Nine months before Rosa Parks’ historic act of civil disobedience on a Montgomery, Ala. bus, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her seat.
Claudette was born in Montgomery on Sept. 5, 1939. She grew up in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. A good student, she studied hard at school and earned mostly A’s in her classes. On March 2, 1955, Claudette was riding home from school on a city bus when the driver demanded she give up her seat to a white passenger. She refused, saying, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare.” Claudette felt compelled to stand her ground.
“I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat,” she later told Newsweek.
Refusing to give up her seat resulted in Claudette’s arrest on several charges, including violating the city’s segregation laws. She shared that she sat in jail for several hours, terrified. “I was really afraid, because you just didn’t know what white people might do at that time,” she later said. She did not spend the night in jail because her minister paid her bail. Her family spent the night without sleep in fear that there might have been some retaliation for Claudette’s actions.
After considerable deliberation, the NAACP decided not to use Claudette’s case in challenging segregation partly due to concerns that her pregnancy outside of marriage would distract from their cause.
In court, Claudette declared that she was not guilty. She was ruled against and given probation, which made finding a job difficult.
Claudette became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle that ruled Montgomery’s segregated bus system unconstitutional. Claudette later moved to New York City and worked as a nurse’s aide. She retired in 2004.
“It just killed me to leave the bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat when so many Black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door,” she said.
It could be said that Claudette initiated the fight against this injustice. Rita Dove’s “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work” later became a song, and Phillip Hoose gives her story a fresh perspective in “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.” Colvin’s former attorney, Fred Gray, told Newsweek, “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.”