Claudette Colvin

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Claudette Colvin
Born (1939-09-05) September 5, 1939 (age 75)
Alabama, U.S.
Residence The Bronx, New York City
Occupation Civil rights activist and nurse

Claudette Colvin (born September 5, 1939) is a pioneer of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. On March 2, 1955, she was the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, preceding the more publicized Rosa Parks incident by nine months.

Colvin was among the five plaintiffs originally included in the federal court case, filed on February 1, 1956 as Browder v. Gayle, and 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. She was the last witness to testify and was considered the "star" witness. Three days later, the Supreme Court issued an order to Montgomery and the state to end bus segregation in Alabama.

For a long time, Montgomery's black leaders did not publicize Colvin's pioneering effort because she was a teenager and became pregnant while unmarried. Given the social norms of the time and her youth, the NAACP leaders worried about using her to represent their movement.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Colvin was born September 5, 1939 and was adopted by C. P. Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin,[3] and grew up in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Montgomery, Alabama.[4] In 1943, at 4 years old, she had 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 and compare them. Her mother saw this, slapped her face, and said that she was not allowed to touch them.[5]

Bus incident[edit]

In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city.[6] She said that she had had aspirations of being President one day. Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and had been actively learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school.[7] Colvin was returning home from school on March 2, 1955, and got on a Capital Heights bus downtown. She relied on the city's buses to get to and from school, because her parents did not own a car. She was sitting about two seats from the emergency exit in the colored section.[8] If the bus became so crowded that all the so called "white seats" in front were filled and a white person was standing, the African Americans were supposed to leave these seats and move to the back and stand if needed. When a white woman got on the bus and was standing, bus driver Robert W. Cleere commanded Colvin and three other black women in the 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 caught a glimpse of them through 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 policemen arrived, and convinced a black man sitting behind them to move for Mrs. Hamilton to move back, but Colvin continued to refuse to move, and she was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested by the two policemen, named Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley.[9][10][11] This was nine months before NAACP Secretary Rosa Parks was famously arrested for the same offense.[1] When Colvin refused to get up, she was thinking about a school paper that she had written that day. It was about the local custom that prevented blacks from using the dressing rooms and trying on clothing in department stores.[12] She said in a later interview that "We couldn't try on clothes," Colvin says. "You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot ... and take it to the store.”[13] "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."[14] Colvin was handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated.[1][10] Price testified for Colvin in the juvenile court case. Colvin was convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault.[14] "There was no assault," Price said.[14]

Browder v. Gayle[edit]

Main article: Browder v. Gayle

Colvin was also one of five plaintiffs, along with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese, in the court case Browder v. Gayle. The case, organized and filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, determined that bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama was unconstitutionali.[15] During the trial, 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."[12]

The case was appealed by state and local officials to the United States Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the case was heard by the Supreme Court who affirmed the District Court's ruling. In December, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider and on December 20, 1956, it ordered Montgomery and Alabama to end bus segregation in the state.[16]

Life after activism[edit]

In December 1955, Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond. He was so light-skinned (like his father) that people frequently said his father was a white man. Colvin left Montgomery for New York in 1958,[11] because she had difficulty finding and keeping work after the notoriety of the federal court case overturning bus segregation. (Similarly, Parks left Montgomery for Detroit in 1957.)[16] Colvin said that, after her actions on the bus, she was branded a troublemaker by those in her community, and had to drop out of college.[17]

In New York, the young Colvin and Raymond first lived with her older sister, Velma Colvin. She got a job as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home in Manhattan, where she worked for 35 years. She retired in 2004.[1] Colvin never married.[1] While living in New York, she had a second son, who became an accountant in Atlanta, married and had his own family. Raymond Colvin died in 1993 at age 37 in New York.[1]


Though Colvin was the "spark" that may have ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement, she rarely told her story once she moved to New York City. Conversation in the black community focused on black enterprise by this time rather than on integration issues. NPR's Margot Adler said that black organizations felt that Rosa Parks made a better test case for integration because she was an adult, and she had the right hair and look to make her appear middle class.[7]

In 2005, Colvin told the Montgomery Advertiser that she would not have changed her decision to remain seated.

