Montgomery, AL

Civil Right Pioneer Claudette Colvin (1939 - )

Matt Reicher

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Claudette ColvinBBC

“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.” -- Fred Gray, Alabama civil rights attorney

Claudette Colvin is a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. In March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks' act of defiance, the then fifteen-year-old was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in response to her refusal to give up her seat on a packed, segregated bus to a white woman. Her spontaneous act of defiance helped change US history.

Colvin was born on September 5, 1939 in Birmingham, Alabama to C.P. Austin and Mary Jane Gadson. She was raised by her great-uncle and great-aunt, Q.P. and Mary Ann Colvin. She and her guardians moved to Montgomery. Alabama when she was eight. As a teenager, Colvin attended Booker T. Washington High School.

On March 2, 1955, she boarded a Capitol Heights bus to commute home after school. Seating was segregated, so Colvin found a seat toward the rear of the bus, one far behind seats reserved for white passengers. During her trip, the white section filled up, and a white woman that had just boarded was left standing. Colvin was among the riders that the driver asked to give up their seat. She refused.

Local police were called, and Colvin was arrested. She was handcuffed, placed in jail, and charged with two counts of violating local segregation laws, as well as one count of assaulting the police. She pleaded not guilty in a Montgomery juvenile court on March 18, 1955, but was convicted. The court placed her on indefinite probation, “pending good behavior” and declared her a ward of the state.

On May 6, 1955, Colvin appealed her conviction to the Montgomery Circuit Court. The judge dropped two of the three charges, but upheld the charge of assaulting the arresting police officers.

Colvin and her mother contacted various women's organizations and the NAACP about legal options, but were told that the organization was looking for a different “face” to ensure public support of a potential movement. The local community had initially rallied behind her, but was soon deemed her a troublemaker for her actions.

The actions of Rosa Parks months later, and the ensuing Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 - 1956, were a direct result of the bravery of Claudette Colvin.

Despite being pushed aside, her story was far from over. On February 1, 1956, Colvin was one of the four plaintiffs to testify in Browder v. Gayle, the first federal court case filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray. It challenged bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. In June, three judges determined laws requiring bus segregation in Alabama violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, and were therefore unconstitutional.

The United States Supreme Court upheld the ruling on December 17, 1956. Three days later, the Supreme Court affirmed the order to Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation. The Montgomery bus boycott was then called off.

Colvin left Alabama in 1958 with her young son Raymond, born in March 1956, and moved to New York in 1969, after years of struggling to find work, she took a job as a nurse’s aide in a Manhattan nursing home. Colvin worked there for thirty-five years, retiring in 2004. She didn’t talk about her experiences in Alabama for many years.

In the last two decades, Colvin’s story has received renewed attention. She has (rightfully so) come to be celebrated in print, television, and film.

Interestingly, she’d never received official notice that her probation—considered indefinite at the time—had ended. For years, her family worried she’d be arrested every time she traveled to Alabama. In 2021, the eighty-two-year-old Colvin filed a petition to have record of the bus incident wiped clean. On November 24,2021, Montgomery County Juvenile Judge Calvin Williams granted the request. Her name was cleared.

She continues to be celebrated for her actions on March 2, 1955.

Claudette Colvin was a fifteen-year-old young woman who saw the injustices of inequality taking place around her. By refusing to give up her seat, she stood up to the mistreatment she’d witnessed each day. Her impulsive act made her part of a movement, one which led to a seismic shift in American history.

Her courage that day made her a Civil Rights pioneer.

Sources

  • Adler, Margot. "Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin." NPR.org. Last modified March 15, 2009. https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin.
  • "Claudette Colvin Activist Born." African American Registry. Last modified December 15, 2019. https://aaregistry.org/story/claudette-colvin-born/.
  • "Claudette Colvin." Biography. Last modified January 19, 2018. https://www.biography.com/activist/claudette-colvin.
  • Foster, Hannah. "Claudette Colvin (1935- )." Blackpast. Last modified March 2, 2022. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/colvin-claudette-1935.
  • Katz, Brigit. "Claudette Colvin, Who Was Arrested for Refusing to Give Up Her Bus Seat in 1955, Is Fighting to Clear Her Record." Smithsonian Magazine. Last modified October 28, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/claudette-colvin-who-was-arrested-for-refusing-to-give-up-her-bus-seat-in-1955-is-fighting-to-clear-her-record-180978959/.
  • Kirkland, Pamela, and Dakin Andone. "Claudette Colvin's Juvenile Record Has Been Expunged, 66 Years After She Was Arrested for Refusing to Give Her Bus Seat to a White Person." CNN. Last modified December 16, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/16/us/claudette-colvin-juvenile-record-expunged/index.html.
  • Lazerwitz, Catherine. "Clarified: Who is Claudette Colvin?" WGAL. Last modified March 30, 2022. https://www.wgal.com/article/clarified-who-was-claudette-colvin/39413676#.
  • Theoharris, Jeanne. "Claudette Colvin." The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Last modified February 2, 2019. https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/claudette-colvin/.
  • Woodham, Rebecca. "Claudette Colvin." Encyclopedia of Alabama. https://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-4277.

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