“Incredible Black Women You Should Know About” – The Series
Claudette Colvin (Before Rosa Parks)
(September 5, 1939 – )
By DonnaMarie Woodson
This article, from the January 2022 edition of the Charmeck Chronicle, is published here with permission of the author.
Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, there was Claudette Colvin.
On March 2, 1955, she was arrested at the age of 15 for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus in Montgomery. This arrest occurred nine months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
Other women in Montgomery also refused to give up their seats on the same bus system. But, most of the women were quietly fined, and no one heard much more.
Ms. Colvin was the first to challenge the law.
Now an 82-year-old retiree, Ms. Colvin lives in the Bronx. Speaking to NPR back in 2008, she recalls taking the bus home from high school on March 2, 1955, as clear as if it were yesterday.
The bus driver ordered her to get up, and she refused, saying she’d paid her fare and it was her constitutional right. Two police officers put her in handcuffs and arrested her. Her school books went flying off her lap.
“All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily,” Colvin says. Even at age 15, Claudette had a spirit of dedication to civil rights.
At her segregated Booker T. Washington High School, she learned about the history and importance of Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became an abolitionist and women’s rights activist; and Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave. The latter led more than 70 slaves to freedom through the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.
Ms. Colvin recalls that the class had also been talking about the injustices they were experiencing daily under the Jim Crow segregation laws, like not being able to eat at a lunch counter.
“We couldn’t try on clothes,” Ms. Colvin says. “You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot … and take it to the store. Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of black history, you know, oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”
Dragged off the bus, handcuffed, and jailed, Ms. Colvin remembers how she felt when the jail door slammed shut – “And then I got scared, and panic come over me, and I started crying. Then I started saying the Lord’s Prayer.”
Claudette had a tumultuous childhood. Born to Mary Jane Gadson and C.P. Austin, her father abandoned the family. Gadson could not support her children financially. Ms. Colvin and her younger sister, Delphine, were taken in by their great aunt and uncle, Mary Anne and Q.P. Colvin, whose daughter, Velma Colvin, had already moved out.
Ms. Colvin and her sister referred to the Colvins as their parents and took their last name. When they took Claudette in, the Colvins lived in Pine Level, a small country town in Montgomery County, the same area where Rosa Parks grew up.
Although she was one of four female plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the Supreme Court case that overturned Montgomery’s bus segregation laws, her role in challenging the Jim Crow system has largely been overshadowed.
Latest Update: Ms. Colvin, now 82, was placed on indefinite probation at 15 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white woman. In December 2021, after 66 years, a judge erased her record! She was accompanied by the 90-year-old Fred Gray, the civil rights lawyer who represented her in 1956.
“My name was cleared,” Ms. Colvin told CBS News, the BBC’s US partner. “I’m no longer a juvenile delinquent at 82.”
Why has Claudette’s story been largely forgotten? At the time, the NAACP and other Black organizations felt Rosa Parks made a better icon for the movement than a teenager. As an adult with the right look, Rosa Parks was also the secretary of the NAACP and was both well-known and respected – people would associate her with the middle class, which would attract support for the cause.
Ms. Colvin has often said she is not angry that she did not get more recognition; instead, she is disappointed.
Colvin and her family have been fighting for recognition for her action. In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution and its National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) were challenged by Ms. Colvin and her family. They asked that Ms. Colvin receive a more prominent mention in the civil rights movement history.
The NMAAHC has a section dedicated to Rosa Parks, which Ms. Colvin does not want to be taken away. Still, her family’s goal is to get the historical record right and officials to include Ms. Colvin’s part of history.
Ms. Colvin’s sister, Gloria Laster, says, “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.”
Click to view the video of Claudette Colvin’s story.