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Before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin Refused to Give Up Her Seat on the Bus

You’re never too young to fight for civil rights.

Claudette Colvin was only 15 years old when she protested segregation by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 2, 1955. That was nine months before Rosa Parks famously performed the same act of resistance in Montgomery on December 1, 1955.

Under Jim Crow laws, which were put in place in the United States in the South after the post-slavery Reconstruction period and remained in effect until the mid-1960s, white people and African American people were separated in churches, schools, hotels, restaurants and on public transportation.

Colvin had finally had enough the day she wouldn’t give her seat to a white woman on the bus. She was compelled “to take a stand for justice,” the now 80-year-old Colvin told Great Big Story in 2016.

While no one stood up for her as she insisted her constitutional rights were being violated, Colvin didn’t feel alone in the moment as she sat glued to her seat. “I felt like Harriet Tubman’s hands were holding me down on one shoulder, and Sojourner Truth’s hands were holding me down on the other shoulder,” she recalled.

Both Tubman and Truth were fresh on her mind because Colvin had been studying African American history at Booker T. Washington High School, where she was in 11th grade.

After a standoff, the police arrived and dragged Colvin off the bus, arrested her and charged her with assault and battery, disorderly conduct and violation of city segregation laws. She was locked up in a jail cell.

You’d think this teenager would have become a civil rights icon for her act of defiance. It was the talk of Montgomery. But Parks, who was a secretary at the NAACP office in Montgomery, was deemed a better representative of the African American community by local activists. And it was Parks who would later take part in a more highly-publicized action less than a year later that would spark the Montgomery bus boycott.

Colvin remained an activist. She would go on to serve as a co-plaintiff along with Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith in Browder v. Gayle, one of the most important civil rights cases in the history of the United States.

The three other plaintiffs had refused to give up their seats to white people on buses. In the lawsuit, they challenged the state statutes and city laws that required segregation on public transportation.

The historic case was decided in their favor and put an end to segregation on public transportation in Alabama.

As an adult, Colvin moved to New York City, where she raised her two sons and worked as a nurse’s aid until she retired.

Like many others who played a key role in the civil rights movement, Colvin’s contributions have largely been overlooked for decades. But there has been an effort by historians, activists, journalists and others in recent years to recognize unsung heroes like Colvin, whose bravery changed the course of history.

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United States

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