Claudette Colvin Refused to Give Up Her Bus Seat Nine Months Before Rosa Parks

The Alabama teenager didn’t budge when she was told to vacate her seat for a white woman and joined a lawsuit that brought an end to her city's segregated bus laws, but she received little recognition at the time for her efforts.
By Tim Ott ,

In 1955, a Black woman refused to yield her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was removed from the bus and arrested, her ordeal sparking legal action that led to the end of Alabama's segregated bus laws and enabled a widespread civil rights movement to pick up steam.

You may think you know the story, but this one isn't about Rosa Parks — it's about Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old who made a stand against entrenched segregation nine months before Parks did, but saw her shining moment eclipsed as other narratives of the era took root in the public consciousness.

Colvin sought to counter racial injustice at an early age

Born in September 1939, Colvin was raised by her great-aunt and uncle in rural Pine Level, Alabama, before moving to Montgomery at age 8.

A bright, inquisitive child, she quickly caught on to the racial divisions that were more glaring than they had been in close-knit Pine Level, with the visual and verbal cues apparent throughout the bustling city serving to keep Blacks in their lane.

That didn't mean she was willing to go along with the status quo, however. Colvin was angered by the case of Jeremiah Reeves, an older classmate at Booker T. Washington High School who was indicted in 1952 — and later executed — for allegedly raping a white woman.

Colvin went on to join the NAACP Youth Council and took to flaunting her natural hair in defiance of the pressures to have it straightened. And after getting a lesson on Black heroes like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth in the early weeks of 1955, she was more than ready to make her own mark on history.

She was arrested on the way home from school

On March 2, Colvin was riding the bus home from school when the familiar order came from the driver to vacate a row of seats to accommodate a white woman.

Three of her classmates got up but Colvin didn't budge, informing the two officers who soon boarded that she knew her constitutional rights. They responded by roughly yanking the teen off the bus and handcuffing her in the back of a squad car, subjecting her to lewd comments as they made their way to the city jail.

The urgency of the situation sank in with the heavy sound of her cell door being locked, and Colvin sat alone in her cramped space, crying and praying until her mother and the family pastor arrived to bail her out a few hours later.

Colvin wasn't considered a proper symbol for a city-wide boycott

Colvin's plight caught the attention of local Black leaders, who helped secure the legal representation that led to most of the charges being dropped.

The leaders considered using her example as justification for a city-wide bus boycott, but something wasn't right — she was too young and "emotional" to serve as the rallying figure for what was certain to be a turbulent movement. When it was revealed that Colvin had been impregnated by an older man later that summer, it seemingly confirmed the sentiment that she was the wrong person for the moment.

The "right" person arrived when Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress and NAACP secretary, made headlines for her arrest on December 1, prompting the launch of the Montgomery bus boycott the following day and the national rise of its charismatic leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Claudette Colvin in 2020

Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Tory Burch Foundation

She became a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle

Largely left to handle the fallout of her actions alone in a community that viewed her as a troublemaker, Colvin was pulled back into the fray in early 1956 alongside three other women — Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith — who experienced similar mistreatment on a bus.

The four were named plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, a federal lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of Montgomery's segregation laws. A three-judge panel ruled in their favor in June, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision in November, a ruling that gave legal teeth to the resistance and ultimately rendered the boycott a success.

Despite her immeasurable contributions to the cause, Colvin continued to find life in Alabama difficult in the years after her fateful bus ride. She moved to New York at the end of the decade and decided to remain there for good after King's assassination in 1968.

Colvin's story remained mostly unknown for decades

An anonymous figure in the massive melting pot of New York City, Colvin worked in a Manhattan nursing home until her retirement in 2004, her neighbors and co-workers mostly oblivious to her history.

That history eventually came out in bits and pieces; New York Governor Mario Cuomo awarded her the MLK Jr. Medal of Freedom in 1990, and in 2009, she was the subject of Phillip Hoose's Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, which won a National Book Award.

Colvin has since told reporters that she understands the politics that made Parks the face of the boycott, though she wonders why more attention hasn't been paid to Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that set the tone for many of the battles that followed.

With March 2 now known as Claudette Colvin Day in Montgomery, and the city unveiling granite markers to commemorate Colvin and her three co-plaintiffs in late 2019, it seems more recognition is finally coming for the overlooked hero who helped set the wheels of a new era in motion.

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