When Rosa Parks refused on the afternoon of Dec. 1, 1955, to give up her bus seat so that a white man could sit, it is unlikely that she fully realized the forces she had set into motion and the controversy that would soon swirl around her.

Claudette Colvin

posted on: January 29, 2013
in: Uncategorized


One of the women who was arrested before Rosa Parks in 1955. On March 2, 1955, she, just as Parks had, openly refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery segregated bus to a white passenger. Her arrest preceded the arrest of Parks by nine months.

Claudette Colvin of Montgomery, Ala., is shown in this 1955 file photo. In 1955, Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, was arrested and convicted. Later, a boycott of buses by blacks helped launch the modern civil rights movement. (Montgomery Advertiser, File)

Claudette Colvin of Montgomery, Ala., is shown in this 1955 file photo. In 1955, Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, was arrested and convicted. Later, a boycott of buses by blacks helped launch the modern civil rights movement.
(Montgomery Advertiser, File)

She was only 15 years old at the time. At the time, she was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council.

Her act of civil defiance did not spark a bus boycott as Parks’ arrest did. Some controversy surrounded the use of Colvin as a test case to challenge seating practices in the Capital City. Some leaders were reluctant to use Colvin, who later became pregnant, and gave birth about a year after her arrest.

Colvin later testified in a Montgomery federal court hearing, in the Browder v. Gayle case, which declared segregated busing in Montgomery unconstitutional.

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By Sebastian Kitchen
Montgomery Advertiser

Claudette Colvin could be a common name in every modern U.S. history book, but the protest of another woman nine months later became the rallying cry for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Colvin, then a 15-year old student at Booker T. Washington, was arrested for her refusal to give up a bus seat in 1955, but it was another woman and another arrest nine months later that would capture people’s attention and be noted in modern American history books.

Colvin was arrested in March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

As a 15-year old high school student, Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat in 1955, nine months earlier than Rosa Parks. (Mickey Welsh, Montgomery Advertiser)

As a 15-year old high school student, Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat in 1955, nine months earlier than Rosa Parks. (Mickey Welsh, Montgomery Advertiser)

“She made something out of what I started,” Colvin said.

Colvin feels her disobedience was the spark for much of the movement’s fire.

“I can look and say that it spread,” she said.

Many civil rights leaders believe the boycott and Parks as people know them today may have been completely different without Colvin’s actions.

While Parks is well known for her refusal to move in December 1955, Colvin is largely unknown, not even a footnote in most history books.

And while Parks is associated with the boycott and the desegregation of buses, it was four other women that were the plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court case that desegregated buses.

Colvin was a plaintiff in the Browder v. Gayle lawsuit that desegregated buses. Parks was not.

Civil rights attorney Fred Gray always discusses Colvin when he speaks about the boycott and about Parks. He points out the boycott and its place in history would have been vastly different without Colvin’s action.

People including Georgette Norman, director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, and Gray note Colvin was a part of the case that changed the law.

She is one of two living women who were plaintiffs from the lawsuit including Mary Louise Smith. Even though Smith continues to live in Montgomery, she much like Colvin, has received little recognition for her action.

Colvin will be recognized in the addition to the museum, which will be completed for the 50th anniversary. There will be a photo of her and a description of her role in the civil rights movement. There is little recognition of her in the current museum.

Colvin, now 66 and retired, said she is not angry, but she is disappointed. She does not know why more effort was not made to tell her story.

“I feel like I am getting my Christmas in January rather than the 25th,” Colvin said.

When the 25th anniversary of the boycott arrived, she expected the four plaintiffs from the lawsuit to be recognized.

“We were the ones who ended it,” Colvin said of segregation on buses. “They didn’t’ mention us.”

Colvin said her civil disobedience in 1955 came soon after studying her heritage in school and hearing teachers talk about the injustices against African Americans, including the Jim Crow laws. She was inspired and supported by two teachers.

“I guess I was the only one who took it seriously,” Colvin said.

Nobody had ever needed to ask Colvin to move before that day in March 1955. She was quiet and followed the laws of society, even though they may not have been written laws.

Nothing specific prompted her to refuse to move that day, to remain in her seat as the bus continued to fill with white riders.

“I just said I am not going to take this any more,” Colvin said. “I was not breaking the law.”

She said her books were thrown from the bus and two officers, each grabbing an arm, dragged her off of the bus.

“I told them it was my constitutional right,” Colvin said. “I paid my fare.”

She was taken to City Hall in a police car, was booked and placed in the adult jail.

Neighbors, fellow students and others in the community began to think of Colvin as a troublemaker, she said.

“They distanced themselves from me,” Colvin said of fellow students. “They didn’t want to be close to me because of my beliefs.”

She is proud she acted and proud she disobeyed.

Colvin also realizes it was just a matter of time before someone acted.

“The revolution was already here,” she said. “If it wasn’t me, it would have been somebody.”

Colvin, who was in her teens, pregnant within months of the arrest and subsequently dropped out of school, was not chosen as the test case challenging segregation on city buses.

“That’s why they chose not to use me as the test case,” she said.

Colvin said they wanted Parks to be the icon, but she is glad she acted.

“She did what she had to do and made something of it,” she said.