Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin

Correction March 17, 2009

The introduction to this story said, "...on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white person." In fact, Parks was already sitting in the black section in the back of the bus when she refused to give up her seat.

Claudette Colvin i i
Margot Adler/NPR
Claudette Colvin
Margot Adler/NPR
A young Claudette Colvin i i

hide captionRetiree Claudette Colvin was 15 the day she refused to give up her seat on the bus. "My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through," she says.

Courtesy of Alean Bowser
A young Claudette Colvin

Retiree Claudette Colvin was 15 the day she refused to give up her seat on the bus. "My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through," she says.

Courtesy of Alean Bowser

Read an excerpt from Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose.

The Rex Theatre For Colored People in Leland, Miss., shown in 1937 i i

hide captionThe day Colvin held her own bus sit-in, her class had talked about the injustices they were experiencing daily under Jim Crow segregation laws.

Courtesy of Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University
The Rex Theatre For Colored People in Leland, Miss., shown in 1937

The day Colvin held her own bus sit-in, her class had talked about the injustices they were experiencing daily under Jim Crow segregation laws.

Courtesy of Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University
A segregated bus i i

hide captionWhen the driver of the segregated bus, like the one shown above, ordered Colvin to get up, she refused, saying she'd paid her fare and it was her constitutional right. Two police officers handcuffed and arrested her.

Courtesy of Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts
A segregated bus

When the driver of the segregated bus, like the one shown above, ordered Colvin to get up, she refused, saying she'd paid her fare and it was her constitutional right. Two police officers handcuffed and arrested her.

Courtesy of Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts

Few people know the story of Claudette Colvin: When she was 15, she refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white person — nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing.

Most people know about Parks and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that began in 1955, but few know that there were a number of women who refused to give up their seats on the same bus system. Most of the women were quietly fined, and no one heard much more.

Colvin was the first to really challenge the law.

Now a 69-year-old retiree, Colvin lives in the Bronx. She remembers taking the bus home from high school on March 2, 1955, as clear as if it were yesterday.

The bus driver ordered her to get up and she refused, saying she'd paid her fare and it was her constitutional right. Two police officers put her in handcuffs and arrested her. Her school books went flying off her lap.

"All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily," Colvin says.

It was Negro history month, and at her segregated school they had been studying black leaders like Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave who led more than 70 slaves to freedom through the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. They were also studying about Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became an abolitionist and women's rights activist.

The class had also been talking about the injustices they were experiencing daily under the Jim Crow segregation laws, like not being able to eat at a lunch counter.

"We couldn't try on clothes," Colvin says. "You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot ... and take it to the store. 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."

Colvin also remembers the moment the jail door closed. It was just like a Western movie, she says.

"And then I got scared, and panic come over me, and I started crying. Then I started saying the Lord's Prayer," she says.

'Twice Toward Justice'

Now her story is the subject of a new book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.

Author Phil Hoose says that despite a few articles about her in the Birmingham press and in USA Today, and brief mentions in some books about the civil rights movement, most people don't know about the role Colvin played in the bus boycotts.

Hoose couldn't get over that there was this teenager, nine months before Rosa Parks, "in the same city, in the same bus system, with very tough consequences, hauled off the bus, handcuffed, jailed and nobody really knew about it."

He also believes Colvin is important because she challenged the law in court, one of four women plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama.

There are many reasons why Claudette Colvin has been pretty much forgotten. She hardly ever told her story when she moved to New York City. In her new community, hardly anyone was talking about integration; instead, most people were talking about black enterprises, black power and Malcolm X.

When asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because "she was an adult. They didn't think teenagers would be reliable."

She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look.

"Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class," says Colvin. "She fit that profile."

David Garrow, a historian and the author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says people may think that Parks' action was spontaneous, but black civic leaders had been thinking about what to do about the Montgomery buses for years.

After Colvin's arrest, she found herself shunned by parts of her community. She experienced various difficulties and became pregnant. Civil rights leaders felt she was an inappropriate symbol for a test case.

Parks was the secretary of the NACCP. She was well-known and respected and, says Garrow, Parks had a "natural gravitas" and was an "inherently impressive person."

At the same time, Garrow believes attention to Colvin is a healthy corrective, because "the real reality of the movement was often young people and often more than 50 percent women." The images you most often see are men in suits.

