How a 15 Year Old Girl Desegregated Buses

Oppression often begins and ends with the law. We hear all about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but we never hear about the lawsuit that actually ended bus segregation.

Most people mistakenly believe Rosa Parks was the first person to refuse to give up their seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Nine months before Rosa Parks defied segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did exactly the same thing. Eclipsed by Parks, her act of defiance was largely ignored for many years. 

Below is the Comedy Central "Drunk History" re-enactment of the event that inspired Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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Claudette Colvin (born September 5, 1939) is a retired American nurse aide who was a pioneer of the 1950s civil rights movement. On March 2, 1955, she was arrested at the age of 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus. This occurred some nine months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city. She relied on the city's buses to get to and from school, because her parents did not own a car.

Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and had been learning about the civil rights movement in school. On March 2, 1955, she was returning home from school. She sat in the colored section about two seats away from an emergency exit, in a Capitol Heights bus.

If the bus became so crowded that all the "white seats" in the front of the bus were filled until white people were standing, any African Americans were supposed to get up from nearby seats to make room for whites, move further to the back, and stand in the aisle if there were no free seats in that section. When a white woman who got on the bus was left standing in the front, the bus driver, Robert W. Cleere, commanded Colvin and three other black women in her row to move to the back. The other three moved, but another pregnant black woman, Ruth Hamilton, got on and sat next to Colvin.

The driver looked at them in his mirror. "He asked us both to get up. [Mrs. Hamilton] said she was not going to get up and that she had paid her fare and that she didn't feel like standing," recalls Colvin. "So I told him I was not going to get up either. So he said, 'If you are not going to get up, I will get a policeman.'" The police arrived and convinced a black man sitting behind the two women to move so that Mrs. Hamilton could move back, but Colvin still refused to move. She was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested by the two policemen, Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley. This event took place nine months before the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was famously arrested for the same offense.

Colvin later said: "My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me to let Rosa be the one: white people aren't going to bother Rosa, they like her". Colvin did not receive the same attention as Parks for a number of reasons: she did not have ‘good hair’, she was not fair skinned, she was a teenager, she got pregnant. The leaders in the Civil Rights Movement tried to keep up appearances and make the ‘most appealing’ protesters the most seen. Recognition is due for the other people who participated in the movement.

Claudette had been studying Black leaders like Harriet Tubman in her segregated school, those conversations had led to discussions around the current day Jim Crow laws they were all experiencing. When Colvin refused to get up, she was thinking about a school paper she had written that day about the local custom that prohibited blacks from using the dressing rooms in order to try on clothes in department stores. In a later interview, she said: "We couldn't try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot […] and take it to the store”. Referring to the segregation on the bus and the white woman: "She couldn't sit in the same row as us because that would mean we were as good as her".

"The bus was getting crowded, and I remember the bus driver looking through the rear view mirror asking her [Colvin] to get up for the white woman, which she didn’t,” said Annie Larkins Price, a classmate of Colvin. “She had been yelling, ‘It’s my constitutional right!’. She decided on that day that she wasn’t going to move.” Colvin recalled, “History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other. I couldn’t get up.” Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated. Claudette Colvin said, “But I made a personal statement, too, one that [Parks] didn't make and probably couldn't have made. Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one."

The police officers who took her to the station made inappropriate comments about her body and took turns guessing her bra size throughout the ride. Price testified for Colvin, who was tried in juvenile court. Colvin was initially charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and battering and assaulting a police officer. "There was no assault," Price said. She was bailed out by her minister, who told her that she had brought the revolution to Montgomery.

Through the trial Colvin was represented by Fred Gray, a lawyer for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which was organizing civil rights actions. She was convicted on all three charges in juvenile court. When Colvin's case was appealed to the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955, the charges of disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws were dropped, although her conviction for assaulting a police officer was upheld.

Colvin's moment of activism was not solitary or random. In high school, she had high ambitions of political activity. She dreamed of becoming the president of the United States. Her political inclination was fueled in part by an incident with her schoolmate: Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves was found having sex with a white woman who claimed she was raped though Reeves claims their relations were consensual. He was executed for his alleged crimes.

Browder v. Gayle

Together with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese, Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (1956). Claudette Colvin was the first of the first arrested; the other four women who refused to give up their seats were arrested months after Claudette Colvin. Jeanetta Reese, who worked as a domestic for a high ranking police official, later withdrew from the case. The case, organized and filed in federal court by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, challenged city bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama as unconstitutional.

During the court case, Colvin described her arrest: "I kept saying, 'He has no civil right… this is my constitutional right… you have no right to do this.' And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person." 

Browder v. Gayle made its way through the courts. On June 5, 1956, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama issued a ruling declaring the state of Alabama and Montgomery's laws mandating public bus segregation as unconstitutional. State and local officials appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court summarily affirmed the District Court decision on November 13, 1956. One month later, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider, and on December 20, 1956, the court ordered Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation permanently.

The Montgomery bus boycott was able to unify the people of Montgomery, regardless of educational background or class.

Colvin was a predecessor to the Montgomery bus boycott movement of 1955, which gained national attention. But she rarely told her story after moving to New York City. The discussions in the black community began to focus on black enterprise rather than integration, although national civil rights legislation did not pass until 1964 and 1965. NPR's Margot Adler has said that black organizations believed that Rosa Parks would be a better figure for a test case for integration because she was an adult, had a job, and had a middle-class appearance. They felt she had the maturity to handle being at the center of potential controversy.

Colvin was not the only woman of the Civil Rights Movement who was left out of the history books. In the south, male ministers made up the overwhelming majority of leaders. This was partially a product of the outward face the NAACP was trying to broadcast and partially a product of the women fearing losing their jobs which were often in the public school system.

In 2005, Colvin told the Montgomery Advertiser that she would not have changed her decision to remain seated on the bus: "I feel very, very proud of what I did," she said. "I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on." "I'm not disappointed. 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."

Another factor was that before long Colvin became pregnant. "They said they didn't want to use a pregnant teenager because it would be controversial and the people would talk about the pregnancy more than the boycott," Colvin says. Claudette Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond in March 1956. Colvin said that after her actions on the bus, she was branded a troublemaker by many in her community. She had to drop out of college and left Montgomery for New York City in 1958, because she had difficulty finding and keeping work following her participation in the federal court case that overturned bus segregation.

In New York, Claudette Colvin and her son Raymond initially lived with her older sister, Velma Colvin. Claudette got a job as a nurse's aide in a nursing home in Manhattan. She worked there for 35 years, from 1969 till retiring in 2004. Raymond Colvin died in 1993 in New York of a heart attack, aged 37. While living in New York, Claudette had a second son. He gained an education and became an accountant in Atlanta, where he also married and had his own family.

On May 20, 2018 Congressman Joe Crowley honored Colvin for her lifetime commitment to public service with a Congressional Certificate and an American flag.

Colvin has often said she is not angry that she did not get more recognition; rather, she is disappointed. She said she felt as if she was "getting her Christmas in January rather than the 25th.

Colvin and her family have been fighting for recognition for her action. In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution and its National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) were challenged by Colvin and her family, who asked that Colvin be given a more prominent mention in the history of the civil rights movement. The NMAAHC has a section dedicated to Rosa Parks, which Colvin does not want taken away, but her family's goal is to get the historical record right, and for officials to include Colvin's part of history. Colvin was not invited officially for the formal dedication of the museum, which opened to the public in September 2016.