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Claudette Colvin (born September 5, 1939) is a pioneer of the African American Civil Rights Movement. On March 2, 1955, she was the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, preceding the more publicized Rosa Parks incident by nine months.
Colvin was among the five plaintiffs originally included in the federal court case, filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray on February 1, 1956, as Browder v. Gayle, and testified before the three-judge panel that heard the case in the United States District Court. On June 13, 1956, the judges determined that the state and local laws requiring bus segregation in Alabama were unconstitutional. The case went to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling on December 17, 1956. Colvin was the last witness to testify. Three days later the Supreme Court issued an order to Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was called off.
For a long time, Montgomery's black leaders did not publicize Colvin's pioneering effort because she was a teenager who was pregnant by a married man; words like "feisty", "mouthy", and "emotional" were used to describe Claudette while her counterpart Parks was seen as calm, well-mannered, and studious. Given the social norms of the time and her youth, the NAACP leaders worried about using her to represent their boycott.
Claudette Colvin: "Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn't the case at all.
Colvin was born September 5, 1939 and was adopted by C. P. Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin, her father mowed lawns and her mother was a maid. and grew up in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Montgomery, Alabama. In 1943, at the age of four years, she had received her first impression on the struggles of segregation. She was at a retail store with her mother when a couple of white boys entered. They asked her to touch hands and compare them. Her mother saw this, slapped her face, and said that she was not allowed to touch them.
In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city. She relied on the city's buses to get to and from school, because her parents did not own a car. She said that she aspired to be President one day. Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and had been actively learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school. Colvin was returning home from school on March 2, 1955, and got on a Capitol Heights bus downtown. She was sitting about two seats from the emergency exit in the colored section.
If the bus became so crowded that all the so-called "white seats" in front were filled and a white person was standing, the African Americans were supposed to leave these seats and move to the back and stand, if needed. When a white woman got on the bus and was left standing, bus driver Robert W. Cleere commanded Colvin and three other black women in the row to move to the back. The other three moved, but a pregnant black woman, Ruth Hamilton, got on and sat next to Colvin.
The driver looked at them through his mirror. "He asked us both to get up. [Mrs Hamilton] said she was not going to get up and that she had paid her fare and that she didn't feel like standing," recalls Colvin. "So I told him I was not going to get up, either. So he said, 'If you are not going to get up, I will get a policeman.'" The police arrived and convinced a black man sitting behind the two women to move so that Mrs. Hamilton could move back, but Colvin continued to refuse. She was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested by the two policemen, Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley where she spent the car ride being sexually harassed about her bra size. This was eight months before NAACP Secretary Rosa Parks was famously arrested for the same offense.Claudette Colvin: "My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me to let Rosa be the one, white people aren't going to bother Rosa they like her"
When Colvin refused to get up, she was thinking about a school paper that she had written that day about the local custom that prevented blacks from using the dressing rooms and trying on clothing in department stores. She said in a later interview: "We couldn't try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot ... and take it to the store.” and "She couldn't sit in the same row as us because that would mean we were as good as her"
"The bus was getting crowded and I remember the bus driver looking through the rear view mirror asking her to get up for the white woman, which she didn't," said Annie Larkins Price, a classmate of Colvin's. "She had been yelling 'It's my constitutional right'. She decided on that day that she wasn't going to move." Colvin was handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated. Price testified for Colvin in the juvenile court case. Colvin was convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault. "There was no assault," Price said.
Colvin was also one of five plaintiffs, along with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese, in the court case Browder v. Gayle. The case, organized and filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, determined that bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama was unconstitutional. With the amount of support fueled by the black community, the country had no choice but to lift the segregated policies and create more fair ones. During the trial, Colvin described her arrest:
"I kept saying, 'He has no civil right... this is my constitutional right... you have no right to do this.' And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person."
The case was appealed by state and local officials to the United States Supreme Court. On November 13, 1956, the case was heard by the Supreme Court who affirmed the District Court's ruling. In December, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider and on December 20, 1956, it ordered Montgomery and Alabama to end bus segregation in the state
On March 29 1956, Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond. He was so light-skinned (like his father) that people frequently said his father was a white man. Colvin left Montgomery for New York in 1958, because she had difficulty finding and keeping work after the notoriety of the federal court case overturning bus segregation. (Similarly, Parks left Montgomery for Detroit in 1957.) Colvin said that, after her actions on the bus, she was branded a troublemaker by those in her community, and had to drop out of college.
In New York, the young Colvin and Raymond first lived with her older sister, Velma Colvin. She got a job as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home in Manhattan, where she worked for 35 years. She retired in 2004. Colvin never married. While living in New York, she had a second son, who became an accountant in Atlanta, married and had his own family. Raymond Colvin died in 1993 at age 37 in New York.
Though Colvin was the "spark" that may have ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement, she rarely told her story once she moved to New York City. Conversation in the black community focused on black enterprise by this time rather than on integration issues. NPR's Margot Adler said that black organizations felt that Rosa Parks made a better test case for integration because she was an adult, and she had the right hair and look to make her appear middle class.
In 2005, Colvin told the Montgomery Advertiser that she would not have changed her decision to remain seated.
"I feel very, very proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on." "I'm not disappointed," Colvin said. "Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation."
Colvin has often said that she is not angry she did not get the recognition she deserved, but instead disappointed. She said she felt as if she was "getting her Christmas in January rather than the 25th."