Black History Month Profiles: Claudette Colvin, Civil Rights Activist

During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn about more important figures.

Related Story: Black History Month Profiles: Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton, Blues Musician

Born: Sept. 5, 1939 Montgomery, Ala.
Best known for: Refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nine months before Rosa Parks’s famous act of civil disobedience.

Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in December of 1955, but months earlier, a younger woman whose name is less often featured in history books did the same. Claudette Colvin was just 15 when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. She was arrested and became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, a case that ruled Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.

Colvin grew up in one of Montgomery’s poorer neighborhoods. She was a dedicated student, and in her segregated school that month, students had been learning about Black figures like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, she told NPR in 2009. She said she and her classmates were also talking about forms of racism and discrimination they faced under segregation in the South.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin was riding home from school on a city bus when the driver demanded she give up her seat to a white passenger. Though she later shared with NPR how scared she was, she stood her ground.

“It just so happens they picked me at the wrong time — it was Negro History Month, and I was filled up like a computer,” Colvin told Newsweek in 2009. “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.”

Police dragged Colvin away in handcuffs, arresting her on several charges, including violating Montgomery’s segregation laws. They brought the teenager to jail where she stayed until the reverend at the church her family attended paid her bail. In Phillip Hoose’s 2009 biography of Colvin, “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” Colvin recounts the officers harassing her and calling her names like “n—– bitch,” “thing,” and “whore.” She also describes the fear she and her community felt after the incident, saying her family and neighbors stayed up all night to keep watch against retaliation.

“I had stood up to a white bus driver and two white cops,” she said in the biography. “I had challenged the bus law. There had been lynchings and cross burnings for that kind of thing.”

Colvin’s community may have been on her side that night, but her story did not gain as much traction as it could have. A number of women had been doing the same thing Colvin and Parks did but were typically just fined and did not make headlines. The NAACP, however, considered using Colvin’s story to challenge segregation laws. They ultimately did not because of her youth and because she became pregnant shortly after her arrest. They believed an unwed teen mother would attract too much public criticism.

Nine months later, Rosa Parks became the face of the fight against Montgomery bus segregation. Parks’ image and age, Colvin told NPR, were more palatable and easier for Black organizations to bolster.

“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” Colvin told NPR. “She fit that profile.”

Legally, Colvin continued to challenge her charges. The court ruled against her and put her on probation, which, along with her unplanned pregnancy, left her open to public ridicule. She later had to drop out of college and had trouble finding a job.

She became one of four plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case in 1956. The other plaintiffs included Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith — all Black women who had faced discrimination on city busses. Attorneys Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed the case on the women’s behalf. Defendants included Montgomery Mayor William A. Gayle, the city’s chief of police, representatives from Montgomery’s Board of Commissioners, Montgomery City Lines, Inc., two bus drivers, and representatives of the Alabama Public Service Commission. The case decided Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.

Colvin later moved to New York City with her son, had a second son and worked as a nurse’s aide.

Colvin’s legacy may have been left out of mainstream discourse about the civil rights movement, but she still left an impact. In addition to Hoose’s biography about her, Colvin was also the subject of Rita Dove’s poem, “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work,” which later became a song folk artist John McCutcheon composed.

Menial twilight seeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance — lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I’m beat, bring me a beer.

Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary
look of things in bad light — one drop of sweat
is all it would take to dissolve an armchair pillow
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;

then I know it’s time to start out for work.
Along the Avenue, the cabs start up, heading
Toward midtown; neon stutters into ecstasy
as the male integers light up their smokes and let loose
a stream of brave talk: “Hey Mama” souring quickly to
“Your Mama” when there’s no answer — as if
the most injury they can do is insult the reason

you’re here at all, walking in your whites
down to the stop so you can make a living.
So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy —
What we have to do to make God love us?
Mama was a maid, my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,
and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one
who wrote in class she was going to be President.

I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t curse or spit
or kick and scratch like they said I did then
I help those who can’t help themselves,
I do what needs to be done . . . and I sleep
Whenever sleep comes down on me.

— Rita Dove

Additional sources: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, Biography.com

 

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