Almost everyone has heard of Rosa Parks. The name Claudette Colvin remains almost unknown, except by inhabitants of the King Hill neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama. Go there and say her name and residents will proudly tell you, “she was the first.”
In 1955, Claudette was a fifteen-year-old “A” student at Montgomery’s Booker T Washington High School. She was full of plans and dreams, and once told her class she intended to be president of the United States one day. During Negro History Week, the second week in February, she felt inspired by stories of strong black women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. She and her class also discussed the injustices they personally experienced under Jim Crow laws. Things like not being able to sit at a lunch counter and eat, or try on clothes or shoes in stores. They had to draw an outline of their feet on paper and take that into the store to compare with the shoes in the shop.
They also had to stay in the colored section of the city buses and be prepared to give up their seats to white passengers at any time.
On March 2, 1955, she rode a city bus home from school. She was seated in the front of the black section. When a group of white passengers boarded the crowded bus, Claudette and several other black riders were told to leave their seats. The others, adult passengers, complied. Claudette refused to leave her seat, saying, “I paid my fare. It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that white lady.”
She told people later she felt like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman held her down, not letting her leave her seat. After her arrest, the terrified but resolute teenager continued her challenge of the segregationist bus law. In court, she became the first black person arrested for violating the bus laws to plead “not guilty”.
Her lawyer thought hers would make a good test case for ending bus segregation. The local black establishment tried to rally nationwide support for her. However, just as her case began to catch national attention, word spread that she had become pregnant. The largely male hierarchy of the NAACP worried that a teenaged unwed mother from the wrong side of town presented an inappropriate symbol.
There was concern that the middle class would not follow a girl from King Hill, a “sepia” neighborhood that many people looked down on. In his Pulitzer prize-winning account of the civil rights years, Parting The Waters, Taylor Branch wrote: “Even if Montgomery Negroes were willing to rally behind an unwed, pregnant teenager – which they were not – her circumstances would make her an extremely vulnerable standard bearer.”
Claudette’s first son, Raymond, was born early in 1956. By that time, Rosa Parks, a long-standing political activist and feminist, was the NAACPs chosen test case. Parks was the secretary of the NAACP, a well-known and respected adult with the right hair and the right look. She could shake hands and attend banquets. In the meantime, teenaged Claudette was branded a troublemaker.
Later, Claudette explained that events that engulfed her made her “…aware of how the world is and how the white establishment plays black people against each other.”
Although she received a scholarship to Alabama State, university authorities were unhappy having a “troublemaker” on campus. She could not find work. As soon as white people found out what she had done, they refused to hire her. She would change her name and leave her own son with her mother so she could babysit for white people who hated her. As soon as her employers found out the truth, they fired her.
In 1958, this bright student dropped out of school and left Montgomery for New York. Eventually she got a job as a nurse’s aide in a Manhattan nursing home. There she had a second son, Randy.
Her two boys took wildly divergent paths. Like many African-American men, Raymond, joined the US army. Like all too many, he became involved in drugs and died young. Randy worked hard, following his mother’s legacy as an excellent student. As an adult, he moved to Atlanta, where he now works as an accountant. Claudette continued working at the nursing home until she retired in 2004 and moved to Detroit.
While her role in the fight to end segregation may not be widely recognized, her former attorney said, “Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks.”
One thing Claudette continues to regret is never having the opportunity tell her story to children. As a historian noted, “the real reality of the [civil rights] movement was often young people.” Now the grandmother of five, Claudette understands the power of inspiration and would have liked the chance to inspire others. She understands why the NAACP never called on her to speak at formal gatherings and fundraisers, but wishes she had been called on to talk to children like herself at schools or churches.
She has long held onto the memory of what her minister told her the night of her arrest:
I’m so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We’ve all been praying and praying. But you’re different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, published 2010