Rosa Parks and her defiant act of refusing to give up her seat in December 1955 in Montgomery, Ala. helped push the Civil Rights Movement forward. Nine months before that incident however, Claudette Colvin stood up for her right to sit where she pleased on a segregated bus yet her story was cast aside.
Colvin was 15 on March 2, 1955 when she refused to move from her seat while traveling in Montgomery. Colvin shared in interviews that she and her classmates at the time were fresh from studying historic figures for Negro History Month and often discussed the injustices of Jim Crow at the time. She also added that during the terrifying moment when she was asked to move from her seat that the spirits of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman held her down.
After being hauled away to jail, Colvin expressed that she was afraid for her life as she didn’t trust white people in the city and their intentions for her. However, her time in the city jail was brief as her minister bailed her out. The NAACP caught word of Colvin’s case and considered using the moment to advance their cause.
What worked against Colvin, according to her words and other accounts, is that she was too young, too poor, and pregnant. The organization needed a figure who fit a more middle class narrative and seemingly moved away from Colvin. Civil rights leaders were also more impressed with Parks, who carried an air of refinement that the young Colvin had yet to embrace.
The irony of the NAACP’s decision not to go with Colvin’s case and not make her a central figure of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts is that Colvin was actually one of four plaintiffs in a landmark case that ended bus segregation in Alabama. Pioneering civil rights attorney Fred Gray represented plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case in 1956, which made it to the United States Supreme Court. The ruling was upheld in December of that year.
The story of Colvin’s case was detailed in a book, “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” published in 2009.
Colvin moved to New York in 1958 after the explosive bus segregation case began to give her troubles at home. Colvin, who never married, had two sons, and currently resides in the Bronx.