Updated: Feb 22, 2022
On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old high school student Claudette Colvin and a classmate were headed home on the public city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. When a white woman boarded the bus, the bus driver ordered them to relinquish their seats. There were other seats available where the woman could have sat. Claudette's friend moved, but Claudette refused, saying it was her constitutional right to keep her seat; she had paid her fare like everyone else. This incident happened nine months BEFORE Rosa Parks' famous stance of civil disobedience. Few people know about this teenager's brave and bold actions; fortunately, in the recent past, Claudette Colvin's story has received national attention.
Claudette was a quiet and studious girl who loved learning. At the time of her arrest, her segregated school had just observed Negro History Week, but her teachers didn't limit the study to a week's time; they devoted the entire month to studying Black history.
Negro History Week (its original name) was established in February 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, later known as the Father of African American History. Although started as a week-long event, Woodson believed that Black history was too important to America and the world to be crammed into such a limited time frame and he recommended that schools teach it throughout the year.
In the 1960s, Black college students advocated for more opportunities to study Black history, and in February 1969, students and educators at Kent State University proposed the first Black History Month — and began celebrating it the following year. Responding to pressure from Black leaders, President Gerald Ford officially declared February as Black History Month and noted its importance as the nation celebrated its bicentennial in 1976.
During these times of racial reckoning, millions of us are actively engaged in learning the neglected and previously untold history of our fellow Americans -- Blacks, Indigenous, Latinos, Asians. For more information about the history and importance of Black History Month check out the Zinn Education Project and this NY Times article.
But back to 1955 and life in Montgomery, Alabama. Months before Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus, the United States Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools violated the United States Constitution and had to be dismantled. But for Claudette and her classmates, nothing had changed; they still attended inferior and poorly funded segregated public schools. Throughout February, students at Booker T. Washington High School spoke freely about the injustices of Jim Crow. They couldn't try on clothes at department stores. When they needed new shoes, a tracing of their feet was made on a piece of paper or cardboard and taken to the store to determine the shoe size. They could not eat at lunch counters. And earlier that year, a popular classmate who lived in Claudette's neighborhood had been charged with raping a white woman, and he had been beaten and coerced into confessing to that and other crimes and sentenced to death. They knew first-hand how the system denied them their dignity and freedom in all spheres of their lives.
So when the bus driver asked Claudette to give up her seat, she would not budge. Years later, she explained her reasons.
"I could not move, because history had me glued to the seat . . . It felt like Sojourner Truth's hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman's hands were pushing me down on another shoulder, and I could not move."
Two police officers dragged Claudette off the bus while she loudly protested that it was her constitutional right to sit wherever she wanted. Although a minor, she was handcuffed, arrested, and booked into the adult jail and charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and assault and battery on a police officer. She had the support of her family and their pastor, and the local chapter of the NAACP. A newly minted lawyer Fred Gray, a graduate from Case Western Law School, stepped in to represent Claudette. At that time, no Alabama law school would accept a Black student, and upon returning to Montgomery, his hometown, Gray set up a private law practice.
Claudette's arrest was big news at that time. She was tried as a juvenile and convicted and put on indefinite probation.
Several months later, when Rosa Park was arrested, Fred Grey also represented her. Following Rosa Park's arrest, the NAACP and other Black-led organizations launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had been in the planning stages for some time. The Black residents of Montgomery had long complained of their mistreatment by the bus company. The reserved white seats exceeded the seats available to Black passengers, even though ridership was 75% Black. Some drivers required Black passengers to pay their fare, exit the bus, and re-enter through the back door. At times, the bus purposely took off before these Black passengers (who had already paid) boarded through the back door. Drivers were rude and disrespected Black passengers in countless ways. Meetings with city officials about these complaints had led nowhere.
Community activists had considered using Claudette's case as the rallying point for the bus boycott but dismissed the idea. Many thought that an unpredictable dark-skinned teenager from a poor family was not the proper standard-bearer for this movement. Rosa Parks' presented the right situation. She was active in the civil rights movement and the Secretary of the Montgomery NAACP. The 42-year-old mature married woman was attractive, light-skinned, and employed as a seamstress. She was the epitome of Black respectability and viewed as capable of withstanding the scrutiny which would surely follow.
Two months after the Montgomery Bus Boycott was launched, Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, and three other women became the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the segregation in Montogery's public buses. They were represented by Fred Gray, with assistance from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Claudette Colvin was the star witness in the case of Browder v. Gayle. W.A. Gayle, the then-mayor of Montgomery, was the defendant. The United States Supreme Court decision in this landmark case in 1956 ended forced segregation on public transportation.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted over a year, from December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956, and only came to an end when the Supreme Court ordered the bus system integrated. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the first large-scale US demonstration against segregation, and the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's brought him to national prominence.
In 1955, there were newspaper accounts about the teenage girl arrested and convicted for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. And then, she moved to the Brox and vanished into obscurity. Claudette Colvin rarely spoke about the vital role she had played in the civil rights movement.
While researching the book, We Were There, Too! Young People in US History, Phillip Hoose came across references to Claudette Colvin's arrest and conviction. He set about looking for her. Although she had an unlisted phone number, he eventually reached her. It took four years before she was willing to share her story. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, won the National Book Award in 2009.
Fast forward to January 2021-- a mural was dedicated in the Montgomery, Alabama neighborhood where Claudette Colvin grew up to recognize her contributions to the civil rights movement. The street where she was raised was named after her.
In one of the numerous interviews she gave this past year, Claudette Colvin spoke of being inspired by youth activism, especially the leadership of young black women, and the BLM movement following the murder of George Floyd. She still had some activism in her, and in October 2021, Claudette Colvin filed a petition with the Court in Montgomery, Alabama, to have her conviction expunged and clear her name. That motion was granted.
Check out this wonderful CBS News story where the judge who expunged Claudette Colvin's record offers an apology on behalf of the state of Alabama.
Last Fall, the Montgomery City Council voted unanimously to honor attorney Fred Gray by renaming the street where he had grown up. That street was formerly named after the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis. It is now Fred D. Gray Avenue.
Dr. King described Fred Gray as "the brilliant young Negro who later became the chief counsel for the protest movement." Fred Gray, 91, is still practicing law in Montgomery, Alabama. Claudette Colvin was at his side for the street naming ceremony.