Claudette Colvin

The OG Rosa Parks You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Claudette Colvin, photo courtesy of Alean Bowser via NPR

In the final few days of Black History Month, we’re featuring Claudette Colvin as our first Unsung History.

At age 15, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Sounds like a familiar story, right? The thing is… Ms. Colvin took this stand nine months before Rosa Parks did.

Claudette Colvin was taking the bus home from school on March 2, 1955. When the bus driver asked her to move, she refused, citing the fact that she’d paid her fare and it was her constitutional right to remain seated. The 15-year-old was placed in handcuffs by two police officers.

At the time, Colvin’s segregated school had been studying black leaders. She was also living in the wake of the case of Jeremiah Reeves, a classmate at Booker T. Washington High who was charged with allegedly raping a white woman in 1952, for which he was later executed. Claudette Colvin was fired up. And living in an era of Jim Crow, she had reason to be. She told NPR in 2009, “We couldn’t try on clothes. 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.” So she stayed seated.

Why has Colvin’s story gone so unrecognized? Simply put, Rosa Parks was a better figurehead; she was a well-spoken adult and secretary of the NAACP. Colvin was a teenager and experienced hardships after her arrest that led to civil leaders viewing her as an inappropriate spokesperson. She ended up being one of the four female plaintiffs in the case Browder v. Gayle, which was the case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Alabama. She continued to struggle in Alabama, despite her contributions to the civil rights movement, and moved to New York City, where she worked in a nursing home in Manhattan before retiring in 2004.

Claudette Colvin in 2015, photo courtesy of Julie Jacobson/AP

Further reading material:

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phil Hoose

Material sourced from:

https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin

https://www.biography.com/news/claudette-colvin-rosa-parks-bus-boycott

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/25/claudette-colvin-the-woman-who-refused-to-give-up-her-bus-seat-nine-months-before-rosa-parks