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Claudette Colvin

 

 

The First "Rosa Parks"

 

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Claudette Colvin (b, September 5, 1939) is a African American woman from Alabama. In 1955, at the age of 15, she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white person, in violation of local law. Her arrest preceded civil rights activist Rosa Parks' (on December 1, 1955) by nine months.

 

At the time, Colvin was a student at Booker T. Washington High School. Colvin's family didn't own a car, so she relied on the city's gold-and-green buses to get to school. On March 2, 1955, she boarded a public bus and, shortly thereafter, refused to give up her seat to a white man. Colvin was coming home from school that day when she got on a Capital Heights bus downtown at the same place Parks boarded another bus months later. Colvin was sitting about two seats from the emergency exit when four whites boarded and the driver ordered her, along with three other black passengers, to get up. She refused and was removed from the bus by two police officers, who took her to jail.

 

"The bus was getting crowded and I remember him (the bus driver) looking through the rear view mirror asking her to get up out of her seat, which she didn't," said a classmate at the time, Annie Larkins Price. "She didn't say anything. She just continued looking out the window. She decided on that day that she wasn't going to move." Other black passengers complied; Colvin ignored the driver. The driver walked back and asked her again.

 

"I'd moved for white people before," Colvin says. But this time, she was thinking of the slavery fighters she had read about recently during Negro History Week in February. "The spirit of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth was in me. I didn't get up."

 

Police were summoned. Two officers approached Colvin, who started crying as she tried to explain herself. One of them kicked the thin teenager and knocked the textbooks from her arms."They dragged her off that bus," says Price, who was sitting behind her classmate. "The rest of us stayed quiet. People were too scared to say anything."

 

Colvin was handcuffed and taken to the city jail, where she was charged with disorderly conduct, violating the segregation ordinance and assault and battery, presumably because she clawed the officers with her long fingernails.

 

She was thrown in a cell by herself until her mother and minister came to bail her out. That night, her father sat up with a gun in case of trouble.

 

Price testified on Colin's behalf in the juvenile court case, where Colvin was convicted of violating the segregation law and assault. "There was no assault," Price said. Colvin had been handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from the bus. She screamed that her constitutional rights were being violated. At the time, Colvin was active in the NAACP's Youth Council, and she was actually being advised by Rosa Parks.

 

E.D. Nixon, then a leader of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, had been waiting for a test case to challenge bus segregation and vowed to help Colvin after her father posted bail. But then came the second-guessing: Colvin’s father mowed lawns; her mother was a maid. Churchgoing people, but they lived in King Hill, the poorest section of Montgomery. The police, who took her to the city hall and then jail, also accused the teenager of spewing curse words, which Colvin denied, saying that in fact the obscenities were leveled at her (“The intimidation, the ridicule,” she often says now)

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Some black leaders believed she was too young, and too dark-skinned to be an effective symbol of injustice for the rest of the nation. Then, as local civil rights leaders continued to debate whether her case was worth contesting, that summer came the news that Colvin was pregnant — by a married man.

 

A number of black leaders, including Parks, raised money for Colvin's defense. At the time, local black leaders believed that Colvin's case was an appropriate one to litigate all the way to the United States Supreme Court, as part of a broader effort to overturn segregation laws in the South. Soon after her arrest, however, Colvin became pregnant by a much older, married man. Local black leaders felt that this moral transgression would not only scandalize the deeply religious black community, but also make Colvin suspect in the eyes of sympathetic whites. In particular, they felt that the white press would manipulate Colvin's illegitimate pregnancy as a means of undermining Colvin's victim status and any subsequent boycott of the bus company. Colvin was also allegedly prone to emotional outbursts and cursing. She was ultimately sentenced to probation for the ordinance violation, but a boycott and legal case never materialized from the event.

 

Some historians have argued that civil rights leaders, who were predominately middle class, were uneasy with Colvin's lower class background. Indeed, before Colvin, the NAACP had considered and rejected several protesters deemed unsuitable or unable to withstand the pressures of cross-examination during a legal challenge to racial segregation laws.

 

On May 11, 1956, Colvin testified in a Montgomery federal court hearing about her actions on the bus (Browder v. Gayle). That same year, she gave birth to a son Raymond, who was so fair-skinned (like his father) that people frequently accused her of having a white baby. She left Alabama for New York in 1958, and for over 30 years worked the night shift at a Catholic nursing home. Colvin retired in 2004 after 35 years of working as a nurse's assistant in the nursing home.

 

Raymond became addicted to drugs and alcohol. At 37, he died of a heart attack in Colvin's apartment. About her life, her dreams of becoming a lawyer, she says, "Yes, I’m disappointed. But then again, no one knows what’s in store for them. At least my grandkids don’t have to suffer what I had to suffer."

 

According to the Montgomery Advertiser, Colvin said that she would not change her decision to remain seated. "I feel proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on."

 

Colvin admires Rosa Parks and concedes that a self-assured adult of 42 made a better symbol for the bus boycott than an impetuous youth of 15 would have. Moreover, Parks was a family friend. Colvin used to spend the night at her house and once served as a mannequin for a wedding dress that Parks, a seamstress, was making.

