She was the original Rosa Parks.
Dubbed the original Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin was arrested in 1955 at the age of 15 for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded segregated bus. The incident began when the bus she and her friends were on filled up and there was a white passenger standing in the aisle between them. The driver wanted all of them to move to the back and stand so that the white passenger could sit.
“He wanted me to give up my seat for a white person and I would have done it for an elderly person but this was a young white woman. Three of the students had got up reluctantly and I remained sitting next to the window.” She informed the driver that she had paid her fare and that it was her constitutional right to remain right where she was. Of course, the driver didn’t see it that way. He continued driving and when he reached a juncture where a police squad car was waiting, he stopped. Two officers boarded the bus and asked Claudette why she refused to give up her seat. She was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus all the while shouting that her constitutional right was being violated. She was initially charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and assault. There was no assault, of course.
Instead of being taken to taken to a juvenile detention centre, she was taken to an adult jail and spent three hours in a small cell with nothing inside of it except a broken sink and a cot without a mattress. Her mother and pastor bailed her out. Her mother, well aware of Claudette’ disappointment with the system and all the injustice they were receiving, said to her, “Well, Claudette, you finally did it.”
After she was released from prison, her family feared that their home would be attacked, so armed with a shotgun, her father kept a vigil just in case the Klu Klux Klan showed up, while members of the community were lookouts. Claudette was first person arrested for challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation policies and her story made a few local papers but nine months later Rosa Parks did the same thing and her story could worldwide coverage.
Claudette knew Rosa Parks very well. “I became very active in her youth group and we use to meet every Sunday afternoon at the Luther church. Ms Parks was quiet and very gentle and very soft-spoken, but she would always say we should fight for our freedom.”
Claudette was one of the plantiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle during which she 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.”
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.
Following her life of activism, Claudette gave birth to a son who was light-skinned, leading many to believe that his father was White. She left New York in 1958 because finding and keeping work was difficult because of her participation in the Browder v Gayle case which overturned the bus segregation. After her actions on the bus, she was was branded a troublemaker by many in her community. She had to drop out of college and struggled in the local environment.
She and her son, Raymond lived with her sister in New York. She got a job as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home in Manhattan and worked there for 35 years. In 2004, she retired. She had a second son who secured an education and became an accountant in Atlanta, where he married and had his own family. His older brother, Raymond died in 1993 in New York from a heart attack at the age of 37. Claudette never married.
In 2017, the Montgomery Council passed a resolution for a proclamation honoring Colvin. March 2 was named Claudette Colvin day in Montgomery, Alabama. Mayor Todd Strange who presented the proclamation said of Colvin, “She was an early foot soldier in our civil rights, and we did not want this opportunity to go by without declaring March 2 as Claudette Colvin Day to thank her for her leadership in the modern day civil rights movement.” Claudette could not attend the proclamation due to health concerns.
Councilman Larkin’s sister was on the bus in 1955 when Colvin was arrested. A few years ago, Larkin arranged for a streetcar to be named after Colvin. According to her sister, Gloria Laster, “Had it not been for Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith there may not have been a Thurgood Marshall, a Martin Luther King or a Rosa Parks.”
Notes to Women celebrates this unsung heroine who didn’t get the recognition she deserved for being instrumental in the fight against the Montgomery bus segregation by refusing to get up from her seat which she believed was a violation of her constitutional right.
“I feel very, very proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on.”
“I’m not disappointed. Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation.”
“Whenever people ask me: ‘Why didn’t you get up when the bus driver asked you?’ I say it felt as though Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women because my teacher taught us about them in so much detail.”