On March 26, 1955, the Chicago Defender carried a story from Montgomery, Alabama, regarding the arrest of a teenage girl. “A 15-year-old girl who refused to move to the rear of a city bus was found guilty in Juvenile court here last Friday on charges of assault and battery, disorderly conduct and with violating a city ordinance which makes it ‘unlawful for any passenger to refuse or fail to take those seats assigned to the race which it belongs,’” the paper reported. “The girl, Claudette Colvin, was declared a ward of the state and placed on probation pending good behavior.”
“All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily,” Colvin told NPR in 2009. The NPR story continues,
It was Negro history month, and at her segregated school they had been studying black leaders like Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave who led more than 70 slaves to freedom through the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. They were also studying about Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
The class had also been talking about the injustices they were experiencing daily under the Jim Crow segregation laws, like not being able to eat at a lunch counter.
We couldn't try on clothes,” Colvin says. “You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot ... and take it to the store. Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn't get up.”
When the jail door closed, Colvin recalled, “then I got scared, and panic come over me, and I started crying.Then I started saying the Lord’s Prayer.”
“My mom and dad got me out of jail and my dad said, ‘Claudette, you put us in a lot of danger,’” Colvin recalled in a 2015 interview. “He was worried about repercussions from the KKK. So that night, he didn't sleep. He [sat] in the corner, with his shotgun fully loaded, all night.”
When she returned to school, she said, “Everything changed. I lost most of my friends.Their parents had told them to stay away from me, because they said I was crazy, I was an extremist.”
Colvin’s lawyer Fred Gray filed a lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, on behalf of Colvin and three other women (Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith) who had been mistreated on Montgomery city buses. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court and on November 13, 1956, and the Supreme Court affirmed the District Court’s ruling that Alabama’s segregated buses were unconstitutional.
Colvin refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks, but she did not become a symbolic figure of the civil rights movement for several reasons: Colvin was a teenager without civil rights training, whereas Parks was a NAACP officer and dedicated activist; Colvin was darker skinned than Parks; and Colvin got pregnant and was unmarried when she had the baby as a sixteen-year-old.
After decades of being a footnote in civil rights history, today Colvin is well known for being not well known. This article, which ran on the front page of the Defender, is a reminder that her courageous stand was always newsworthy.