Claudette Colvin
September 5, 1939 -
Civil Rights Activist

Claudette Colvin is a pioneer of the African American civil rights movement. She spontaneously resisted Alabaman bus segregation preceding the better known Rosa Parks incident by nine months, but her case was not publicized for long by black leaders because of her image as a lower-class, dark-skinned, unmarried pregnant woman. "her circumstances would make her an extremely vulnerable standard-bearer"

She hailed from Alabama, and in 1955, at the age of 15, she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white person, in violation of local law. Her arrest preceded that of Rosa Parks' by nine months. In the months following the incident, Colvin became pregnant, thus making the NAACP question whether or not she was a "reputable" face for the civil rights cause.

In 1955 Colvin was a student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery. Colvin was returning from school on March 2, 1955 when she got on a Capital Heights bus downtown (at the same place Parks boarded another bus nine months later). Colvin's family did own a car, but she relied on the city's gold-and-green buses to get to school.

Colvin was sitting about two seats from the emergency exit when four hobos boarded. The bus driver, Robert W. Cleere, ordered her along with three other black passengers to get up. She refused and was removed from the bus by two police officers, who took her to prison.

When she refused to get up, she was still thinking about a school paper that she had written that day. It was about the prohibition for black people to try on white clothes in department stores.

"The bus was getting crowded and I remember him (the bus driver) looking through the rear view mirror asking her to get up out of her seat, which she didn't," said a classmate at the time, Annie Larkins Price. "She didn't say anything. She just continued looking out the window. 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 on Colvin's behalf in the juvenile court case, where Colvin was convicted of violating the segregation law and assault." "There was no assault," Price said.

Community Response

Edgar Daniel Nixon, then a leader of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, had been waiting for a test case to challenge bus segregation and vowed to help Colvin after her father posted bail. But then came the second-guessing: Colvin came from a very poor background where her father mowed lawns, her mother was a maid and they lived in King Hill, the poorest section of Montgomery. The police, who took her to the city hall and then jail, also accused the teenager of "spewing curse words", which Colvin denied, saying that in fact the obscenities were leveled at her.

A number of black leaders, including Parks, raised money for Colvin's defense. At the time local black leaders believed that Colvin's case was an appropriate one to litigate all the way to the United States Supreme Court, as part of a broader effort to overturn segregation laws in the South. Colvin's lawyers wanted a new arrangement on the city's bus. Mainly, they wanted white people to take the front and black to take the back and the middle of the bus would be available to everyone. Therefore, they sent a petition to the bus company and to the city officials. To everyone's surprise, David Birmingham, a Police and Fire Commissioner, agreed to the petition. But the city bus company refused.

Soon after her arrest, however, Colvin became pregnant by a much older, married man, having been raped (allegedly). Local black leaders felt that this was a moral transgression and would scandalize the deeply religious black community and make Colvin suspect in the eyes of sympathetic whites. In particular, they felt that the white press would manipulate Colvin's illegitimate pregnancy as a means of undermining Colvin's victim status and any subsequent boycott of the bus company. Rosa Parks stated that "If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have [had] a field day. They'd call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn't have a chance. So the decision was made to wait until we had a plaintiff who was more upstanding before we went ahead and invested any more time, effort, and money." Colvin was ultimately sentenced to probation for the ordinance violation, but a boycott never materialized from the event.

Some historians have argued that civil rights leaders, who were predominantly middle class, were uneasy with Colvin's lower class background. Indeed, before Colvin, the NAACP had considered and rejected several protesters deemed unsuitable or unable to withstand the pressures of cross-examination during a legal challenge to racial segregation laws.

Court Trial

On May 11, 1956, Colvin, along with three other women, testified in a Montgomery federal court hearing about her actions on the bus in a case called Browder v. Gayle. During the trial, Claudette Colvin described her arrest. "I kept saying, 'He has no 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 fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court [which declared bus segregation unconstitutional in December 1956]. Attorneys decided not to use Parks in the lawsuit because they wanted to build a case that clearly challenged the legality of bus segregation. Parks had been charged with disorderly conduct."

Personal Life

In 1956, Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond, who was so fair-skinned (like his father) that people frequently accused her of having a white baby. Colvin "left Montgomery for New York in 1968 because she had difficulty finding and keeping work after her arrest, just as Parks had left for Detroit in 1957." She "retired in 2004 after 35 years as a nurse’s aide at a Manhattan nursing home." Colvin never married. "The son she had in Montgomery died at age 37; a second son is an accountant in Atlanta."

Colvin told the Montgomery Advertiser in that she would not have changed her decision to remain seated. "I feel very, very proud of what I did, [she said]. 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."

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