In celebration of Black History Month, I’ve committed to learning about those heroes we probably didn’t learn about in school in school. Once a week, I’ll be sharing what I learned about these incredible humans with you.
You undoubtedly know all about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott of 1955. But do you know Claudette Colvin? However, not too many are aware that a small number of Black women had also refused to give up their seat on the bus. Those women were simply quietly fined and everyone went about their way. Until young Claudette Colvin. Colvin was the first to truly challenge this Jim Crow law. At only 15 years old, Colvin stood her ground by remaining in her seat. Her gracious defiance created waves in the segregated community. She spurred civil rights activists to the next step toward the fight for racial equality. Yet until fairly recently, her story has been secondary to Parks’.
Who is Claudette Colvin?
Colvin was born in 1939 and raised by her great aunt and uncle as her parents were too poor to keep her. Colvin moved with her family to Montgomery when she was 8 years old. When they moved from their close-knit community to the big city, the inequalities of the Jim Crow laws were glaringly obvious.
Ms. Colvin has shared in her rare interviews that her true defining moment came when she was 13 years old. An older classmate named Jeremiah Reeves was indicted and later executed for allegedly raping a white woman. He was only 16 at the time of his conviction. It was this horrific injustice that truly spurred her inner activist.
Young Claudette carefully maneuvered her way through the Jim Crow era that was Alabama at the time. Keep in mind she was only 15 when all this happened.
Jim Crow’s Alabama
The Jim Crow era, which proclaimed “separate but equal”, was anything but. Blacks were not allowed to eat at the counter at diners (if they were let in at all). They couldn’t try on clothes or shoes. Ms. Colvin has told a story about wanting “shiny black shoes” but those were sold exclusively in the “white” stores. Her mom had to draw an outline of Claudette’s feet on butcher paper and take that to the shoe store. She waited outside while the salesperson brought out a pair that was supposed to match the shoe size according to the drawing. And she would just take them home and hoped they fit. That’s how they shopped for shoes and clothing.
Colvin recalls there were many not-so-subtle verbal reminders from the white community that were meant to keep Black citizens in their place.
But perhaps it wasn’t all bad. As Claudette expressed: one benefit of attending a segregated school is students were able to learn more about Black leaders like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Being able to openly discuss the social injustice they experienced daily under the Jim Crow segregation laws in the classroom allowed the students to explore avenues to fight for equality. Even today, it’s nearly impossible to have these types of discussions in the public school system.
Jim Crow’s Bus System
The way the bus system was: white people sat up front and Black people sat in the back. Drivers usually had the authority to assign seats. Under the Jim Crow laws, Black passengers did not technically have to give up their seats if there weren’t any more in the white section. However most did out of fear often violent consequences. Under these same laws, a white person could not sit down if any Black passenger still occupied that row because that implied Blacks were as good as white people. The entire row had to be cleared first.
March 2, 1955
It was these very laws that came into play on a packed bus ride home from school. Claudette Colvin and three of her classmates were told to move in order to make room for a white lady who was standing. Both of her classmates got up, but Colvin stayed put. As the bus driver got more demanding, she remained seated and affirmed that she knew her rights. In case y’all weren’t paying attention, she absolutely knew her rights. When the police were called, once again, Claudette remained firm in her stance. As the cops hauled her off, she knew better than to put up any resistance or else they might get violent. Sounds familiar, huh?
This is when she started getting truly scared. Alone with the two male cops, they called her names like “n***** whore”, talked about her breasts and tried to guess her bra size. “I could have been raped.” she has said. Instead of being taken to a juvenile detention center as most kids her age would have been, Colvin was taken to an adult jail and put in a small cell with nothing in it but a broken sink and a cot without a mattress. They locked her in without even allowing her a phone call. Thankfully her friends ran home to find Mrs. Colvin and let her know what had happened. About three hours until her mother arrived with their pastor to bail Claudette out.
The fear wasn’t gone though. Colvin’s dad stayed up all night waiting for the KKK to come to their house.
By the next morning, word had spread of this young girl’s arrest. According to some accounts, no one had ever been arrested for defying Montgomery’s bus system before, much less someone so young. Her arrest made local news and the Montgomery NAACP chapter, including new resident, Martin Luther King Jr, took great notice. By that time, they had reached the conclusion that a boycott was to only way to get the injustice to the forefront.
However, Claudette didn’t have the right “look”. She was too young and too dark for universal appeal (according to them). Their final decision to stage their boycott with Rosa Parks as the face of the movement came when young Claudette became pregnant soon after by an unnamed married man. The focus would be on a “bad girl” and her terrible reputation rather than fighting for civil equality.
A year later, Colvin was pulled back into the fray in early 1956 alongside three other women — Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith — who experienced similar mistreatment on a bus. The four were named plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of Montgomery’s segregation laws. A three-judge panel ruled in their favor in June, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision in November. The boycott was a success.
Despite her immeasurable contributions to the cause, Colvin life in Alabama was still hard for her after her fateful bus ride. She moved to New York at the end of the decade and decided to stay their after MLK’s assassination in 1968.