You may have never heard of Claudette Colvin because she was just a teenager when she took a stand against Jim Crow laws. The young activist was one of the pioneers who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, which led to her arrest and booking.
Claudette Colvin was born on September 5, 1939, to C.P. and Mary Colvin. The daughter of working class parents, Claudette did not experience the finer things in life. In fact, she grew up on the poorer side of town in Montgomery, Alabama.
As one who was impoverished, Claudette had the misfortune of experiencing racism firsthand at a young age. Colvin was four years old when a group of white boys approached her in a local retail store. The little one was with her mother, and the boys asked her to touch their hands. Oblivious to the racial divide surrounding her, Claudette reached out to touch the boys. It was then that her mother slapped her in the face and sternly informed her that African American children were not allowed to touch white kids. Such experience must have rang significant in Claudette’s mind because she discusses it in her biography that places emphasis on her heroic act that launched the civil rights movement.
The Bus Incident
Claudette was a student at Booker T. Washington high school in Montgomery in 1955. The school was completely segregated, with one hundred percent of the population attending being of African American descent. Although no white children attended, the students at Booker T. Washington high school still learned about United States history that often discussed the brutality ensued upon African Americans by white citizens. Such discussions struck a nerve with Claudette, and made her want to take action.
On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a Montgomery bus after a long day of school. She sat near the back of the bus as African Americans were required to do by Jim Crow laws. A white man boarded the bus a few stops later and discovered that there were no seats near the front of the bus. The driver instructed an African American passenger to stand up so the white man could sit down; that passenger just happened to be Claudette.
Not only did the teen refuse to give up her seat, but she expressed her feelings about the injustices that African Americans endured in the South while being arrested by local authorities for breaking the law. “All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily,” said Claudette of the experience. “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.”
Colvin added, “Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up,” explained the activist.
Claudette’s courageous act won her much recognition in later years, but not immediately after she took a stand.
Why Recognition Came Later in Life
Many are aware of an African American passenger who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, but few associate the heroic act with Claudette Colvin. In fact, many credit Rosa Parks as the lone woman who sparked a movement that revolutionized the South. Claudette, however, refused to give up her seat days before Rosa decided that she had suffered enough discrimination. So why is the Rosa Parks story celebrated over the Claudette Colvin biography? Centrally because of the young activist’s age.
Claudette was a teenager when she was arrested and charged with breaking the law. Although she was completely aware of what she was doing, many believed that Colvin did not fully understand what her refusal meant. In addition, many within, and certainly outside of, the African American community viewed Claudette as a troublemaker after the incident. Her status as a nuisance became more widespread after she became pregnant with her son while still a teenager. It was then that the NAACP decided to completely erase Claudette’s name from the movement and use the Rosa Parks bus incident instead.
Although the majority of history books have been more focused on answering the question, “Who is Rosa Parks?” than learning about Claudette Colvin, the pioneer has told media that she is not livid about the lack of recognition. The activist did, however, recently agree to have her biography drafted on the sole condition that she would be classified as one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement.
Claudette in Later Years
Colvin remained in Montgomery a few years after the incident on March 2, 1955, but later opted to relocate to New York. The activist had the pleasure of enjoying more than thirty years with her son, but suffered heartache when he passed away at the young age of thirty seven.
Claudette was solicited by a diligent journalist named Phillip Hoose, who asked her if he could pen her story. It took Colvin four years to respond to Hoose’s request, but she finally agreed to allow the young writer to give her account. Claudette Colvin Twice Toward Justice tells the accurate story of how the civil rights movement began in Montgomery, Alabama. Colvin enjoyed several years as a health worker in New York City before retiring.
She may not have received the recognition she deserved in United States history books, but Claudette Colvin is an American pioneer. Not only did she learn about the injustices that plagued society during her youth, but she sought ways to make a difference in her community. Although many viewed Claudette as a rebellious teenager, she was indeed an activist whose brave act launched one of the most successful movements the United States has seen to date.