Meet Claudette Colvin – the 15-year-old school girl who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman
Unfortunately, not many know who Claudette Colvin was and instead is overshadowed by fellow Alabama-born activist Rosa Parks, who committed the same brave act nine months after the young civil rights activist. Fifteen-year-old Claudette might have been only a teenager but her act injected a lot of steam into the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The question that begs to be answered is: how come Claudette Colvin’s story often gets overshadowed by that of Rosa Parks’? And what became of Claudette Colvin after her daring act against racial injustice?
Below, World History Edu presents the life and major achievements of Claudette Colvin:
Claudette Colvin was born to C.P. Austin and Mary Jane Gadson on September 5, 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama. When Austin abandoned his family, Gadon had to send young Claudette and her sister, Delphine, to live with their great uncle and aunt, Mary Anne and Q.P. Colvin.
The Colvins adopted Claudette and Delphine, and the sisters took their last name. Together with her new family, she lived at Pine Level for most of her early childhood. Later, the family moved to King Hill.
Claudette lost Delphine to polio. She later enrolled at Booker T. Washington High School. While in school, she had to contend with a myriad of challenges and hardships. As she mourned the death of her sister, she also experienced the difficulties that Black Americans faced while living under the racist Jim Crow laws. Claudette saw her friend being sentenced to death for harmlessly flirting with a white girl. Desiring nothing more than to do something about the plight of African Americans, young Claudette aspired to be a lawyer, hoping she could defend her people and fight for their civil and economic rights.
In line with that dream, she became an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council and became a mentee of Rosa Parks, who would later follow in her footstep and refuse to give her seat up to a white passenger. Claudette also dreamed of going all the way and occupying the highest office in the land – the President of the United States.
Did you know?
Interestingly, Pine Level, which is a small country town in Montgomery County, was also where the civil rights activist Rosa Parks had once lived.
Fight Against Segregation & Arrest
Despite her distant dream of one day becoming a civil rights lawyer, Claudette Colvin got the opportunity to stand up against segregation much earlier than expected. On that fateful day, March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin, who was fifteen at the time, boarded a bus home from school. It was very common for African Americans to use the bus system, as many of them were poor and couldn’t afford personal vehicles. But segregation laws made bus riding extremely difficult and quite frankly a dangerous affair for them.
Perceived as second-class citizens, Black people were relegated to the back of buses while the whites sat in front. In instances where the buses were full and the white section had been filled up, any black person was expected to give up their seat for a white person.
During one of the stops, some white passengers boarded and filled the bus. Eventually, a white woman was left standing, and the driver, Robert W. Cleere ordered Claudette and three other black women to move to the back of the bus. The three other women moved but a pregnant black woman, Ruth Hamilton, chose to sit beside Claudette.
When Cleere demanded that Hamilton vacate her seat, the woman refused citing that she “didn’t feel like standing.” Claudette sided with her and refused to give up her seat. When Cleere called the police, officers Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley ordered a black male rider, who had been seated behind the two women, to move so that Hamilton could take his seat. Claudette still wouldn’t budge, insisting that she had every right to remain in her seat, as she had paid her fare just like all the other passengers. Eventually, she was escorted of the bus and promptly arrested.
Claudette later mentioned that her act had been inspired by what she’d learnt in school during Negro History Month. During that time, she had studied the lives of many black people that had accomplished extraordinary feats when it seemed impossible.
The teenager had been inspired by the heroic acts of Harriet Tubman, the African American activist who freed over many slaves using the Underground Railroad System, as well as Sojourner Truth, a prominent slave abolitionist.
No doubt Claudette Colvin feared for her life while on her way to jail. The two police men, Ward and Headley, made sexually suggestive remarks about her body, including her bra size. Allegations of sexual assault against black women by police officers was rife back then. Fortunately, nothing of that nature happened to Claudette. She was charged with disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws, and assaulting an officer of the law.
Her arrest brought caused a lot of fear and uproar in the African American community in Montgomery. Her uncle, Q.P. Colvin feared that the family would be target by the white supremacists groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In the months that followed, he spent the night with a loaded gun in case of any attacks.
Colvin’s arrest also sparked the interest of several black civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. In the meantime, her minister paid her bail and she was released. Eventually the first two charges leveled against her were dropped in juvenile court, but the third charge remained until it was dropped in 2021.
Why was Claudette Colvin Not as Famous as Rosa Parks?
Nine months after Claudette’s incident, on December I, 1955, her mentor Rosa Parks, who was a seamstress and secretary for the NAACP, also refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Like Claudette, Parks was also arrested and charged with violating Alabama’s bus segregation laws. In the case of Park, she was already sitting in the colored section in the back of the bus when she refused to give up her seat.
