- Kimberley Guillemet
World Changer of the Month — March 2022: Claudette Colvin
Claudette Colvin was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 5, 1939. Colvin and her younger sister were raised by their great aunt and uncle, Mary Anne and Q. P. Colvin in King Hill, a poor Black neighborhood in Montgomery. Colvin attended the segregated Booker T. Washington High School, where she was a good student and a member of the NAACP Youth Council.
On March 2, 1955, 15 year-old Colvin was riding on the public bus on her way home after school. She was seated at the front of the “colored section” of the bus which began on the row behind the “white section.” The bus operated under the rule that if the bus became so crowded that all the "white seats" in the front of the bus were filled such that white people were standing, any African Americans seated nearest to the “white section” were expected to give up their seats to allow the white passengers to sit down.
If there were no free seats in the “colored section,” African Americans were expected to stand in the aisle.
When a young white woman got on the bus that afternoon and was left standing in the front, the bus driver commanded Colvin and three other young Black women in her row to move to the back. Even though only one seat was needed, Blacks could not sit on the same row as whites so all four young ladies were ordered to move. Colvin’s three companions moved; Colvin did not.
Eventually, the bus driver summoned the police. Upon seeing Colvin, one of the officers responded, "That's nothing new . . . I've had trouble with that 'thing' before." The officers then ordered Colvin to move, but she refused, saying, "It's my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it's my constitutional right." Colvin felt compelled to stand her ground, later recalling, "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—saying, 'Sit down girl!' I was glued to my seat."
The police officers forcibly handcuffed Colvin, arrested her, and dragged her from the bus. Colvin later said, "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. One of the police officers sat in the backseat of the patrol car with her as they rode to the station causing her to fear that he would sexually assault her. After being held in jail for hours, she was bailed out by her pastor, who told her that she had “brought the revolution to Montgomery.”
Colvin was charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and battering and assaulting a police officer. She was tried in juvenile court, convicted on all three charges and sentenced to “indefinite probation.” 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.
This event took place nine months before the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was arrested for the same offense. Colvin did not receive the same attention as Parks because as Colvin later stated, she did not have “good hair”, she was not fair-skinned, she was a teenager, and she got pregnant. The leaders in the Civil Rights Movement were very mindful of the public perception of protesters and tried to ensure that only the most sympathetic and “appealing” protesters would receive media attention. Civil rights leaders felt that Colvin’s status as an unwed teenage mother made her an inappropriate symbol for a test case. Colvin became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.
Colvin had difficulty finding and keeping work following her participation in the Browder v. Gayle case and was branded a “troublemaker” by many in her community. This led to Colvin and her son Raymond leaving Montgomery to move to New York, where she became a nurse's aide, retiring after 35 years of service.
In 2021, Colvin applied to have her juvenile record expunged. The District Attorney supported her motion, stating, "[h]er 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.”
To learn more about Ms. Colvin’s tremendous life and legacy, please visit:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudette_Colvin, https://www.biography.com/activist/claudette-colvin, and https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin. To view footage of Ms. Colvin, please visit: