Before Rosa Parks Refused To Give Up Her Seat On The Bus, There Was Claudette Colvin

February 6, 2014  |  

I ran across a very interesting piece done by NPR from 2009, and was personally introduced to the story of 69-year-old Claudette Colvin. When she was 15, Colvin was sitting on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. as she was getting ready to return home from school. Minding her business, the bus driver approached her and asked her to move from her seat to the very back of the bus so a white person could have it, and she refused, saying she paid her fare and it was her Constitutional right to sit where she wanted. She was arrested. This happened nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

Despite the fact that Colvin even challenged the ability to be removed from one’s seat to appease a white person in court, and was one of the plaintiffs in a case that helped to overturn bus segregation laws in Montgomery and the state as a whole, Colvin’s voice and impact faded into the background once Rosa Parks was picked as the face of such protest for the NAACP and other black organizations. Why? In an interview with the NPR to shed a new light on the book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (originally released in 2009), author Phil Hoose said he felt Colvin’s was a story that needed to be shared other than just Rosa Parks’ since it happened “in the same city, in the same bus system, with very tough consequences, hauled off the bus, handcuffed, jailed and nobody really knew about it.” In the book, Colvin recounts that day, March 2, 1995, in great detail, including the moment she refused to get out of her seat and was approached by cops:

One of them said to the driver in a very angry tone, “Who is it?” The motorman pointed at me. I heard him say, “That’s nothing new . . . I’ve had trouble with that ‘thing’ before.” He called me a “thing.” They came to me and stood over me and one said, “Aren’t you going to get up?” I said, “No, sir.” He shouted “Get up” again. I started crying, but I felt even more defiant. I kept saying over and over, in my high-pitched voice, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my dare, it’s my constitutional right!” I knew I was talking back to a white policeman, but I had had enough.

Colvin also explains in the book the reasons why she didn’t have the same impact as Parks. For one, she was a teenager at the time, while Parks was an adult. Also, she became pregnant soon after all this happened and was looked at as an “inappropriate symbol” as teen mom. Colvin also didn’t really share her story when she moved to New York (she currently resides in the Bronx), as segregation issues weren’t focused on at the time up north, moreso, “black enterprises, black pride and Malcolm X” according to the NPR piece. Lastly, Colvin’s darker skin tone and hair also played a part according to her. Rosa just had the look the NAACP wanted:

“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class. She fit that profile.”

As it goes, though the Civil Rights Movement was led by men, many teenagers and women were involved, but didn’t get their voices heard as much–hence Hoose’s desire to tell Colvin’s story. And now that I know more about her, I think it’s a story more people should know about. While we know the Rosas, the Malcolms, the Martins, the Stokelys, there are other unknown heroes we need to be celebrating this month, including Colvin.

Check out the full archived article at NPR and an excerpt from the book, which is available for as low as $8.99 online right now. Definitely a story to learn more about during this month and to share onward.


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