IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

History should have done better by Claudette Colvin

"I’m a piece of the puzzle that was left out in telling the whole Montgomery Bus Boycott story," the 84-year old said.

By

If you don’t remember the name Claudette Colvin, that may be because you never heard it. That her story (and those of countless others) is not more well-known serves as a sobering reminder that history is a matter of curation.

Colvin, now 84, was a teenager when, on March 2, 1955, she refused to give up her seat to a white woman while riding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. That act of defiance took place nine months before Rosa Parks made news for not ceding her seat to a white man.?

Colvin was 15 years old at the time. She was coming back from a trip downtown with her friends, and they’d boarded the bus across the street from the church where Martin Luther King Jr. would later give sermons.?

Colvin, now 84, was a teenager when, on March 2, 1955, she refused to give up her seat to a white woman while riding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

As more white passengers boarded, her Black peers got up to move. At that time, Colvin said, Black people weren’t allowed to sit directly across from white people. But she remained seated.

She recalls a sign that said “Coloreds to the rear. Whites to the front.”

“I wasn’t breaking any segregation laws,” Colvin said.

The bus driver called over a traffic cop to confront Colvin about why she hadn’t switched seats. “He asked why I remained seated. And I said, ‘Because I paid my fare and it’s my constitutional right.’”?After it was decided the patrolman had no authority in the matter, other officers were called to the scene.??

“They knocked the books out of my lap. That’s when they manhandled me and put me in the patrol car.”

She was taken to a city jail, rather than a juvenile detention center, where she was held for a couple of hours.

Colvin’s experience had all the ingredients of a movement in the making, but the Montgomery NAACP —?which changed its name to the Montgomery Improvement Association —?decided not to advocate on Colvin’s behalf. Later that year, the organization did rally around Parks, who was also an officer for the organization at the time. “I knew what the strategy was,” Colvin says. “They wanted her upfront because they knew I was a minor, and people were not going to listen to a teenager.”?

That her darker-skinned complexion played a role in the group’s decision isn’t lost on her, either. “They wanted Mrs. Parks because people still believed that fairer-skinned people get more acceptance than darker-complexioned people,” Colvin recalls, noting the notorious paper bag tests once used on HBCU campuses.?

Colvin would also later learn she was pregnant. While there are differing accounts of whether or not that factored into the organization’s decision not to make her the face of the bus boycott movement, Colvin said it did.?

But she doesn’t hold any grudges.?

Their parents told them to stay away from me because I was a troublemaker.”

Claudette colvin

Parks would even later take Colvin under her wing following the March incident, visiting her home and even encouraging the younger woman to enter an NAACP pageant. Colvin remembers Parks as a quiet woman.?

Others in Colvin’s community, particularly her peers, were noticeably less supportive.?

“Their parents told them to stay away from me because I was a troublemaker.”?

Attorney Fred Gray appeared to feel differently. He decided to represent Colvin, as well as four other women who had similar experiences on Montgomery buses. On behalf of Colvin, Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanetta Reese, Gray sued the city of Montgomery on Feb. 1, 1956. (Reese eventually dropped out of the Browder v. Gayle case after she and her husband began receiving threats.)?

Four months later, a court ruled that segregation within the Montgomery bus system was unconstitutional. The city appealed the decision but the ruling was upheld.?

However, Colvin didn’t stick around long to witness the aftermath.

Because of the bus incident, Colvin’s sister couldn’t land employment and, fearing retaliation from the Ku Klux Klan, moved to New York. Colvin followed, finally realizing her dream of moving North. After decades in the city, Colvin recently moved back to Alabama because of health issues.?

Claudette Colvin speaks with her  civil-rights era attorney Fred Gray
Claudette Colvin with her Civil Rights-era attorney Fred Gray after she filed paperwork to have her juvenile record expunged in 2021. Vasha Hunt / AP file

Colvin lived a normal life out of the limelight for the majority of her time in New York City. Her biographer, Phillip Hoose, started a campaign in 2016 to get then-President Barack Obama to award Colvin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, although it was ultimately unsuccessful. (Parks was bestowed the honor by Bill Clinton in 1996.)

Today, Colvin has a fitting metaphor for her overlooked role in history.?

“I think of it like a puzzle,” she said. “I’m a piece of the puzzle that was left out in telling the whole Montgomery Bus Boycott story — not only myself, but the four women that were a part of the success of the movement.”

news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news