 

"She (Parks) used to tell me what a brave young lady I was," Colvin remembers. Even so, it has Colvin to hear so much about Parks and so little about the other women who challenged segregation on the Montgomery buses.

 

Parks once phoned her from her home in Detroit to tell Colvin that she was going to be speaking in New York. Could Claudette come? It was a short-notice request and rubbed Colvin the wrong way. Colvin told Parks that she had to work.

 

"You have to realize that our family never talked much about what happened to Claudette," says her kid sister Gloria Laster, an advertising account executive in Birmingham. "Part of it was fear. But part of it was Rosa. Our mother always felt that as long as Rosa Parks was breathing, she's the mother of the civil rights movement, and we shouldn't say anything to take away from that."

 

"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."

 

Storyteller-actress Awele Makeba, who has made it her life's work to tell history through the words of its oft-forgotten witnesses, wrote, directed and stars in a one-woman drama, Rage Is Not A 1-Day Thing!, in which Makeba tells the true story of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott through the eyes of Colvin following her arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person.

 

Claudette Colvin (today) answers questions from students at a School in Montgomery, Ala.

 

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Forty-nine years ago, an African-American woman boarded a city bus in downtown Montgomery Ala., and took the first available seat. When white passengers came aboard, the bus driver ordered her to get up and surrender her seat. Tired of being pushed around, she refused, and after repeated warnings, the bus driver summoned the police. The woman was arrested for violating city segregation codes and removed from the bus.

 

This then-defiant act was one of the most significant moments, even a watershed event in America's civil rights movement. Most of us can name the courageous woman who refused to yield her seat - her name was Rosa Parks. The date in history was Dec. 1, 1955.

 

Parks' historic act of civil disobedience galvanized members of the the Montgomery, Ala., African-American community to begin organizing what would eventually become a highly successful bus system boycott, with the advice and assistance of a 26-year-old Baptist preacher, The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

What you probably don't realize is that the Rosa Parks incident was not the first act of protest against the Montgomery transit system, as a number of mostly unheralded African-America women in Montgomery also refused to yield their bus seats to white patrons, months before Parks did in 1955. Their collective actions, combined with an important legal action that built on the famous Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, played a vital role in taking down the wall of segregation that was built upon the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson.

 

Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, eventually became plaintiffs in a legal action challenging Montgomery's segregated public transportation system, in a case is known as Browder V. Gayle. A federal district court, and eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court, would use this case to strike down segregation on buses everywhere.

 

Perhaps the best-know of the four plaintiffs to the case was Claudette Colvin, a 15-year old student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery. On March 2, 1955, she boarded a bus with three other women. When white passengers boarded the bus, Colvin and the three other black women were ordered to surrender their seats. Two of the women did, but Colvin and one other woman refused. After the bus driver summoned police, the remaining woman with Colvin ran away from the scene, leaving Colvin alone, still refusing to give up her seat. Police handcuffed and arrested Colvin, and forcibly removed her from the bus, as she screamed that her Constitutional rights were being violated.

 

Colvin was active in the National Association for the Advancememt of Colored People's Youth Council, and received advice from another NAACP member - none other than Rosa Parks. "Mrs. Parks said always do what was right," Colvin remembered years later.

 

The NAACP and other activists were initially excited at the prospect of organizing a boycott and civil action around Colvin's case. However, momentum soon waned when Montgomery NAACP chapter attorney E.D. Nixon discovered that Colvin was several months pregnant.

 

Nixon and local attorney Fred Gray were apprehensive about asking conservative African-American churches to fight on behalf of Colvin, who, it was later discovered, was also prone to outbursts and cursing. Many of the charges against Colvin were dropped, and a bus boycott and legal case never materialized.

 

Still, community leaders knew that the time was ripe to challenge segregation. The Colvin case, Douglas Brinkley wrote in Parks' biography, "proved a good dress rehearsal for the real drama shortly to come."

 

The African-American community needed a citizen whose character was unimpeachable, a "pillar of the community." Nine months later, Parks - unbeknownst to her - would become that person.

 

Claudette Colvin later reemerged when, two months after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, attorneys Gray, Nixon and Clifford Durr searched for the ideal case to challenge the constitutional legitimacy of city and state bus segregation laws. Durr believed that an appeal of Park's case would just get tied up in the Alabama state courts.

 

Gray approached Browder, Colvin, McDonald and Smith, who had been mistreated by the bus system the previous year. The four women agreed to become plaintiffs in a civil action, and on Feb. 1, 1956, Browder v. Gayle was filed in U.S. District Court.

 

The specific legal question before the court was whether the segregation of the whites and African-Americans on so-called "privately" owned buses operated by the City of Montgomery violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

 

On June 19, 1956, the three-judge panel ruled that Montgomery segregation codes "deny and deprive plaintiffs and other Negro citizens similarly situated of the equal protection of the laws and due process of law secured by the Fourteenth Amendment."

 

The court essentially decided that the precedent of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) could be applied to Browder. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision in December 1956.

 

With the nation's highest court now on their side, the victorious African-American community in Montgomery joyously ended the bus boycott.

 

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[History of CORE - Text version] [Montgomery Bus Boycott] [Rosa Parks]

 

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