Rosa Parks is well-known for her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., in December 1955. But Parks’ civil rights protest did have a precedent: Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin, a student from a black high school in Montgomery, had refused to move from her bus seat nine months earlier. However, Colvin is not nearly as well-known, and certainly not as celebrated, as Parks.
Montgomery was segregated, which meant that black people couldn’t use the dressing rooms at department stores or ride in the front of the bus. Colvin didn’t like that.
“I knew that this was a double standard,” she says. “This was unfair.”
The bus incident
On March 2, 1955, Colvin got on the bus with three other students who settled themselves in a middle row. The first 10 seats in the front of the bus were for whites only. That was the law and Colvin knew it.
“And so as the bus proceeded on downtown, more white people got on the bus,” she says. “Eventually the bus got full capacity, and a young white lady was standing near the four of us. She was expecting me to get up.”
“The bus driver saw the situation through the rearview mirror and said, ‘I need those seats,’ ” says Phillip Hoose, the author of Claudette Colvin, Twice Towards Justice. “Three of the girls got up and walked to the back of the bus. Claudette didn’t.”
“I just couldn’t move,” she says. “History had me glued to the seat.”
The bus driver called a police officer, who confronted Colvin.
“And I said, ‘I paid my fare and it’s my constitutional right,’ ” she recalls. “I remember they dragged me off bus because I refused to walk. They handcuffed me and took me to an adult jail.”
She was charged with assault and battery, disorderly conduct and defying the segregation law.
“My mom and dad got me out of jail and my dad said, ‘Claudette, you put us in a lot of danger,’ ” she recalls. “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 Colvin went to school the following Monday, she got a mixed reaction. Some students were impressed by her courage, while others felt that she made things harder for them.
“Everything changed,” she says. “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.”
She wanted to fight in court
Other African-Americans had previously refused to give their seats to white passengers, says Hoose. “What was without precedent, though, is Colvin wanted to get a lawyer and she wanted to fight,” he says.
The lawyer she chose was Fred Gray, one of two African-American lawyers in Montgomery at the time. After speaking with Colvin, Gray says, he was prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit to contest segregation on buses in Montgomery. But after discussing Colvin’s incident with other local African-American community leaders, the community decided to wait, he says.
Colvin was just 15 and did not have civil rights training. Gray says the community was not quite prepared for Colvin’s situation.
“Later I had a child born out of wedlock; I became pregnant when I was 16,” Colvin says. “And I didn’t fit the image either, of, you know, someone they would want to show off.”
Nine months later, Rosa Parks did the exact same thing as Colvin. She was 42 years old, a professional and an officer in the NAACP. Hoose says Parks was the symbol that civil rights leaders were looking for.
“I knew why they chose Rosa,” Colvin says. “They thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa.”
Gray, who went on to represent civil rights icons Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., says that Colvin is one of thousands of unnamed individuals who played a key role in civil rights history.
“Well, today, I’m 75 years old. It’s good to see some of the fruit of my labor,” says Colvin. “To me, I don’t mind being named, as long as we have someone out there to tell our story.”
In 1956, about a year after Colvin refused to give up her seat, Gray filed the landmark federal lawsuit Browder v. Gayle. This case ended segregation on public transportation in Alabama. The star witness was Claudette Colvin.
This story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries and edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman. You can find more Radio Diaries stories on the Radio Diaries podcast.