Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus : Code Switch Claudette Colvin was a 15-year-old student from Montgomery, Ala., when she refused to yield her bus seat to a white passenger. But she has been largely forgotten in civil rights history.
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Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus

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Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus

Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to hear about the teenager who 60 years ago today pushed against racial boundary lines in Montgomery, Ala. She learned about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth at her segregated high school, and the lessons stuck with her. On March 2, 1955, the black teenager refused to give her seat to a white passenger on a public bus. This was months before Rosa Parks did the same thing. But Claudette Colvin's stand is largely left out of the history books. Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries produced this story about that moment and what followed.

CLAUDETTE COLVIN: My name is Claudette Colvin, and I was 15 years old when I was arrested for violating the Montgomery segregation law. Well, I was the kind of teenager that wore my hair in braids. Everybody else was battling with a straightening comb and pomade (laughter). I didn't mind being different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLVIN: Montgomery - it's a nice, little southern town, but everything was segregated. This is for colored folks and this is for white folks - couldn't try on clothes in the store, couldn't go to the movie theater when a good movie come in town, you know, things that teenagers like to do. So I knew that this was a double standard. This was unfair.

PHILLIP HOOSE: My name is Phillip Hoose, and I wrote a book titled "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice." March 2, 1955, was a Wednesday. Claudette got onto the bus with three other students, and they all settled themselves into a row in the middle of the bus. The rule back in Montgomery at that time was 10 seats in the front of the bus were for whites only and the whites always had to be in front.

COLVIN: I knew that rule by heart. I was sitting near the window - the last seat that was allowed for colored people. And so, as the bus proceeded downtown, more white people got on the bus. Eventually, the bus got full capacity, and a young white lady was standing near the four of us. She was expecting me to get up.

HOOSE: The bus driver looked in the mirror and saw the situation and said, I need those seats. And three of the girls got up and walked to the back of the bus. And Claudette didn't.

COLVIN: I just couldn't move. History had me glued to the seat.

HOOSE: And people started yelling in the bus, come on, let's go, let's - move.

COLVIN: Hear those white people are complaining to each other - talking, talking, talking, talking, talk. I could see their mouths moving and talking to each other. I didn't know what was going to happen.

HOOSE: The bus driver called for a police officer, and a police officer boarded the bus and confronted Claudette.

COLVIN: Gal, why are you sitting there? You didn't know the law? And I said, I paid my fare and it's my constitutional right. I remember they dragged me off the bus because I refused to walk. They handcuffed me, and they took me to an adult jail. I had three charges - assault and battery, disorderly conduct and going against the segregation law. My mom and dad got me out of jail. And my dad said, Claudette, you know you put us in a lot of danger, in a lot of danger. He was worried about some repercussion from the KKK. And so that night he didn't sleep. He sit in the corner with his shotgun fully loaded all night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOOSE: When she got to school the following Monday after the arrest, it was a very divisive thing. On one hand, some students were impressed by her courage. On the other hand, there were many students who thought Claudette had made things tougher for them now, and they didn't appreciate it one bit.

COLVIN: Everything changed. I lost most of my friends. Their parents had told them to stay away from me because they said that I was crazy, I was an extremist.

HOOSE: There was precedent for African-Americans refusing to surrender their seats to white passengers. What was without precedent, though, is she wanted to get a lawyer and she wanted to fight.

FRED GRAY: My name is Fred Gray. Claudette Colvin was my first civil rights case. I received a phone call from her parents telling me about the incident. I was prepared to file a federal lawsuit to desegregate the buses. But because she had not had the age experience, the maturity, nor the training and civil rights activities, when we discussed it with other persons in the community, they felt that we should not do it at that time.

COLVIN: My parents wasn't connected to the elite, right people. Later, I had a child born out of wedlock. I became pregnant when I was 16. And I didn't fit the image either of a, you know, someone that they would want to show off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Just the other day, one of the fine citizens of our community, Mrs. Rosa Parks, was arrested because she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger.

HOOSE: Nine months after Claudette took her bus stand, Rosa Parks did the same thing - 42 years old, she was a professional, an officer in the NAACP. And at last, African-American Montgomery had its symbol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSA PARKS: I didn't feel that I was being treated as a human being. I refused to give up the seat. I said no, and I wouldn't give it up.

COLVIN: I knew why they chose Rosa. They thought I would have been too militant for them. They wanted someone mildly genteel like Rosa. They didn't want to use a teenager.

GRAY: I represented Claudette Colvin in 1955, also Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King. And what you have to realize is there are literally hundreds and probably thousands of individuals like Claudette Colvin and many others. You never see their names. You never see their faces. But they laid the foundation so that we could honor the Dr. Kings and the Rosa Parks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLVIN: Well, today I'm 75 years old. It's good to see some of the fruit of my labor. To me, it doesn't bother me not being named as long as we have someone out there so we can tell our story.

SIEGEL: In 1956, about a year after Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat, her lawyer, Fred Gray, filed the landmark federal lawsuit Browder versus Gayle. The case ended segregation on public transportation in Alabama, and the star witness was Claudette Colvin.

Our story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries and edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman. You can find more Radio Diaries stories on the Radio Diaries podcast.

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