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Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin
September 5, 1939 –
Notable: Activist
Nationality: American

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Claudette Austin was born in Birmingham, Alabama the eldest of Mary Jane Gadson and C.P. Austin’s two daughters. Sources state that her father left the family when she was very young. In time, her mother was unable to financially support the children on her own.

Austin and her younger sister, Delphine, were then sent to live with their mother’s great aunt and uncle, Mary Anne and Q.P. Colvin. The couple adopted the girls and changed their last name to “Colvin”. Living on the family’s farm about 30 miles outside of Montgomery in rural Pine Level provided some distance from racism as there was limited contact with White people. But having to visit the local general store meant unavoidable contact with White people and Colvin’s first exposure to racial issues.

When Colvin was eight the family moved to King Hill, a low-income Black neighborhood in Montgomery. Colvin was a good student and mostly earned straight A’s in school. But two events during her freshman year of high school combined with other moments from her childhood would have a tremendous impact on Colvin. They resulted in the once diligent student struggling in high school.

The first tragedy occurred a few days before she was set to begin high school when Delphine died from polio. Later in the school year, an all-White jury sentenced her 16-year-old neighbor and classmate, Jeremiah Reeves, to death for raping a White woman. The NAACP became involved due to the questionable circumstances surrounding the supposed rape, confession, and resulting court case. He would die in the electric chair at the age of 22 despite retracting his forced confession.

Witnessing the NAACP’s involvement in Reeves’ case inspired Colvin and motivated her to get involved. She had dreams of becoming a lawyer and joined the NAACP Youth Council which brought her into contact with Rosa Parks who served as one of the Council’s mentors. The two formed a close relationship with Parks fixing Colvin snacks and allowing her to sleep over so she could attend meetings.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded one of the city’s segregated buses with other classmates and took a seat in the designated “Colored” Section. As the bus continued along its route, more people boarded the bus and the driver eventually asked Colvin and an older Black lady to give up their seats for White riders who had recently boarded the bus. Initially, they both refused but the other lady gave in when the police arrived after having been called by the bus driver.

In the days before this incident, Colvin had been assigned to write a paper about her feelings as an American. She passionately wrote about Black people being treated like second-class citizens. Colvin had also been learning about female figures from Black history such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. With these recent events and experiences racing through her mind, she felt compelled to take a stand.

Even with the police now present and demanding that she give up her seat, Colvin refused and remained seated. The officers began to use abusive and threatening language toward Colvin and forcefully removed her from the bus. She was arrested and placed in the back of their patrol car and the threats along with comments about her body continued during the drive.

Colvin was charged with assaulting a police officer and violating local segregation laws. Instead of being taken to juvenile hall, she was taken to the city jail and placed in a cell. Several hours later, Colvin was released and sent home after her minister paid her bail.

Her case would eventually be heard in juvenile court where she was represented by Fred Gray but found guilty. Colvin received some support for an appeal from the local NAACP which resulted in some of the charges being dropped. But her conviction for assaulting the police officers stood. She was made a ward of the state and placed on indefinite probation.

The city’s rules for bus segregation combined with the terrible treatment of Black passengers had been one in a long list of efforts to force Black people into the position of second-class citizens. There had been and would be the discussion of mounting a campaign to protest the ill-treatment of Black riders. While Colvin was initially considered as a test case for pushing back against bus segregation, the NAACP and other organizations eventually threw their support behind Rosa Parks.

Colvin and several other Black bus riders had stood up to the system of bus segregation. But Parks was selected to be the face of the bus boycott when she refused to give up her seat several months after Colvin’s ordeal. The precise reason for Parks’ selection over Colvin is unclear. But it’s likely that Colvin’s youth, being from a low-income neighborhood, and adults perceiving her as difficult to control made organizers look elsewhere.

Later in life, Colvin would express the feeling that her having dark skin and later becoming pregnant out of wedlock for an older man, led to her being pushed aside by the movement. Despite her hurt, Colvin maintained respect and admiration for Parks. She was one of the few adults in the movement and boycott who remained in contact with Colvin. She continued to encourage Colvin to remain involved with the NAACP. Eventually, Colvin would become a part of the Browder v. Gayle suit which ended with a ruling that deemed bus segregation unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, despite her sacrifices, Colvin would continue to be ostracized by the local leaders of the movement. The combination of this shunning which limited opportunities for Colvin in Montgomery led to her dropping out of college and eventually moving to New York City where she settled in the Bronx and became a nursing assistant. While her contributions were overlooked for several decades, Colvin began to receive recognition when she began to speak publicly about her experiences in retirement. Her arrest record was finally cleared in December 2021 after petitioning a juvenile court judge.

Sources

  1. Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Claudette Colvin.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. March 26, 2021. https://www.biography.com/activist/claudette-colvin.
  2. “Claudette Colvin.” 2022. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. June 14, 2022. https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/claudette-colvin/.
  3. Foster, Hannah. 2022. “Claudette Colvin (1935- ).” Blackpast.org. March 2, 2022. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/colvin-claudette-1935/.
  4. Laughland, Oliver. 2021. “Claudette Colvin: The Woman Who Refused to Give up Her Bus Seat – Nine Months before Rosa Parks.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. February 25, 2021. 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.
  5. Lyman, Brian. 2021. “Claudette Colvin’s Arrest Record Expunged 66 Years after She Refused to Give up City Bus Seat.” Montgomery Advertiser. USA Today Network. December 16, 2021. https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/news/2021/12/16/claudette-colvins-arrest-over-segregation-challenge-expunged/6505987001/.
  6. Mchie, Benjamin. 2022. “Claudette Colvin, Activist Born.” African American Registry. May 21, 2022. https://aaregistry.org/story/claudette-colvin-born/.
  7. Woodham, Rebecca. 2021. “Claudette Colvin.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. May 13, 2021. http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-4277.

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