One of the pioneers of the American civil rights movement was just fifteen when she made history, and you’ve likely never heard of her. Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger, Claudette Colvin took a similarly defiant action on another Montgomery bus. Colvin, however, has been largely excluded from our historical narrative.
Aside from some brief mentions in accounts of civil rights history, the most substantive record we have of Colvin’s story is the 2009 biography Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, which is the result of extensive interviews with her.
On March 2nd, 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was on her way home from her high school in Montgomery, Alabama, when the bus driver demanded that she give up her seat on the segregated bus for a white passenger. She refused, asserting that she had paid her fare and that it was her constitutional right. She had been learning about leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth in school and discussing the daily injustices that her community continued to experience under Jim Crow laws. Despite coming from one of Montgomery’s poorest neighborhoods, Colvin studied hard at school and even dreamt of becoming president one day. She was also a member of the NAACP Youth Council, where Rosa Parks became a mentor to her. Of her act of defiance, Colvin has reflected, “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.”
Two police officers violently arrested her, but Colvin refused to go quietly, repeatedly yelling that her constitutional rights were being violated. They charged her with not only violating segregation laws, but for disturbing the peace and assaulting a police officer (the latter charge fabricated, according to witnesses). They took her to a jail for adults rather than juveniles. Her reverend bailed her out and told her, “Everyone prays for freedom. We’ve all been praying and praying. But you’re different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.” Though Colvin and her family feared retaliation from the KKK, she felt proud of herself for defending her rights. She was later convicted on all three charges in juvenile court, but the first two charges were ultimately dropped on appeal; her conviction for allegedly assaulting a police officer was upheld.
The NAACP had been wanting to organize a bus boycott in Montgomery and considered launching one after Colvin’s case. However, due to her youth, working class background, and darker skin—and her reputation for being “mouthy” and “feisty”—the NAACP decided not to. They feared that her youth would make her unreliable and felt they needed to center the narrative on someone who could be viewed sympathetically by a national audience, particularly by white people. When she became pregnant by an older, married man a few months after her arrest, many felt further justified for not pursuing her case. Nonetheless, Colvin’s action undeniably laid the groundwork for what was to come. When Rosa Parks (who was middle class, lighter skinned, and a respected member of the community) staged her action on another Montgomery bus on December 1st, the NAACP was ready to launch the boycott.
(Sidebar rant: Most of us are taught that Rosa Parks was a tired old woman who just needed a seat. Not only is this incorrect—she was only 42!—but framing her story in this way undermines the fact that her refusal to give up her seat was a deliberate act of civil disobedience. Parks had committed herself to activism for years and was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter.)
Like Parks, Colvin was not the first or only person to protest bus segregation. Most activists paid fines and did not receive widespread attention for their actions. Colvin’s fight is unique, however, in that it ultimately went all the way to court. As the Montgomery bus boycott was in full effect, civil rights lawyers wanted to file a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of bus segregation. Colvin became a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, along with Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith—three other women who had been mistreated by the bus system in the months following Colvin’s arrest. On June 13, 1956, the District Court ruled that the laws requiring bus segregation in Alabama were unconstitutional. After a failed attempt to appeal the decision at the state level, the case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, who upheld that bus segregation was unconstitutional. This brought an end to the bus boycott and helped overturn Plessy v. Ferguson (the doctrine of “separate but equal”).
After her arrest and pregnancy, Colvin felt that she had been branded a “troublemaker” and ostracized by her community. She eventually moved to New York City, where she’s now 79 years old and a retired nurse. Until she agreed to be interviewed for Hoose’s book, Colvin mainly avoided speaking publicly about her past, but her contribution to history is gradually becoming more widely known. A few years ago, she was interviewed on Democracy Now! and was even the subject of a segment on Drunk History. Her family recently challenged the Smithsonian for not displaying Colvin more prominently in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and for failing to invite her to the dedication ceremony in 2016.
Claudette Colvin’s story is important because she deserves to be known as more than a footnote or a trial run for a major historical turning point. It’s crucial that we continually examine why different historical narratives have been shaped to include some and exclude others. If not for her age and “reputation,” Claudette Colvin could have become the name we recognize today alongside, or even instead of, Rosa Parks. She remains an unsung American hero whose bravery most of us cannot fathom exhibiting at any age, let alone at fifteen.
Written by Lauren Abbate (she/her) from Queens, NY, USA. Follow her on Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.