On 2 March 1955 —nine months before the arrest of Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott —a fifteen-year-old, high-school student named Claudette Colvin challenged bus segregation in Montgomery. Shortly after Colvin boarded a bus across the street from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the driver asked her to relinquish her seat to a white passenger. When Colvin refused, the police removed her from the bus and arrested her for assault, disorderly conduct, and violating segregation laws. Despite early support from the Women’s Political Council (WPC) and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Colvin’s case failed to unite the black community in the early struggle against segregation.
Claudette Colvin was born on 5 September 1939 in Birmingham, Alabama. She was a resident of King Hill, a working class Montgomery neighborhood, and a student at Booker T. Washington high school at the time of her arrest. Initially, Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon thought Colvin’s arrest might be an opportunity for a legal test case. However, on 6 May Judge Eugene Carter dismissed Colvin’s segregation charge, precluding the possibility of a federal challenge on constitutional grounds.The case lost momentum, and questions regarding Colvin’s suitability quickly emerged. While the local leadership lauded Colvin’s bravery, they were hesitant to make this rebellious teenager the face of the struggle.
Colvin later served as a secondary plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the Supreme Court case that ultimately overturned bus segregation. Although her name is absent from the history books, Colvin made a significant contribution to the black freedom struggle by paving the way for later acts of resistance in Montgomery, including the decision by Rosa Parks that launched the Montgomery bus boycott.
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).
David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).
Paul Hendrickson, “The Ladies Before Rosa: They Too Wouldn’t Give up Their Seats. Let Us Now Praise Unfamous Women,” The Washington Post, 12 April 1998.
Brendan Koerner, “His-Story or History: Who was on the Bus? The Untold Versions,” Kingdom News, February 2003. http://kingdomnewsmagazine.com/articles/feb2003/history.pdf
Gary Younge, “She Would Not Be Moved,” The Guardian, 16 December 2000.