Hoose says he believes Colvin understands the pragmatism that pushed Parks to the fore, but "on the other hand, she did it."

Hoose says the stories of Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are wonderful, but those are the stories of people in their 30s and 40s. Colvin was 15. Hoose feels his book will bring a fresh teen's perspective to the struggle to end segregation.

Excerpt: 'Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice'

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice cover image

Claudette Colvin:
Twice Toward Justice

By Phillip Hoose
Hardcover, 144 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $19.95

CLAUDETTE: One of them said to the driver in a very angry tone, "Who is it?" The motorman pointed at me. I heard him say, "That's nothing new . . . I've had trouble with that 'thing' before." He called me a "thing." They came to me and stood over me and one said, "Aren't you going to get up?" I said, "No, sir." He shouted "Get up" again. I started crying, but I felt even more defiant. I kept saying over and over, in my high-pitched voice, "It's my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my dare, it's my constitutional right!" I knew I was talking back to a white policeman, but I had had enough.

One cop grabbed one of my hands and his partner grabbed the other and they pulled me straight up out of my seat. My books went flying everywhere. I went limp as a baby—I was too smart to fight back. They started dragging me backwards off the bus. One of them kicked me. I might have scratched one of them because I had long nails, but I sure didn't fight back. I kept screaming over and over, "It's my constitutional right!" I wasn't shouting anything profane—I never swore, not then, not ever. I was shouting out my rights.

It just killed me to leave the bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat when so many black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door. They stood outside and talked to each other for a minute, and then one came back and told me to stick my hands out the open window. He handcuffed me and then pulled the door open and jumped in the backseat with me. I put my knees together and crossed my hands over my lap and started praying.

All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me "nigger bitch" and cracked jokes about parts of my body. I recited the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm over and over in my head, trying to push back the fear. I assumed they were taking me to juvenile court because I was only fifteen. I was thinking, Now I'm gonna be picking cotton, since that's how they punished juveniles—they put you in a school out in the country where they made you do field work during the day.

But we were going in the wrong direction. They kept telling me I was going to Atmore, the women's penitentiary. Instead, we pulled up to the police station and they led me inside. More cops looked up when we came in and started calling me "Thing" and "Whore." They booked me and took my fingerprints.

Then they put me back in the car and drove me to the city jail—the adult jail. Someone led me straight to a cell without giving me any chance to make a phone call. He opened the door and told me to get inside. He shut it hard behind me and turned the key. The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard. It sounded final. It said I was trapped.

When he went away, I looked around me: three bare walls, a toilet, and a cot. Then I feel down on my knees in the middle of the cell and started crying again. I didn't know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there. I cried and I put my hands together and prayed like I had never prayed before.

• • •

MEANWHILE, schoolmates who had been on the bus had run home and telephoned Claudette's mother at the house where she worked as a maid. Girls went over and took care of the lady's three small children so that Claudette's mother could leave. Mary Ann Colvin called Claudette's pastor, the Reverend H.H. Johnson. He had a car, and together they sped to the police station.

• • •

CLAUDETTE: When they led Mom back, there I was in a cell. I was cryin' hard, and then Mom got upset, too. When she saw me, she didn't bawl me out, she just asked, "Are you all right, Claudette?"

Reverend Johnson bailed me out and we drove home. By the time we got to King Hill, word had spread everywhere. All our neighbors came around, and they were just squeezing me to death. I felt happy and proud. I had been talking about getting our rights ever since Jeremiah Reeves was arrested, and now they knew I was serious. Velma, Q.P. and Mary Ann's daughter, who was living with us at the time, kept saying it was my squeaky little voice that had saved me from getting beat up or raped by the cops.

But I was afraid that night, too. I had stood up to a white bus driver and two white cops. I had challenged the bus law. There had been lynchings and cross burnings for that kind of thing. Wetumpka Highway that led out of Montgomery ran right past our house. 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. We all stayed up. The neighbors facing the highway kept watch. Probably nobody on King Hill slept that night.

But worried or not, I felt proud. I had stood up for our rights. I had done something a lot of adults hadn't done. On the ride home from jail, coming over the viaduct, Reverend Johnson had said something to me I'll never forget. He was an adult who everyone respected and his opinion meant a lot to me. "Claudette," he said, "I'm so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We've all been praying and praying. But you're different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery."

Excerpted with permission from Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose.

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