Let’s go back to 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Segregation laws separating whites from African Americans were common. On the city’s public bus system, the rules were clear—African Americans were expected to give up their seats for white passengers if the bus driver asked.
Finally, one passenger had had enough. The law was unfair! When a bus driver demanded that this African American woman give up her seat for a white passenger, she refused. “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady!” she insisted. “I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!”
And that’s why Claudette Colvin went to jail that day.
When hearing this story, many people are surprised when they find out that the arrested passenger was not Rosa Parks. Parks was an African American woman who famously refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery. She remains an important figure in the American civil rights movement. In contrast, Claudette Colvin’s case is little known today, even though she was arrested nine months before Rosa Parks was. And despite Parks’s fame today, in actuality, it would be Colvin’s case that would overturn the bus segregation law, not Parks’s case.
A Teen Defiant
On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was riding home from school when a driver asked her to give up her seat for a white passenger. Although the teenager later admitted that she was afraid of going to jail, she knew she couldn’t comply. “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’” she said, referring to the two famous African American historical figures. “I was glued to my seat.”
Instead of a jail for juveniles, the police took Colvin to an adult jail. She was led to a cell. When the jailer slammed the door behind her, Colvin was terrified. “I looked around me: three bare walls, a toilet, and a cot,” she remembered. “Then I fell down on my knees in the middle of the cell and started crying again. I didn’t know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me.” Luckily, later that day, her minister came and paid her bail.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an important African American rights advocacy group, thought they might use Colvin’s arrest to challenge the segregation laws which they believed were unfair. Ultimately, the group decided against using Colvin, mainly because she was so young. Rosa Parks, who was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, was 43 years old when she was arrested, old enough to be Colvin’s mother. “She was an adult,” Colvin said of Parks’s case being chosen over her own. “They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
When she appeared in court, Claudette Colvin insisted that she was not guilty. The court did not agree and found her guilty. Luckily, the teen was put on probation instead of being sent to jail. Unfortunately, she found life in Montgomery increasingly difficult because other citizens saw her as a troublemaker.
Eventually, Colvin became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, a court case which challenged the Montgomery bus law. Browder was the last name of Aurelia Browder, one of the four plaintiffs, and Gayle was the last name of Montgomery’s mayor, William A. Gayle. Their case was heard by a panel of three judges, two of whom ruled in favor of the four women. On June 5, 1956, the District Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, the amendment that grants all U.S. citizens equal protection under the law. Both the state of Alabama and the city of Montgomery appealed, but the judges’ decision was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court on November 13, 1956. Segregating buses by race would no longer be legal.
Two years later, Colvin relocated from Alabama to New York City. She spent her career working as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home for 35 years. She retired in 2004.
“Claudette gave all of us moral courage,” her attorney Fred Gray said. “If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks.”
The Montgomery Law
When Colvin refused to give up her seat, most passengers on Montgomery city buses—70 percent of them—were African American.
Each bus had 36 seats. The 10 front seats were reserved for white passengers, while the 10 back seats were reserved for African Americans. In between these 2 sections were 16 unreserved seats. Whites were expected to fill these middle seats from the front to back, African Americans the back to front.
Once a bus was full, if other African Americans boarded the bus, they were required to stand. If another white person boarded the bus, then everyone in the African American row nearest the front had to get up and stand, so that a new row for white people could be created because it was illegal for whites and blacks to sit next to each other. The law made an exception for African American nurses who were in charge of “white children or sick or infirm white persons.”
When driving a bus, Montgomery City Code stated, a bus driver had the “powers of a police officer of the city.” Passengers were expected to obey any orders the driver gave.
Read more about the Browder v. Gayle case at the National Archives.
Images and Sources
Claudette Colvin Photo: The Visibility Project, Claudette Colvin
Claudette Colvin Photo License: Public Domain
Montgomery, Alabama, City Code Photo: Alabama Department of Archives and History
Montgomery, Alabama, City Code Photo License: Public Domain