An outspoken 15-year-old Claudette Colvin grew tired of following the rules on a March bus trip from her high school to her home in Kings Hill, a community in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.
The teenager, raised by her adoptive parents Q.P. and Mary Ann Colvin, had never quite accepted what was status quo in the tumultuous times of segregation. She wore her hair without pomade and heat, she said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as one form of rebelling against the expectations for black people.
“I would go to school with my hair in braids,” the now-79-year-old said. “I didn’t understand why others wanted to struggle to make (their hair) straight. That hot comb was torture.”
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On March 2, 1955, her spirit of revolt would bubble up on a bus route from Booker T. Washington High School. The days of standing over empty “whites-only” bus seats, drinking out of coloreds-only water fountains and accepting the basic lack of human rights led Colvin to a breaking point. She decided to sit in the empty whites-only window seat. When asked to move, she refused.
“It was impulsive on my part,” she recalled. “I didn’t plan to be arrested, but every day I saw white people sitting there, and they weren’t very friendly. We knew the rules. We had to abide by them every day. It didn’t just go for buses — it was everything. But I wasn’t going to yield to their demand that day.”
With that, Colvin would become one of the catalysts for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the eventual desegregation of buses in the city. Though Rosa Parks’ refusal to relinquish her seat to white passengers is the story capsuled in history as the turning point for the boycotts, Colvin was the inspiration for Parks’ demonstration, which would take place about nine months after Colvin’s.
“Rosa Parks wasn’t the first one to rebel against the segregated seats. I was the first one,” Colvin said.
After her arrest, Colvin and her mother began consulting with women’s organizations and the NAACP about legal action to take. The organizers told Colvin and her mother they would need to put another “face” to the bus boycotts to ensure the public’s support.
“They wanted the right timing and the right person,” Colvin told the AJC. “She was a prominent woman with outstanding character.”
Colvin was unmarried and pregnant at the time of her arrest, while Parks was married, much older and had strong ties to the NAACP. Even as a teenager, she understood the backlash that could ensue if she was chosen as the bus boycott’s poster child.
“It didn’t hurt me,” she said. “It was about getting it better regardless whether it was me or her.”
Both Colvin and Parks were involved in state-level cases that failed in 1955. Colvin’s attorney decided that bringing Colvin and four other plaintiffs’ case would be stronger as a federal civil-action case. With the consultation of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and attorneys Robert L. Carter and Thurgood Marshall, who later became America’s first black Supreme Court justice, civil rights attorney Fred Gray was able to move forward with an appeal. Colvin, along with Aurelia Browder, filed suit against Montgomery’s Mayor W.A. Gayle in the groundbreaking Browder v. Gayle lawsuit in the U.S. District Courts in February 1956. Their case was successful, dissolving the unjust bus seating laws in Montgomery. On Nov. 13, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the District Court’s ruling and ordered Alabama and Montgomery to desegregate its buses.
Colvin, who now lives in the Bronx, New York, faced taunts from her white Alabama neighbors after the success of the desegregation suit. She found it hard to secure domestic work with white families, so she moved temporarily to upstate New York, where she trained to become a nursing assistant. She was back and forth between Alabama and New York with her two sons for years. It wasn’t until the night of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder that Colvin decided she would not return to Alabama.
“I dropped everything and started running when I heard that on the news,” she remembered of the tragic evening of April 4, 1968. “It just hurt me that America portrayed itself as a democratic country, land of the free, home of the brave, but it was so unfair for African-Americans at that time.”
It would be decades before Colvin’s name resonated with the public as a pioneering force in the civil rights movement. Her name first surfaced in 1979 during Black History Month, formerly called Negro History Month. In 1990, then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo awarded her with the MLK Jr. Medal of Freedom, the state’s highest honor of recognition for those individuals of outstanding accomplishments in the field of civil and human rights.
Colvin has no qualms about her recognition as an accidental freedom fighter. She sees the continued racial biases that exist in America as an opportunity for millennials to make their own marks in history.
“For African-Americans, it’s still going to be — some people say double hard — I’d say four times as hard,” she said. “Be an opportunist. Take advantage of your resources, because the only way to win is with education, self-esteem, having value in yourself.”
Black History Month