The 15-Year Old Girl Who Refused to Give Up Her Seat 9 Months Before Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks is a hero of the African-American Civil Rights Movement- some people even call her the “first lady of civil rights”.

She gained fame after she refused to move to the back of a segregated bus on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. The act helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the iconic symbols of the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks being processed after her arrest (Photo: americaslibrary.gov)

But you probably haven’t heard of Claudette Colvin. Colvin was born in one of the poorer black neighborhoods in Montgomery in September of 1939.

In 1955 she was a high school student at segregated Booker T. Washington high school. She was also a member of the NAACP Youth Council and was said to even have aspirations of being President one day.

On March 2, 1955, Claudette was headed home from school on a Capital Heights public bus. Colvin was actually sitting in the “colored” section, but there was a rule that if the white section filled up, the black passengers would have to stand and give their seats up to any white passengers left without one.

Claudette Colvin, age 15

When a white woman boarded the bus and was left standing, the bus driver ordered Colvin, her friend and one other black passenger to stand up and give the woman the seat they were sharing.

But Colvin was just not going to have it that day. She balled up her fists and refused to give up the seat. During the trial that would later end bus segregation in Montgomery, she recounted the experience of being arrested and dragged off of the bus:

“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.”

In an NPR piece from 2009, Colvin said that when she refused to give up her seat she was thinking about a paper she had turned in earlier that day about the local practice of not letting black people try things on at department stores:

“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.”

She also added in an interview with Newsweek,

“I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.”

A recent picture of Colvin

Though she was bailed out and recognized by the NAACP, they decided not to use her as their poster girl for a number of reasons. First off, she was a teenager, only 15 at the time of her arrest.

Also, she had a child out of wedlock in December of 1955 following what she describes as a statutory rape (she refused to use the father’s name or even speak of it), something that the NAACP feared would be used to destroy her character.

Rosa Parks was an adult, and the NAACP felt she would be viewed as more reasonable and reliable. Colvin also added that Rosa Parks had the right look and hair to be the face of the Bus Boycott:

“Her [lighter] skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class… She fit that profile.”

Though Colvin admits being somewhat disappointed about being passed over and forgotten by much of history, she also adds,

“I feel very, very proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on… 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.”

In early 1956, Fred Gray (president of the NAACP at the time) was worried that the Rosa Parks case was going to get tied up in local Alabama courts. Gray knew that he needed a way to take the case to federal court.

Fred Gray with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in Birmingham (May 8, 1963)

So on February 1, he filed a lawsuit (Browder v. Gayle) in a U.S. District Court on behalf of five women who had been discriminated against by the Montgomery bus system’s enforcement of segregation: Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanette Reese (Reese would later drop out after intimidation from members of the white community).

On June 13, 1956, the District Court ruled that,

“the enforced segregation of black and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States,”

citing the 14th Amendment and effectively ending the practice of segregation in the Montgomery bus system. The ruling was upheld and solidified by the Supreme Court later that year.

In 1958, Colvin decided to move away from the madness in Montgomery, settling in Manhattan where she would work as a nurse’s aide for 35 years before retiring.

Recently, author Phillip Hoose wrote a book telling her full story. You can read an excerpt from the book and learn more by checking out NPR’s piece on Colvin from back in 2009.

Links to Amazon if you’re interested in purchasing Hoose’s book

Feature image courtesy of Keith McCaffety.

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