Colvin in 1954
September 5, 1939 |
|Residence||The Bronx, New York|
|Occupation||Civil rights activist, nurse aide|
|Years active||1969–2004 as nurse aide|
|Children||2; one deceased|
Claudette Colvin (born September 5, 1939) is a pioneer of the 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' famous arrest for the same offense.
Colvin was among the four 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 reportedly impregnated by a married man. However, she actually did not become pregnant until later.
Colvin was born September 5, 1939, and was adopted by Q. 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 laws, and assault. "There was no assault," Price said. She was bailed out by her kind Reverend. He told her that she had brought the Revolution to Montgomery.
After her refusal to give up her seat, she was arrested and then charged on three accounts: assaulting policemen, breaking the segregation ordinance, and disturbing the peace. Through the trial she was represented by an Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) lawyer named Fred Gray. When Colvin's case was brought to the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6 1955, the disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws charges were dropped.
Together with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta 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 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.
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 City 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 and it was a struggle for her.
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 of a heart attack.
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," she said. "I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on. "I'm not disappointed. 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.
In an interview Colvin said, “I don’t think there’s room for many more icons. I think that history only has room enough for certain—you know, how many icons can you choose? So, you know, I think you compare history, like—most historians say Columbus discovered America, and it was already populated. But they don’t say that Columbus discovered America; they should say, for the European people, that is, you know, their discovery of the new world.”
Colvin and her family have been fighting for recognition. In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution and its National Museum of African-American History and Culture were called out by Colvin and her family asking for Colvin to be given a more prominent mention in the history of the civil rights movement. The museum has a section dedicated to Rosa Parks, which Colvin doesn’t want taken away, but her family’s goal is to get the historical record right, and for officials to include this part of history. Colvin was not even invited when the Smithsonian formally dedicated the museum, which opened to the public in September 2016.
“All we want is the truth, why does history fail to get it right?” Colvin’s sister, Gloria Laster, said. “Had it not been for Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith there may not have been a Thurgood Marshall, a Martin Luther King or a Rosa Parks.”
In 2000, Troy State University opened a Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery to honor the town’s place in civil rights history. Roy White, who was in charge of most of the project asked Colvin if she would have liked to appear in a video to tell her story, Colvin refused. "They've already called it the Rosa Parks museum, so they've already made up their minds what the story is."
Although such incidents have occurred, Colvin’s role has not gone completely unrecognized. Rev. Joseph Rembert, had said, “If nobody did anything for Claudette Colvin in the past why don’t we do something for her right now?” He reached out to Councilmen Charles Jinright and Tracy Larkin. In 2017, Colvin was honored by the Montgomery Council, and Rembert was the man behind this honorary proclamation. March 2nd was named Claudette Colvin day in Montgomery Alabama. Mayor Todd Strange presented the proclamation and when speaking of Colvin said, “She was an early foot soldier in our civil rights, and we did not want this opportunity to go by without declaring March 2 as Claudette Colvin Day to thank her for her leadership in the modern day civil rights movement.” Rembert said, “I know people have heard her name before, but I just thought we should have a day to celebrate her.” Colvin could not attend the proclamation due to health concerns.
Colvin has been recognized in the past as well. Councilman Larkin’s sister was on the bus in 1955 when Colvin was arrested. Larkin had a streetcar named after Colvin a few years ago.
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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