights Footnote: Claudette Colvin". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-10-27.
  20. ^ a b c Dawkins, Amanda (2005-02-07). "'Unsung hero' of boycott paved way for Parks". The Huntsville Times. p. 6B.
  21. ^ Hoose, Phillip. ""Claudette Colvin: First to keep her seat". Philadelphia Tribune.
  22. ^ Gordon, Samantha. “Power Dynamics of a Segregated City: Class, Gender, and Claudette Colvin's Struggle for Equality.” Digital Commons @ Sarah Lawrence, 2015,
  23. ^ "Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin". Retrieved 2017-09-17.
  24. ^ a b "Colvin, Claudette (1935- ) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". Retrieved 2018-04-13.
  25. ^ Cotton, Nzinga (30 June 2008). "Claudette Colvin". New Nation: 21 – via ProQuest.
  26. ^ a b "Claudette Colvin Biography". Bio. Retrieved February 8, 2016.
  27. ^ "Browder v. Gayle: The Women Before Rosa Parks". Teaching Tolerance. 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  28. ^ a b c Spratling, Cassandra (2005-11-16). "2 other bus boycott heroes praise Parks' acclaim". Chicago Tribune. p. 2.
  29. ^ Carson, Carlborn. “To Walk in Dignity: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 19, no. 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 13–15. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/maghis/19.1.13.
  30. ^ Garrow, David J. “In Honor of Fred Gray: The Meaning of Montgomery.” Case Western Review Law Review , vol. 67, no. 4, 2017, pp. 1045–1053.
  31. ^ Kitchen, Sebastian (2005-02-04). "Colvin helped light flame of civil rights". Montgomery Advertiser. p. 1.
  32. ^ "Chairman Crowley Honors Civil Rights Pioneer Claudette Colvin". Queens Gazette. May 30, 2018. Retrieved 2020-05-16.
  33. ^ Kitchen, Sebastian. "Claudette Colvin". Montgomery Advertiser. The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Retrieved February 8, 2016.
  34. ^ "The Other Rosa Parks: Now 73, Claudette Colvin Was First to Refuse Giving Up Seat on Montgomery Bus". Democracy Now!. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
  35. ^ a b "Claudette Colvin Seeks Greater Recognition For Role In Making Civil Rights History". Retrieved 2017-11-03.
  36. ^ Younge, Gary (2000-12-16). "Weekend: Civil rights heroine Claudette Colvin". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
  37. ^ a b "Claudette Colvin honored by Montgomery council". The Montgomery Advertiser. Retrieved 2017-11-03.
  38. ^ "Browder v. Gayle, 352 U.S. 903 | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute". Retrieved 2019-12-09.
  39. ^ "Alabama unveils statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks | Richmond Free Press | Serving the African American Community in Richmond, VA". Richmond Free Press. 2019. Retrieved 2019-12-09.
  40. ^ "Rosa Parks statue unveiled in Alabama on anniversary of her refusal to give up seat". WJLA. Retrieved 2019-12-09.
  41. ^ "Claudette Colvin Goes to Work". May 12, 2017. Retrieved Aug 25, 2019.
  42. ^ "John McCutcheon sings Rita Dove's "Claudette Colvin"". Retrieved Aug 25, 2019 – via
  43. ^ "Drunk History" Montgomery, AL (TV Episode 2014), retrieved 2018-02-01
  44. ^ 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 23 July 2020, at 20:10
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