"I feel very, very proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on."[18] "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."[16]

Colvin has often said that she is not angry she did not get the recognition she deserved, but instead disappointed. She said she felt as if she was "getting her Christmas in January rather than the 25th."[19]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Rita Dove, a U.S. Poet Laureate, included "Claudette Colvin Goes to Work," in her book of collected poetry, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999). Dove referred to Colvin in her magazine article, "The Torchbearer Rosa Parks."[20]
    • The folk singer John McCutcheon set the poem to music, sang and recorded "Claudette Colvin Goes to Work," with Rita Dove speaking one line, on his CD Mightier than the Sword (2006).
  • Awele Makeba wrote, directed and starred in a one-woman drama, Rage Is Not A 1-Day Thing!, in which she relates the story of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott through the eyes of Colvin following her arrest.[21]
  • Phillip Hoose's biography, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, won the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.[1]
  • Colvin's story was portrayed in a July 2014 episode of the Comedy Central series Drunk History; Colvin was played by Mariah Wilson.
  • In The Newsroom, Season 2, Episode 7, newscaster Will Mcavoy mentions Claudette Colvin as a less-than-ideal poster child for the Civil Rights Movement who preceded Rosa Parks. Noting that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to prominence in the time between Ms. Colvin's arrest and Ms. Parks' Mcavoy argues: "... if Claudette Colvin doesn't get pregnant, if they chose to [boycott] in the spring instead of eight months later, [then] Martin Luther King is a preacher you've never heard of in Montgomery."


  • "It's my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it's my constitutional right,"[22] Colvin said as she was getting arrested by the two police officers on the bus.
  • "I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can't sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, 'This is not right.'"[23]
  • "I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, 'Sit down girl!' I was glued to my seat," Colvin later told Newsweek in an interview as to how she was feeling when she stayed in her seat on the bus.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Brookes Barnes (November 26, 2009). "From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ "Her circumstances would make her an extremely vulnerable standard-bearer." ISBN 0-671-68742-5 p. 123
  3. ^ Phibbs, Cheryl (2009). The Montgomery Bus Boycott: A History and Reference Guide. ABC-CLIO. 
  4. ^ "Claudette Colvin", Montgomery Boycott
  5. ^ Hoose, Phillip (2009). Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice. Melanie Kroupa Books. 
  6. ^ [ /mi_m1355/is_9_107/ai_n11834082/ "Claudette Colvin: an unsung hero in the Montgomery Bus Boycott"]. JET (FindArticles). 2005-02-28. Retrieved 2009-11-27. 
  7. ^ a b Adler, Margot. Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin. NPR. March 15, 2009. Retrieved November 24, 2013.
  8. ^ Phibbs, Cheryl. "Claudette Colvin". ABC-CLIO. Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  9. ^ Greenhaw, Wayne (2007). Thunder of Angels : The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. 
  10. ^ a b Gray, Eliza (2009-03-02). "A Forgotten Contribution: Before Rosa Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus". Newsweek. Retrieved 2009-11-26. 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. [dead link]
  11. ^ a b Younge, Gary (2000-12-16). "She would not be moved". London: The Guardian. 
  12. ^ a b Brinkley, Douglas (2000). Rosa Parks. Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-89160-3. 
  13. ^ Addler, Morgot. "Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin". National Public Radio. Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c Dawkins, Amanda (2005-02-07). "'Unsung hero' of boycott paved way for Parks.". The Huntsville Times. p. 6B. 
  15. ^ N.p.. Web. 2 Nov 2013. <>.
  16. ^ a b c Spratling, Cassandra (2005-11-16). "2 other bus boycott heroes praise Parks' acclaim". Chicago Tribune. p. 2. 
  17. ^ N.p.. Web. 2 Nov 2013. <>.
  18. ^ Kitchen, Sebastian (2005-02-04). "Colvin helped light flame of civil rights.". Montgomery Advertiser. p. 1. 
  19. ^ N.p.. Web. 2 Nov 2013. <>.
  20. ^ TIME, June 14, 1999
  21. ^ "Storyteller presents tale of Montgomery Bus Boycott". GVNow (Grand Valley State University). 2003-01-28. Retrieved 2009-11-27. 
  22. ^ N.p.. Web. 2 Nov 2013. <>
  23. ^ N.p.. Web. 2 Nov 2013. <>.

Further reading[edit]

  • Phillip Hoose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice. (2009). ISBN 0-374-31322-9.
  • Taylor Branch. New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Parting The Waters - American in the King Years 1954-63. (1988). ISBN 0-671-68742-5.

External links[edit]