Colvin in 1953
September 5, 1939 |
Montgomery, Alabama, U.S.
|Residence||The Bronx, New York, U.S.|
|Occupation||Civil rights activist, nurse aide|
|Years active||1969–2004 as nurse aide|
|Children||2; one deceased|
Claudette Colvin (b. 1939) was a pioneer of the African American Civil Rights Movement. On March 2, 1955, she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, nine months prior to Rosa Parks.
Colvin was among the five plaintiffs originally included in the federal court case filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray on February 1, 1956, as Browder v. Gayle, and she testified before the three-judge panel that heard the case in the United States District Court. 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, which upheld their ruling on December 17, 1956. Colvin was the last witness to testify. Three days later, the Supreme Court issued an order to Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was called off.
For many years, Montgomery's black leaders did not publicize Colvin's pioneering effort because she was a teenager who was pregnant by a married man. While, the conventional story is that she was pregnant at the time of the incident, she actually did not become pregnant until later. Words like "feisty", "mouthy", and "emotional" were used to describe her, while her older counterpart Rosa Parks was viewed as being calm, well-mannered, and studious. Because of the social norms of the time and her youth, the NAACP leaders worried about using her to symbolize their boycott.
Colvin was born September 5, 1939, and was adopted by C. P. Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin. Her father mowed lawns, and her mother worked as a maid. Claudette Colvin grew up in a poor black neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama. In 1943, at the age of four, she received her first impression on the struggles of segregation. She was at a retail store with her mother when a couple of white boys entered. They asked her to touch hands in order to compare them. Seeing this, her mother slapped her face and told her that she was not allowed to touch the white boys.
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 parents did not own a car. She said that she aspired to be President one day. Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and had been actively learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school. On March 2, 1955, she was returning home from school, and in a Capitol Heights bus downtown she sat down about two seats away from an emergency exit in the colored section.
The convention of the time was that if the bus became so crowded that all the so-called "white seats" in front were filled and a white person was standing, any African Americans were supposed to get up from these seats, move to the back, and stand if there were no free seats. When a white woman who got on the bus was left standing, 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 a pregnant black woman, Ruth Hamilton, got on and sat next to Colvin.
The driver looked at them 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. 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 famously arrested for the same offense. Claudette Colvin: "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".
When Colvin refused to get up, she was thinking about a school paper she had written that day about the local custom which prevented blacks from using the dressing rooms and trying 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”; and "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 rear view mirror asking her to get up for the white woman, which she didn't," said Annie Larkins Price, a classmate of Colvin's. "She had been yelling "It's my constitutional right!". She decided on that day that she wasn't going to move." Colvin was handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated. Price testified for Colvin in the juvenile court case. Colvin was convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault. "There was no assault," Price said.
Together with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanette Reese, Colvin was also one of the five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle. The case, organized and filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, determined that bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama was unconstitutional. Partly thanks to the degree of support being provided to the plaintiffs by the black community, the country ultimately found itself with no option but to suspend its segregationist policies and implement ones that were fairer. During the court case, Colvin described her arrest:
"I kept saying, 'He has no civil right... this is my constitutional right... you have no right to do this.' And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person."
On June 5, 1956, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama issued a ruling declaring the state of Alabama and Montgomery's laws mandating bus segregation was unconstitutional. State and local officials appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court summarily affirmed the decision on November 13 1956. One month later, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider, and on December 20, 1956, the court ordered Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation permanently.
On March 29, 1956, Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond. He was so light-skinned (like his father) that people frequently assumed his father was a white man. Colvin left Montgomery for New York in 1958, because she had difficulty finding and keeping work following the notoriety of the federal court case which had overturned bus segregation. Similarly, Parks left Montgomery for Detroit in 1957. Colvin said that after her actions on the bus, she was branded a troublemaker by many in her community, and had to drop out of college.
In New York, the young Claudette Colvin and Raymond initially lived with her older sister, Velma Colvin. Claudette got a job as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home in Manhattan, where she worked for 35 years, retiring in 2004. She never married. While living in New York, she had a second son who ultimately became an accountant in Atlanta, married and had his own family. Raymond Colvin died in 1993 in New York, aged 37.
Though Colvin could be said to be the spark that ignited the Montgomery bus boycott movement, she rarely told her story once she moved to New York City. By this time, the conversation in the black community was focusing on black enterprise rather than integration issues. NPR's Margot Adler has stated that black organizations felt Rosa Parks would be a better test case for integration because she was an adult, and had the kind of hair and appearance needed to make her look middle-class.
In 2005, Colvin told the Montgomery Advertiser that even given the opportunity, she would not have changed her decision to remain seated on the bus.
"I feel very, very proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on." "I'm not disappointed," Colvin said. "Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation."
Colvin has often said she is not angry that she did not get the recognition she deserved; rather, she is disappointed. She said she felt as if she was "getting her Christmas in January rather than the 25th."
In the second season of the HBO drama The Newsroom, the lead character, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), uses Colvin's non-disclosure as an example of how "one thing" can change everything. He remarks that if the ACLU had used her civil disobedience, rather than Rosa Parks' eight months later, to highlight the injustice of segregation, a young preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would never have been heard of; so but for that political decision, America probably would not have found a voice for the Civil Rights Movement.
The second season of the Comedy Central TV show Drunk History tells the story of how Claudette refused to give up her bus seat, and of the NAACP's decision to stage a similar protest with Rosa Parks. In the relevant episode, the host Derek Waters quizzes a young Montgomery resident on his knowledge of various figures in the Civil Rights Movement. When Waters mentions Claudette, the man admits that he's never heard of her.
On March 2, 1955, nine months before Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a skinny, 15-year-old schoolgirl was yanked by both wrists and dragged off a very similar bus.
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