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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.”
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.
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
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
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
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.