Claudette Colvin is a pioneer of the 1950s civil rights movement and retired nurse’s aide. On March 2, 1955, she was arrested at the age of 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus. This occurred nine months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
Colvin was one of five plaintiffs in the first federal court case filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray on February 1, 1956, as Browder v. Gayle, to challenge bus segregation in the city. In a United States district court, she testified before the three-judge panel that heard the case. On June 13, 1956, the judges determined that the state and local laws requiring bus segregation in Alabama were unconstitutional. The case went to the United States Supreme Court on appeal by the state, and it upheld the district court’s ruling on November 13, 1956. One month 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 after a few months.
For many years, Montgomery’s black leaders did not publicize Colvin’s pioneering effort. Colvin has said, “Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn’t the case at all.”
Colvin’s case was dropped by civil rights campaigners because Colvin was unmarried and pregnant during the proceedings. It is now widely accepted that Colvin was not accredited by civil rights campaigners at the time due to her circumstances. Rosa Parks stated: “If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have [had] a field day. They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance.”
The record of her arrest and adjudication of delinquency was expunged by the district court in 2021, with the support of the district attorney for the county in which the charges were brought more than 66 years before.
Claudette Colvin was born Claudette Austin in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 5, 1939, to Mary Jane Gadson and C. P. Austin. When Austin abandoned the family, Gadson was unable to financially support her children. So, Colvin and her younger sister, Delphine, were taken in by their great aunt and uncle, Mary Anne and Q. P. Colvin whose daughter, Velma Colvin, had already moved out. Colvin and her sister referred to the Colvins as their parents and took their last name. When they took Claudette in, the Colvins lived in Pine Level, a small country town in Montgomery County, the same town where Rosa Parks grew up. When Colvin was eight years old, the Colvins moved to King Hill, a poor black neighborhood in Montgomery where she spent the rest of her childhood.
Two days before Colvin’s 13th birthday, Delphine died of polio. Not long after, in September 1952, Colvin started attending Booker T. Washington High School. Despite being a good student, Colvin had difficulty connecting with her peers in school due to grief. She was also a member of the NAACP Youth Council, where she formed a close relationship with her mentor, Rosa Parks.
In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city. She relied on the city’s buses to get to and from school because her family did not own a car. The majority of customers on the bus system were African American, but they were discriminated against by its custom of segregated seating. Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council and had been learning about the civil rights movement in school. On March 2, 1955, she was returning home from school. She sat in the colored section about two seats away from an emergency exit, in a Capitol Heights bus.
If the bus became so crowded that all the “white seats” in the front of the bus were filled until white people were standing, any African Americans were supposed to get up from nearby seats to make room for whites, move further to the back, and stand in the aisle if there were no free seats in that section. When a white woman who got on the bus was left standing in the front, the bus driver, Robert W. Cleere, commanded Colvin and three other black women in her row to move to the back. The other three moved, but another black woman, Ruth Hamilton, who was pregnant, got on and sat next to Colvin.
The driver looked at the women in his mirror. “He asked us both to get up. [Mrs. Hamilton] 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 police arrived and convinced a black man sitting behind the two women to move so that Mrs. Hamilton could move back, but Colvin still refused to move. She was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested by the two policemen, Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley. This event took place nine months before the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was arrested for the same offense.
Colvin later said: “My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me to let Rosa be the one: ‘white people aren’t going to bother Rosa, they like her.’ Colvin did not receive the same attention as Parks for a number of reasons: she did not have ‘good hair,’ she was not fair-skinned, she was a teenager, she got pregnant. The leaders in the Civil Rights Movement tried to keep up appearances and make the ‘most appealing’ protesters the most seen.
When Colvin refused to get up, she was thinking about a school paper she had written that day about the local customs that prohibited blacks from using the dressing rooms in order to try on clothes in department stores. In a later interview, she said: “We couldn’t try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot … and take it to the store.” Referring to the segregation on the bus and the white woman: “She couldn’t sit in the same row as us because that would mean we were as good as her.”
“The bus was getting crowded, and I remember the bus driver looking through the rearview mirror asking her [Colvin] to get up for the white woman, which she didn’t,” said Annie Larkins Price, a classmate of Colvin. “She had been yelling, ‘It’s my constitutional right!’ She decided on that day that she wasn’t going to move.”
Colvin recalled, “History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other.”
Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated. Colvin said, “But I made a personal statement, too, one that [Parks] didn’t make and probably couldn’t have made. Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one.”
The police officers who took her to the station made sexual comments about her body and took turns guessing her bra size throughout the ride. Price testified for Colvin, who was tried in juvenile court. Colvin was initially charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and battering and assaulting a police officer.
“There was no assault,” Price said. She also said in a book (Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose) that one of the police officers sat in the back seat with her. This made her very scared that they would sexually assault her because this happened frequently. A group of black civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr., was organized to discuss Colvin’s arrest with the police commissioner. She was bailed out by her minister, who told her that she had brought the revolution to Montgomery.
Through the trial Colvin was represented by Fred Gray, a lawyer for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which was organizing civil rights actions. She was convicted on all three charges in juvenile court. When Colvin’s case was appealed to the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955, the charges of disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws were dropped, although her conviction for assaulting a police officer was upheld.
Colvin’s moment of activism was not solitary or random. In high school, she had high ambitions of political activity. She dreamed of becoming the President of the United States. Her political inclination was fueled in part by an incident with her schoolmate, Jeremiah Reeves; his case was the first time that she had witnessed the work of the NAACP. Reeves was found having sex with a white woman who claimed she was raped, though Reeves claims their relations were consensual. He was executed for his alleged crimes.
Colvin applied to the family court in Montgomery County, Alabama to have her juvenile record expunged. Daryl Bailey, the District Attorney for the county, supported her motion, stating: “Her actions back in March of 1955 were conscientious, not criminal; inspired, not illegal; they should have led to praise and not prosecution.”
The judge ordered that the juvenile record be expunged and destroyed in December 2021, stating that Colvin’s refusal had “been recognized as a courageous act on her behalf and on behalf of a community of affected people.”