Women’s History Month: Before Rosa Parks There Was Claudette Colvin
Claudette Colvin was 15 in 1955. She may have been young, but she knew her constitutional rights, and on March 2 that year, she stood up for her rights on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama when she refused to give her seat to a white woman at the bus driver’s command. Two white officers dragged her off the bus, handcuffed her in the back of a police car, and threw her in jail. Her mother and her pastor bailed her out, and her father, fearful of violence from the white community, sat up all night guarding his family with his shotgun.
Colvin took her stand nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the same bus system. She was riding home from high school where she and her classmates had recently been studying Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth for Black History Month. They talked about current events and Jim Crow laws and the injustice they lived with daily. Colvin later 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. Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”
In early 1956, Colvin joined Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith as plaintiffs in the landmark case, Browder v. Gayle, which overturned bus segregation laws in Alabama. A three-judge panel ruled in their favor that June, and in November the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision.
By fighting for her constitutional rights through the federal court system, Colvin struck a blow to the segregationist laws of mid-century Alabama and ushered in a freer and fairer world. She was thought too young and emotional to be the face of the movement, which is why Rosa Parks was elevated to that role, but her courage inspired others to fight against injustice as the civil rights movement grew.
Colvin lived most of her adult life in New York City where then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo awarded her the MLK Jr. Medal of Freedom in 1990. She recently moved back to Birmingham, Alabama to live near family. March 2 is now known as Claudette Colvin Day in Montgomery.
Karla Jacobs is a commissioner on the Georgia Commission on Women.