Claudette Colvin; The Woman Before Rosa Parks

Claudette Colvin; The Woman Before Rosa Parks

In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a fifteen-year-old black school girl refused to move from her seat on the bus. Next thing she knew two police officers forcefully put her in handcuffs. Her school books flew off her lap and landed on the ground of the bus. Colvin was then arrested and put in jail. At the age of fifteen, for sitting on the bus. This event is the story of Claudette Colvin, the woman who started the bus boycott of 1955.

On the hot sunny day in Montgomery Alabama, on September 5th, 1939, a baby girl named Claudette Colvin was born to Mary Jane Gadson and C.P. Austin, she would soon lead her life unknowingly about to change the world.

And then I got scared, and panic came over me, and I started crying. Then I started saying the Lord’s Prayer,

— Claudette Colvin 1955

On that day in 1955, it was Black history month in Colvin’s segregated school. Her teachers and students were talking  about the brave people that led others to freedom, like Harriet Tubman, a woman who led over 70 slaves to freedom, through the Underground Railroads that led form the South to the North. The school was also studying a woman named Sojourner Truth, Claudette Colvin specifically felt inspired by Sojourner Truth and her story.

Sojourner Truth was a former slave who became an abolitionist and a major activist for womans rights.

Colvins class was also learning about the history of segregation laws and how Jim Crow laws affected the students’ daily life including segregation.

“We couldn’t try on clothes,” Colvin says. “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.”

Colvin remembers how she felt Sojourner Truth and Tubman looking down on her when she refused to get up from her seat. Because she was a young teenager who was seen as “feisty” and “uncontrollable” by many adults who looked at the case. Colvin was charged with three crimes, but the judge dropped two of them (disturbing peace, and 

breaking segregation laws). She was charged with assaulting a police officer. 

challenging this would not directly challenge Jim Crow laws, civil rights activists dropped her case and story, as it would not directly help fight against Jim Crow laws and help with protests. This is one of the reasons you don’t hear about Claudette Colvins’ story in the history books or during black history month.

Claudette Colvin is now 82 years old living in New York, she retired from being a nurse in 2004.