Claudette Colvin

Civil Rights Activist : b. 1940

"…as a teenager, I kept thinking, Why don’t the adults around here just say something? Say it so that they know we don’t accept segregation? I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, 'This is not right.' And I did."

Biography

Major movements and revolutions in history are marked by big events, but are always comprised of smaller events which often go overlooked. Claudette Colvin´s story is one of these significant overlooked events. Her place in the civil rights movement could have been one of the most prominent ones, yet her name and contributions were minimized and all but hidden away.

Claudette Colvin’s story begins as a young girl growing up in segregated Montgomery, Alabama. She knew firsthand of the humiliation and violence that could be wrought on black people if they did not toe the line of Jim Crow. Her friend had been put to death for an innocent flirtatious gesture toward a white girl. Colvin, a studious child, was determined to get the best education possible, become a lawyer, and fight for civil rights.

On March 2, 1955, however, Colvin’s life changed forever. The fifteen year old boarded a segregated, city bus on her way home from school, her mind filled with what she’d been learning during Negro History Week. At one stop, several white passengers got on, and the bus driver ordered her and three others to move, though there were other seats available for the white passengers. Three got up, Colvin stayed. As she says, “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.” 

Colvin´s refusal led to her arrest. She was taken off the bus by two police officers whose behavior made her fear she might be raped. Charged with violating segregation laws, misconduct, and resisting arrest, her conviction and subsequent probation left Colvin feeling she would never get the education and achieve profession she so desired.

The African American community was outraged. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Montgomery to fight her arrest, and leaders in the civil rights movement sought a way to end bus segregation. They looked at Claudette Colvin as a potential “face” of the movement. As Colvin’s friend Reverend Johnson told her, “Everyone prays for freedom. We’ve all been praying and praying. But you’re different – you want your answer the next morning. And I think you’ve just brought the revolution to Montgomery.” However, she was deemed too young and her complexion too dark to be the right fit. Then she became pregnant (by a man whose name Colvin will not disclose), and that was that.

Nine months later Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and the boycott that was contemplated when Colvin was arrested, began. Parks was educated, older, lighter-skinned, and a seamstress. Although her refusal to move was not directly planned, she was part of the civil rights movement. She had been trained for civil disobedience by the NAACP.

Claudette Colvin’s role was not over. She and the three other young women who were harassed on that bus in 1955, were the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in 1956 that challenged the constitutionality of segregated buses. It was called Browder v. Gayle and went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court decided that Montgomery’s bus segregation was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, a huge victory for civil rights.

Rather than seeing her name on par with Rosa Parks´ (whose portrait is on this website) for the strength and courage she demonstrated in defying segregation, Claudette Colvin has been largely forgotten. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Philip Hoose, tells her story, as does a one-woman performance titled Rage is Not a 1-Day Thing! Colvin herself now speaks about her remarkable story.