Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same. Few know the story of this young pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement.
The day Claudette refused to give up her seat
Claudette Colvin relied on the Montgomery buses to get to and from Booker T. Washington High School. March 2, 1955 was to be just another day riding the bus home until the following events occurred. A white woman boarded, and since there was nowhere for her to sit in the white section, the bus driver ordered three black women, including Colvin, to give up their row of seats. Colvin refused while the other two moved to stand up. However, a pregnant black woman boarded the bus and sat next to Colvin. The bus driver ordered them to move for the white woman to sit but they both refused.
“He asked us both to get up. [Mrs. Hamilton, the pregnant woman] 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 policeman arrived, displaying two of the characteristics for which white Southern men had become renowned: gentility and racism. He could not bring himself to chide Mrs. Hamilton in her condition, but he could not allow her to stay where she was and flout the law as he understood it, either. So he turned on the black men sitting behind her. “If any of you are not gentlemen enough to give a lady a seat, you should be put in jail yourself,” he said.
A black man, who was sitting behind them, gave up his seat for Mrs. Hamilton leaving the young Colvin the only black remaining in that row.
“Aren’t you going to get up?” asked the policeman.
“No,” said Colvin.
He asked again.
“No, sir,” she said.
“Oh God,” wailed one black woman at the back. One white woman defended Colvin to the police; another said that, if she got away with this, “they will take over”.
“I will take you off,” said the policeman, then he kicked her. Two more kicks soon followed.
“It took on the form of harassment. I was very hurt, because I didn’t know that white people would act like that and I … I was crying,” she says. The policeman grabbed her and took her to a patrolman’s car in which his colleagues were waiting. “What’s going on with these n$#*(%@?” asked one. Another cracked a joke about her bra size.
“I was really afraid, because you just didn’t know what white people might do at that time,” says Colvin.
Why Colvin was not chosen as the face of the civil rights movement
Colvin’s dramatic arrest garnered attention by blacks in Montgomery, including leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who was 26 at the time. They went on to hire her a defense attorney and raise money for her trial, but to no avail. The teenager was convicted of violating the segregation law, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.
Talk had been stirring for some time amongst black leaders about a “standard-bearer of the movement”. Some, including civil rights attorney Fred Gray, viewed Colvin and her arrest as what they needed. However, many others thought otherwise; they felt that she was not a good fit.
E. D. Nixon, an influential black leader heavily involved with the case, said, ‘I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with’.
The potential reasons vary for why they could not “win with” Colvin:
Some in Montgomery, particularly in King Hill, think the decision was informed by snobbery. “It was partly because of her colour and because she was from the working poor,” says Gwen Patton, who has been involved in civil rights work in Montgomery since the early 60s. “She lived in a little shack. It was a case of ‘bourgey’ blacks looking down on the working-class blacks.”
Others felt she was just too young …
‘Some felt she was too young to be the trigger that precipitated the movement,’ wrote Jo Anne Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College.
However, most people believe she wasn’t chosen because of her teenage pregnancy (which was the result of rape by an unnamed adult male):
In his Pulitzer prize-winning account of the civil rights years, Parting The Waters, Taylor Branch wrote: “Even if Montgomery Negroes were willing to rally behind an unwed, pregnant teenager — which they were not — her circumstances would make her an extremely vulnerable standard bearer.”
Colvin herself believes this (pregnancy) was the ultimate reason as well. However, she also feels that the leaders viewed her as “too militant” for the movement; “they wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa,” she said. Colvin also thinks color had a role. She states in the following interview:
Even if I was not pregnant … The only difference between me and Rosa was that she was an adult and a lighter tone. Black people, at that particular time, liked the lighter feature of women … and men. [Because of television] Rosa would make a good representative for both the poor and the middle class people.
Nonetheless, she is not bitter; she does not mind being unnamed “as long as we have someone out there to tell our story.”
Though Colvin did not become the figure for the movement to desegregate public transportation, her contributions cannot go unnoticed. She went on to testify with three other women in the landmark 1956 federal suit Browder v. Gayle, which ultimately ended segregation on Alabama buses. This case was brought forth months after Rosa’s action. Fred Gray, the attorney for Colvin and then Parks stated:
“Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks.”
1. Gary Young, THE GUARDIAN, “She would not be moved,” December 15, 2000.
2. Eliza Gray, NEWSWEEK, “A Forgotten Contribution,” March 2, 2009.
3. Kramer, Sara Kate, NPR: RADIO DIARIES, “Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus,” March 3, 2015.
4. Interview of Claudette Colvin, MontgomeryBoycott.com
Have you heard about Claudette Colvin?