Claudette Colvin

Black History Month Profiles: Claudette Colvin, Civil Rights Activist

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

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 buses. 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

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



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


Latest News

woke politics

Republicans Launch a War on ‘Woke’ Politics in Hopes of Big Legislative Wins in 2022

In 2020, former President Barack Obama warned that the phrase “Defund the Police” could become a dangerous rallying cry for the conservative right. But now, Republicans have apparently taken that warning one step further, declaring war on all things “woke.” Allan Smith and Sahil Kapur of NBC News wrote that…

women in politics

Women Remain Vastly Underrepresented in Local Government, Despite Conventional Wisdom Suggesting Otherwise

Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sat behind President Biden during his first speech to a joint session of Congress on April 28 — representing the first time two women held such important and high-ranking political offices. Even after such a historic moment, the reality…

voter restriction

Florida Follows Georgia’s Lead, Approves Racist Anti-Voter Restrictions Aimed Primarily at Democrats and People of Color

Not content with letting Georgia be the only state in the South demonized for its bigoted and racist attacks on voter rights, Florida has jumped into the fray in issuing its own series of new and highly controversial “Jim Crow-esque” anti-voting restrictions aimed specifically at disenfranchising Democrats and voters of…

Kentucky Derby

Inspired by Protests Over Breonna Taylor’s Death, Humana and Kentucky Derby Festival Launch Diversity and Inclusion Initiative in Louisville

Ahead of the 147th Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 1, Kentucky Derby officials and Humana (No. 25 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020) have announced a new equity initiative meant to make the race more accessible and welcoming to everyone, regardless of race, gender, age…

crimes against human ity

‘Crime Against Humanity’; Global Report Says the US Should Be Prosecuted in International Criminal Court for Ongoing Police Murders of Black Americans

In what has been described as a “devastating” report, human rights experts and lawyers have investigated and released a 188-page analysis of the ongoing police brutality and killing of Black Americans in the U.S. Their verdict: the country is guilty of “crimes against humanity” and should be prosecuted for its…

Tokyo, Olympics

Tokyo Olympics to Encourage Significant Increase in Gender Equality Among Event’s Corporate Sponsors

Besides simply being a showcase for some of the most talented and athletic men and women on the planet, the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics are hoping their event this summer can also help promote significant change in corporate culture, both in Japan and around the globe. Bloomberg’s Ayai Tomisawa…