Parks’ arrest put in motion the plan to collectively protest against bus segregation in Montgomery, and thus she became the face of the civil rights movements. But why? Initially, Claudette had been considered to be the face of the movement. But they felt she was too young, and in her own words “too dark-skinned”. The teenager had also gotten pregnant while unmarried the following year.
To the leaders of civil rights movement back then, Mrs. Parks appeared to be the better fit. She was older, well-liked, and had received training by the NAACP on civil disobedience. Rosa Parks reportedly said this about Colvin’s condition: “If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have a field day. They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance.”
It was also claimed that there was some bit of enmity between the two women. It’s important to take those claims with a pinch of salt as Claudette once said in an interview that she often spent the night at Parks’ after NAACP Youth Council meetings. She also described Parks as “very kind and thoughtful.”
Read More: 8 Remarkable Achievements of Rosa Parks
How Claudette’s Arrest Changed Segregation Laws
But that wasn’t the end for the young Claudette. Her refusal to give up her seat and eventual arrest put the wind in the sails of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t the first time that a black person had stood up against the white laws, but it undoubtedly helped push the drive for equality through the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Claudette Colvin joined four other women – Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese – to file a lawsuit against bus segregation laws. All five women had one thing common: They had been discriminated against by drivers enforcing bus segregation laws in Montgomery. The plaintiffs were represented by Fred David Gray (born December 14, 1930), a distinguished African-American civil rights attorney and activist from Alabama.
Eventually, the case Browder v. Gayle (1956) went to court (the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama) in June 1956. The very high-profile case was heard before a three-judge panel that consisted of Northern District of Alabama Judge Seybourn Harris Lynne, Middle District of Alabama Judge Frank Minis Johnson, and Fifth Circuit Court of Appels Judge Richard Rives.
In the end, the court ruled, a 2-1 ruling, that Alabama’s bus segregation laws were unconstitutional, stating that the laws violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Officials of the State of Alabama and the city of Montgomery filed an appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). In a huge victory for the civil rights movement, the Supreme Court, on November 13 of that year, affirmed the decision of the Alabama District Court. That decision of the highest court in our nation effectively brought an to bus segregation in not just Montgomery and Alabama, but across the nation for good.
Recognition for Claudette Colvin
Claudette later said that she never got angry that Parks got more recognition than her. She did however express her disappointment that it took Parks’ incident to move the civil rights movement forward.
In a speech, she 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…”
Back in 2000, Claudette was asked to share her story in a video made in honor of Rosa Parks. That year, Troy State University in Alabama set up the Rosa Parks Museum in recognition of her works as an activist. Claudette refused to partake in the video saying that the university had already named the museum after Parks and knew the kind of story they wanted to tell.
In 2016, Claudette, together with her family, sent a request to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) under the Smithsonian Institution to give her more recognition in the African American fight for civil rights. The NMAAHC had dedicated a section of the museum to Rosa Parks, and when the museum opened in 2016, Claudette wasn’t invited to its dedication.
But several other people have recognized the role Claudette Colvin played in shaping the civil rights movements in America. In 2009, she attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the first Black US president.
The Montgomery Council declared March 2 as Claudette Colvin Day in Montgomery. Two years later, Claudette’s statue, along with the other plaintiffs from Browder v. Gayle as well as Parks were erected in Montgomery.
In 2021, Claudette’s assault charge was finally expunged. The court, presided over by Montgomery County Juvenile Judge Calvin Williams, ordered that the arrest records be destroyed, including all references to the arrest.
Daryl Bailey, the Montgomery County District Attorney, defended Claudette, stating that her actions on that fateful day were “conscientious, not criminal” that should be celebrated and not prosecuted.
Life After the Bus Incident
Claudette Colvin is regarded in US history as the first black person who protested against bus segregation. But despite not having the recognition that she deserved and falling pregnant at a young age, she lived a relatively normal life. She worked as a nurse in Manhattan, New York for 35 years and retired in 2004.
She had two children, Raymond and Randy. Sadly, Raymond died in 1993 after suffering a heart attack. Randy became an accountant. Claudette has four grandchildren through her second son.
Claudette Colvin in Popular Culture
Claudette’s experience in March 1955 inspired several pop culture phenomena. The Poet Laureate Rita Dove wrote “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work”, which featured in the book “On the Bus with Rosa Parks.” The poem was later made into a song by John McCutcheon and was performed in 2006 in Charlottesville, Pennsylvania.
Philip Hoose wrote “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice” in 2009. The book went on to win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. In 2021, Kaushay and Spencer Ford published a children’s picture book called “The Little Known Heroes: Claudette Colvin.”
On TV, Claudette was portrayed by American actress Mariah Iman Wilson on an episode about Montgomery on the show “Drunk History.” She was also mentioned in the series of “The Newsroom”, where the actor cited Claudette’s refusal to move from her seat as a way something small could make a big change.
In 2022, plans to film a biopic on Claudette Colvin were announced with the American actor Anthony Mackie sitting in the director’s chair.