Claudette Colvin: The Predecessor of Rosa Parks

By Kendyl Brower 

On a spring afternoon in 1955, a young African American girl hops on a segregated Montgomery bus. The bus driver, holding as much authority as a police officer, enforces the racial sections of the bus: white people enjoy the front seats, black people are thrown in the back. When the priority seats in the front fill up, African Americans are forced to surrender their spot. Yet, when asked to give up her seat, the girl did not budge. She recalled her recent lesson at school about social injustices and African American resistance–she felt as if Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were pushing her down, forcing her to fight against the blatant racism embedded in the law. She protests, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.” 

No, this is not the story of Rosa Parks. This is 15 year old Claudette Colvin’s first hand experience with segregation, 9 months prior to Parks’. Colvin became the first person arrested for challenging the Montgomery bus laws, continuing the deep-rooted movement of resistance against oppression, yet she received little recognition for her impact. Following her arrest, Colvin and 3 other African American women became plaintiffs for the Browder v. Gayle Supreme Court case, one of the biggest milestones in the Civil Rights Movement. In the case, the Supreme Court declared the segregation of races on buses invalid, 381 days after the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Despite Colvin’s dedication towards the movement, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) deemed her as too young to be the face of the movement. Her reputation, damaged by her pregnancy at 16, also contributes to her lack of recognition. Moreover, Parks’ lighter complexion made her a more digestible figure for white citizens, who would be more sympathetic towards a woman who, in the eyes of a white person, more closely resembled the middle class. 

While we sympathize with the Civil Rights Movement today, the majority of US citizens did not welcome this era of fighting institutional racial discrimination with open arms, especially in Alabama. Refusing to change seats on the bus may seem insignificant, but Colvin faced scarring social repercussions. In Phillip Hoose’s book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Colvin elaborates on her haunting situation with the police, “All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me “n***** b****” and cracked jokes about parts of my body.” The police then threw Colvin into an adult jail, not a juvenile detention center. Colvin’s family approved of her bravery, but they found themselves in unnerving circumstances, “It would have been easy for the Klan to come up the hill in the night. Dad sat up all night long with his shotgun.” Evidently, Colvin’s stand against discrimination took a remarkle amount of courage, as often the consequences of activism were fatal.  Understanding the severity of oppression, including all the gruesome details that Colvin and others endured, proves key to understanding the perspectives of African-Americans today. Educators struggle to effectively convey the harsh brutality of the Civil Rights Movement; textbooks often simplify and condense information because glossing over our faults as a country is the easy way out of an uncomfortable topic. Racism and discrimination did not aburptly end with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous ‘I Have  A Dream’ speech or the Montgomery Bus Boycott— though we try to repress this hard truth. As we look into our past as American citizens, we must not forget the hidden stories and individuals of those who fought alongside the most well known figures. Dr. King and Parks’ are only a few fish in a sea full of activists.