When you think of the Civil Rights Movement, who do you think of? Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks probably came to mind first, right? I mean come on, they’re legendary human beings that will forever be heroes and icons to all of us who demand equality and fair treatment!
But what if I told you that there was someone else… before Rosa? Before her iconic refusal to give up her seat? Before the bus boycott movement? Before the Civil Rights movement at large? And what if I told you that she was just a teenager when she was first arrested?
You’re curious, I can feel it!
Let me introduce you to one of the first pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement…
Miss Claudette Colvin
Claudette was born on September 5, 1939 and then adopted by Q.P. Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin in Montgomery, Alabama. She grew up attending segregated schools in the city, and her high school, Booker T. Washington, was no different. At a young age Claudette was already passionate about the Civil Rights Movement, as a member of the NAACP Youth Council. She rode the city buses to school and back home because her parents didn’t own a car, and that’s where our story really begins, on the fortuitous day of March 2, 1955.
Upon returning home from school, Claudette took the bus as usual and sat in the colored section, about two seats away from the emergency exit. The bus became crowded, and standard protocol at the time called for African Americans to get up from their seats and stand in the back to make room for whites to sit down.
So anyways, as you can imagine, a white woman got on the bus and had to stand because it was so crowded. Apparently, the bus driver wasn’t pleased with this, and ordered Colvin and three other black women to move to the back. The three others did, but then a pregnant black woman named Ruth Hamilton sat next to Claudette, so she didn’t move.
Then the bus driver, Robert Cleere, asked them both to get up, but pregnant Mrs. Hamilton said she didn’t feel like standing. And with that, Claudette said she didn’t feel like it either.
So naturally the bus driver called the police and, upon their arrival, Claudette still refused to stand. She was then forcibly removed from the bus and arrested – NINE MONTHS before Rosa Parks became famous for the same actions. She was later convicted of disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws, and even assault even though a witness confirmed that no assault had taken place.
Claudette was then bailed out by her Reverend, who told her that she had brought the Revolution to Montgomery.
Browder v. Gayle
Over a year later, on June 5, 1956, Claudette was one of five plaintiffs in the court case Browder v. Gayle, which determined that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional. By December of that same year, the Supreme Court confirmed this ruling permanently.
So why hasn’t Claudette been celebrated as much as she should? Why don’t we discuss her actions as often as we do those of Rosa Parks? Well a lot of it is because of her age – she was only a teenager at the time of her defiantly awesome actions, and those leading the Civil Rights Movement didn’t think that her image would resonate as strongly with the cause. Rumors of her being pregnant by a married man circulated as well, even though they were false, and she was often described as “feisty,” “mouthy,” and “emotional.” Comparatively, Rosa Parks was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP at the time and upheld an impressive image in her community.
So after all of this groundbreaking, truly revolutionary work accomplished by this young activist, where did she go? Following her actions in Montgomery, Claudette left for New York with her young son, Raymond. The notoriety of her federal case prevented her from finding and keeping solid work, and people assumed that, because her son was so light-skinned, his father was white. She was labeled a troublemaker and had to drop out of college as a result.
When she moved to New York, she initially lived with her older sister Velma. She eventually got a job as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home, and finally retired from that position in 2004. Although she never married, she had a second son. Her firstborn however, died in 1993 because of a heart attack at only age 37.
Today, Claudette is 78 and still living in The Bronx. Although she has been recognized by popular television programs like The Newsroom, Drunk History, and Good Girls Revolt, her family is fighting for recognition of her role in the Civil Rights Movement. And on this day, in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr, let’s champion the role that a young Claudette had in making history.
After all, as her sister Gloria Laster has said, “Had it not been for Claudette…. There may not have been a Thurgood Marshall, a Martin Luther King or a Rosa Parks.”