Before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin refused to stand up — and changed history by Christopher Luxama
In March of 1955, a young black woman shopping near Dexter and Bainbridge across from Dr. Martin Luther King’s church in Montgomery, Alabama took the city bus home. A young white lady came on that bus and as was expected, waited for the black woman to get up from her seat. On this day, the black woman refused.
“I could not move because history had me glued to the seat,” Colvin said.
No, this isn’t the story of Rosa Parks but rather of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old black girl who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman in the Jim Crow era south. Colvin’s story occurred nine months prior to Parks’ and would be the catalyst for change throughout the United States.
Colvin, 77, and living in the Bronx, is now speaking out about her experience and why she has been left out of history. She shared her story recently with a group of CCNY students at during an event at 1010 WINS with host Larry Mullins.
Colvin was arrested and taken to jail like many before her who had refused to give up their seats on the bus. However, she did something that no one had done prior. She lawyered up. “I wanted them to know this colored girl was tired of Jim Crow as wasn’t going to take it anymore,” Colvin said.
While the media at the time tried to paint Colvin as a sassy, foul mouthed colored girl, she was intellectually mature enough to know her rights. As a member of the NAACP youth council, her family and the organization got help in the form of 25-year-old Robert L. Carter. Carter then when to New York and enlisted the help of the great Thurgood Marshall. The Browder vs Gayle case, filed by Fred Gray, included Colvin and three other women: Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Marie Louise Smith. In February of 1956, the case went before the Supreme Court. The women won.
Gloria Gaston-Laster, sister and advocate of Colvin’s said, “It was a big deal for Negroes to argue a case before the Supreme Court and they won.”
So how did Rosa Parks become the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Respectability politics were at play. Colvin was a dark-skinned black girl who got pregnant by a married man. Parks was a light-skinned secretary, groomed for her role. Parks’ case was tied up in state courts and would have taken years to get to. Colvin’s was already in motion.
“My mother said, ‘Rosa has been chosen,’” Laster said. “’The leaders have chosen her. We will never speak about this again. As long as Rosa is alive, do not say anything.’”
With the historic opening of the African American Museum of History and Culture, Colvin and Laster want to make sure the historians get it right — which hasn’t happened at this point. For Colvin, this is not about devaluing Parks’ role or attacking her legacy, but about adding a piece to a story that has been left out for one reason or another.
“I felt disappointed because they left a part of history out,” Colvin said. “Why leave out these four women who put their lives on the line?”