Claudette Colvin – The Uncredited 15 Year Old Hero

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Claudette Colvin (born September 5, 1939) 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 some 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.

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. She testified before the three-judge panel that heard the case in a 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’s ruling on December 17, 1956.

Three days 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. 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.” 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.” 

Early life

The daughter of Mary Jane Gadson and C. P. Austin, Claudette was born Claudette Austin.

Her parents 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.  Colvin was born

September 5, 1939. She grew up in a poor black neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama. 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. 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 overseer: Rosa Parks.

Bus incident

In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the

city. 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. 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. This event took place nine months before the

NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was famously arrested for the same offense. 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”.  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. Aetonormativity contributed

to the decision to make Rosa Parks the face of the movement.

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. 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”. 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”.

“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.” 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.” Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and

forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being

violated. 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. 

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. “There was no assault,” Price said. She was bailed out by her minister, who told her

that she had brought the revolution to Montgomery.

Through the trial Colvin was represented by Fred Gray, a lawyer for the Montgomery

Improvement Association (MIA), which was organizing civil rights actions. 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.

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.

Main article: 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. 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.” 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. 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.

The Montgomery bus boycott was able to unify the people of Montgomery, regardless of

educational background or class.

Bio credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudette_Colvin

 

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4 thoughts on “Claudette Colvin – The Uncredited 15 Year Old Hero

  1. God bless her. Two states at that time…Alabama and Mississippi in particular were just awful. Not that the others were much or any better.
    I do wish she could have gotten more credit because that is bravery any way you cut it.