Claudette Colvin, aged 13, in 1953. (Public Domain)
In our series honoring the significant contributions of Black women and their interconnectedness—the persistence of their struggle for freedom—we’ve written about Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks. Today we share the story of Claudette Colvin.
Claudette Colvin was thinking about her history class when she changed history. On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin was on her way home from school when the harsh words of the bus driver, demanding that the fifteen-year-old give up her seat on the bus to another rider, interrupted her historical reverie.
“Rebellion was on my mind that day,” Colvin stated, “All during February we had been talking about people who had taken stands. We had been studying the Constitution in Ms. Nesbitt’s class. I knew I had rights.” Black teachers in segregated schools educated their students on the yet unfulfilled promises of America, and provided examples of Black leaders who sought equality. As Colvin later recalled of the March afternoon, “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, “Sit down, girl!’…History had me glued to my seat.”
The police arrived, roughly pulling her off the bus, and arrested her for disorderly conduct, assault, and disobeying the segregation law. They then threw Colvin into a cell by herself. “I got scared,” Colvin remembered, “and panic came over me and I started crying. Then I started saying the Lord’s Prayer.” After a few hours, she was bailed out by her mother and her minister. Her father, knowing well the danger in defying white supremacy in Alabama, sat up “with his shotgun fully loaded, all night.”
When the E.D. Nixon and the Montgomery NAACP found out about Colvin’s case, they immediately launched into action. For decades, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had been methodically trying cases to build legal precedent sturdy enough to dismantle Jim Crow, the set of laws created by southern states and cemented by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that declared racial segregation legal under the “separate but equal” clause. But momentum seemed to be building. The previous year, in 1954, the Supreme Court had declared segregation in education unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. This, they hoped, was their chance to challenge segregation in public transportation. Fred Gray, the noted civil rights attorney, took the case, filing on behalf of Colvin, as well as some other women mistreated on the buses as a class action suit.
However, as the case proceeded, the NAACP became increasingly wary of making Colvin the center of their test case for segregation on public transportation. And this is where class, as well as race and gender, comes into play. Many organizations for Black freedom reasoned that their best chance in securing rights was to appear as sympathetic to whites as possible–to be middle class, religious, mild-mannered, educated, and, above all, respectable. And Claudette Colvin didn’t quite fit. She was poor. Her father mowed lawns for a living; her mother was a maid; the family lived in King Hill, one of the most deprived sections of the city. Not only so, the NAACP worried Colvin was too young to endure the scrutiny the case would bring. Then, in the middle of these deliberations, in the summer of 1955, Colvin revealed that she was pregnant. The NAACP decided they could not pursue her case. Claudette Colvin served probation for disobeying the segregation ordinance and left Alabama three years later.
Despite the fact that the NAACP dropped her case and that her name is unknown to many Americans today, Claudette Colvin’s story remains crucial to understanding the civil rights struggle. We see in her the truth that ordinary Black Americans–middle class and poor, educated and uneducated, rural and urban, religious and nonbelievers, male and female, young and old– recognized, even in hypocrisy, the soaring promise of America and they claimed it as rightfully their own.
Claudette Colvin’s act of defiance against white supremacy inspired a woman who had been her mentor: Rosa Parks. Several months later, Rosa Parks also refused to give up her seat. And a movement was sparked. That movement belongs as much to Claudette Colvin as to Rosa Parks. But it also belongs to the woman who helped organize it—Jo Ann Robinson—whose story we will share next week, as our fourth and final installment in this series.
This post is part of a series written for the Alabama Chanin Journal written by Dr. Ansley Quiros. Ansley is a new contributing writer to the Journal. Get to know her here. Read more from her here. And follow her here.