Many have heard of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery Bus, but not many people have heard of the earlier act of Claudette Colvin that would help initiate the Montgomery Bus Boycott and spark a national civil rights movement.
Claudette Colvin was born Claudette Austin in Birmingham County, Alabama. Her parents were Mary Jane Gadson and C.P. Austin, but Claudette and her siblings were raised by their great-aunt Mary Ann and great-uncle QP Colvin.
Claudette and her family lived in a poor Black neighborhood in Montgomery County where she attended Booker T Washington High School. Claudette received good grades and was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, an organization dedicated to training the next generation of civil rights leaders. Claudette worked alongside NAACP Secretary, Rosa Parks, who served as her mentor.
It was an ordinary day for 15-year-old Claudette when she boarded the Montgomery bus on March 2, 1955, but she would soon make a decision that changed the course of her life and the civil rights movement. Claudette was on her way home from school when the bus driver told her to give her seat to a young white lady, even though there were other seats available. Claudette said the Black history she had been learning in school had her “glued to her seat.” She refused to move saying it was her “constitutional right.” Cops came, pulled Claudette off the bus, and forced her into a squad car where she was handcuffed and taken to an adult jail.
Claudette was held for three hours. She was not released until her pastor, Reverend HH Johnson arrived and bailed her out of jail. Claudette’s case came before the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955. The charges of disturbing the peace and violating the city’s segregation ordinance were dropped. However, the third charge of assaulting a police officer (he claimed she clawed him with her long nails) remained on her record for 60 years until Montgomery Judge, Calvin Williams, erased it from her record.
In February 1956 Claudette was a plaintiff in Browder v Gayle, the case that eventually ended bus segregation in Alabama.
Rosa Parks continued to mentor Claudette the summer after her arrest and even made her Secretary of the NAACP Youth Council.
Although Claudette Colvin’s case did not become as well-known as Rosa Parks,’ her actions influenced local civil rights leaders and organizations in their decision to boycott the Montgomery bus system that would last a staggering 13 months. If Claudette had not made a stand against segregation, Rosa Parks case may not have been as impactful.
Today there is a street in Montgomery bearing Claudette Colvin’s name. Also, a proclamation by Montgomery council members Charles Jinright and Tracy Larkin dedicated March 2nd as Claudette Colvin’s day.
Claudette Colvin is forever a part of American history. Her name and the names of the other plaintiffs in Browder v Gayle, are on display near the Rosa Parks statue in Montgomery, Alabama.