On This Day: Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refuses to give up her seat on a segregated bus

A full nine months before Rosa Parks‘s famous act of civil disobedience, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin is arrested on March 2, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus. 

Colvin was traveling home from school when the bus’ driver ordered her, along with three fellow Black students, to give up their row of seats to a white passenger. Colvin’s friends obliged, but she refused to move. At school, she had recently learned about abolitionists, and later recalled that “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.”

Montgomery segregation laws at the time dictated that Black passengers sit behind white passengers on public transportation, and bus drivers routinely moved Black passengers to make room for white passengers. Colvin, in refusing to move, cited that she paid her fare and staying seated was her constitutional right. She was then forcibly removed from the bus by two police officers, handcuffed and arrested, and booked in a local adult jail. She was charged with violating segregation law, disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer. (The former two charges were dropped, but the latter stayed on her record until it was expunged over six decades later in 2021.)

After being picked up by her parents that day, Colvin recalled her father’s fear of reprisal from the Ku Klux Klan and recounted that he did not sleep that night and instead sat armed with a fully loaded shotgun.

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Colvin’s arrest was not the first instance of a Black person in the South refusing to give up their seat on a bus to a white passenger, but it did come at a pivotal moment for the civil rights movement. Fred D. Gray, a prominent Montgomery lawyer and activist, took Colvin on as a client—his first civil rights case—with the aim of filing a federal suit to desegregate Alabama’s bus system. Local civil rights leaders, however, decided not to proceed, in part due to Colvin’s age but also because, by her own assessment, she was too dark-skinned and soon became pregnant at age 16. These factors, some feared, would hurt her chances of winning the case—unlike the known community figure who soon followed in her footsteps: Rosa Parks.

On December 1, 1955, Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress and NAACP secretary, also refused to vacate her seat on a Montgomery bus for a white passenger, and was arrested. Days later, segregated buses became a central site of struggle: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, during which Black residents refused to use the city bus system, began on December 5, 1955. On its first day, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., proclaimed: “My friends, I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. … we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.”

In 1956, that claim went to court: Gray, alongside Charles D. Langford, brought a legal case before the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, which challenged the constitutionality of bus segregation in both the city of Montgomery and the state as a whole. Known as Browder v. Gayle, it was filed on behalf of four Black women who, the district court later determined, were treated unconstitutionally on the Montgomery’s bus system: Colvin, Susie McDonald, Aurelia S. Browder and Mary Louise Smith—another teenager whose bus protest predated Park’s. (A fifth plaintiff, Jeanetta Reese, was intimidated to withdraw from the case.)

Browder v. Gayle ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the earlier ruling that bus segregation was in violation of the 14th Amendment. Attempts at appeal were rejected, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott—considered the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation—came to a close on December 20, 1956, 381 days after it began, and one year, nine months and 18 days after Colvin’s arrest.

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