Claudette Colvin (1939- ) is best known for her arrest after refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus some nine months before Rosa Parks did so and set off the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Colvin was a plaintiff in the federal case filed by attorney Fred Gray in February 1956. Colvin was generally denied her place in civil rights history for many decades because at the time of her arrest, she was a teenager, and the middle-aged married Rosa Parks was seen as a more socially acceptable public figure for the movement.
Claudette Colvin, 1953 Claudette Austin was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, to Mary Jane Gadson and C. P. Austin on September 5, 1939. Her father abandoned the family, which included a sister, when she was a small child, and the two girls went to live in Pine Level, Montgomery County, with an aunt and uncle, Mary Anne and Q. P. Colvin. Both children took the Colvin name as their last name at this time. When Colvin was eight, the family moved to Montgomery, and she attended public schools there. In 1952, Colvin’s younger sister died of polio, causing Colvin to struggle in her classes at Booker T. Washington High School. At this time, she joined the NAACP Youth Council, for which Parks served as a mentor. The Youth Councils were founded in 1935 with the goal of training the next generation of civil rights activists and included chapters for junior high, high school, and college students.
On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin boarded a bus at Bibb and Commerce Streets in Montgomery, an ordinary ritual but one that provided daily humiliations for the city’s African American population. She had been studying Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman in school and had recently written an essay about the discrimination faced by African American teenagers. Additionally, a classmate had just been arrested on false charges of raping a white woman (and was eventually executed for the crime). These things were fresh in her mind as she took a seat in the middle of the bus. As increasing numbers of white passengers began to board, she and an older African American woman were ordered to give up their seats and move toward the back. They both refused, but when the driver stopped the bus to find a police officer, the older woman capitulated while Colvin stayed put.
When two Montgomery police officers arrived, Colvin still refused to move. Arguing that she had paid her fare, Colvin—who dreamed of becoming an attorney and was known by her family for her ability to argue—told the officers that she had a constitutional right to sit anywhere on the bus, just as white passengers did. As the officers swore at her and hit her with a nightstick, Colvin was dragged off the bus and later arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and violating the city’s segregation laws.
Riding on the city’s buses was a daily affront to African Americans, but the arrest of Colvin and her treatment by police affected the city’s black population in a way that earlier incidents had not. Women, in particular, were horrified by the news that a 15-year-old girl had been arrested. Rosa Parks, who would make history later that year for her own act of resistance on a Montgomery bus, was a friend of Colvin’s mother and was particularly moved by the young girl’s arrest.
There had been many discussions within the black community about boycotting the buses before, but divisions and fears within it had thus far prevented a boycott from taking place. Many of the people most involved in the city’s emerging civil rights leadership were middle class and didn’t use the buses, and many of the laborers and domestics who did were fearful of losing their jobs if they challenged the system. Many of the people involved in civil rights organizations were teachers or professors whose livelihoods were ostensibly safer, but as their jobs were state-funded, an arrest could easily mean termination. Such practical considerations left the city’s African American leadership divided on how—and whether—to challenge the city’s segregated buses. For a moment, at least, there was a flicker of unity as black Montgomerians shared anger over Colvin’s arrest.
Claudette Colvin, 2009 Despite the initial support from the community, the teenager soon found herself shunned by some. According to Colvin, in the days after the arrest, she and her mother began contacting various women’s organizations as well as the NAACP about legal options. Regarding a possible boycott, an option that had been considered for many months, Colvin and her mother were told that a different “face” would be necessary to ensure the boycott had public support. E. D. Nixon, a longtime civil rights leader in Montgomery, had been looking for a suitable person to voluntarily defy the city’s segregated buses for some time, but Colvin, he felt, was not that person. She was too young, and when she became pregnant later that year, Nixon decided that someone more in line with the more conservative social mores of the time was needed. Nixon and other leaders believed that for a challenge to the system to be successful, anyone who defied the city would have to be of unimpeachable character. Colvin would later say that she believed Nixon’s decision was made because she and her family were not part of the city’s black middle class and were outside the inner circle of its activists.
In December of that year, Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger. It was Parks, a known and respected member of the community, whose arrest ultimately sparked the boycott and who would come to be seen as a catalyst of the movement. In the years following the boycott, Colvin’s earlier activism and arrest would virtually be forgotten.
With the boycott underway, tensions in Montgomery were high. Mayor William “Tacky” Gayle called for a tougher approach to dealing with boycotters and shortly afterward, white supremacists bombed Martin Luther King Jr.‘s home. Negotiations with the city were going nowhere and a growing number of the boycott’s leaders had become convinced that other strategies were necessary. After King’s home was bombed, the Montgomery Improvement Association called on Fred Gray to initiate a federal lawsuit. Gray, 25 years old and only recently out of law school, had recently returned to his native Montgomery with a determination to challenge segregation in whatever way he could.
On February 1, 1956, Gray filed the case challenging city and Alabama bus segregation laws. He drew on incidents of discrimination on the buses that preceded Parks’s arrest, including Colvin’s mistreatment. The case, Browder v. Gayle, centered on the treatment of four African American women—Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Colvin—on the city buses but pointedly did not include Parks. Gray wanted the court to focus on only one issue—whether Montgomery and Alabama laws that required segregated buses were constitutional—and knew that Parks’s criminal case should be a separate issue. The three-judge panel that heard the case ruled in June of that year that city and Alabama laws maintaining segregated buses violated the U.S. Constitution, specifically the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The city appealed the decision, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, a decision that ended segregation in Montgomery’s buses.
After the boycott, Colvin and her family moved to New York, where she remained for 50 years before moving back to Alabama in 2004. She worked as a nurse’s aide, and it was only after she retired that she began to speak more openly about her actions, often speaking at schools about that day in 1955. In recent years, Colvin’s role in the early days of the movement has garnered more attention, although she is still frequently overlooked in accounts of the boycott. In 2016, she and her family pushed for more content on her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
A street in Montgomery was named for her and March 2, 2017, was designated Claudette Colvin Day by the city. In 2018, Congressman Joe Crowley of New York issued a Congressional Certificate to Colvin recognizing her public service contributions. In December 2019, Colvin was included on one of four granite historical markers dedicated along with the Rosa Parks statue on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery. In late 2022, Colvin petitioned the Montgomery Circuit Court to expunge her 1955 arrest record, and on December 16, 2022, Montgomery Circuit Court judge Calvin Williams cleared her of all charges.
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Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks: A Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Gaillard, Frye. Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Olson, Lynne. Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement From 1830 to 1970. New York: Scribner, 2001.