Moral Low Ground


‘On This Day’ 1955: Black Alabama Girl Arrested for Refusing to Give Up Bus Seat– 9 Months Before Rosa Parks

Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin. But while the former attained civil rights immortality, the latter has lived most of her life in obscurity. While one has streets, parks and schools named after her, the other wasn’t much more than an urban legend for decades after her heroic act of defiance, an act which actually had a larger legal impact on bus segregation than Parks’ did.

“Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Colvin, now 71 years old, told the New York Times in 2009. “Maybe by telling my story — something I was afraid to do for a long time — kids will have a better understanding about what the civil rights movement was about.”

Before Rosa Parks there was Claudette Colvin.

Claudette, then a 15-year-old student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama,  was taking the bus home from school on March 2, 1955 when the driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white woman, even though there were three empty seats beside her. “If she sat down in the same row as me, it meant I was as good as her,” Colvin explained. But such was not the state of race relations in 1950s Alabama. Still, she made up her mind right then and there to defy generation of Jim Crow segregation.

With her head filled with classroom lessons of black female heroes like Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave who helped scores of other slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, and Sojourner Truth, the former slave turned abolitionist and women’s rights champion, the young Colvin was keenly aware of her people’s struggle for equality. It was a struggle that was all too relevant in her own time. “We couldn’t try on clothes,” she remembers in a 2009 NPR interview. “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.”

And she didn’t, even when two policemen showed up.

“All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily,” she told NPR. Known as a “mouthy” teen, Claudette told the bus driver that she paid her fare and that it was her constitutional right to sit where she pleased. It was a shockingly bold act that would change history.

Here’s Claudette’s own recollection of that day’s events as retold in Phillip Hoose’s National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice:

One [of the policemen] said to the driver in a very angry tone, “Who is it?” The motorman pointed at me. I heard him say, “That’s nothing new . . . I’ve had trouble with that ‘thing’ before.” He called me a “thing.” They came to me and stood over me and one said, “Aren’t you going to get up?” I said, “No, sir.” He shouted “Get up” again. I started crying, but I felt even more defiant. I kept saying over and over, in my high-pitched voice, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!” I knew I was talking back to a white policeman, but I had had enough.

One cop grabbed one of my hands and his partner grabbed the other and they pulled me straight up out of my seat. My books went flying everywhere. I went limp as a baby—I was too smart to fight back. They started dragging me backwards off the bus. One of them kicked me. I might have scratched one of them because I had long nails, but I sure di’n’t fight back. I kept screaming over and over” “‘It’s my constitutional right!” I wa’n’t shouting anything profane—I never swore, not then, not ever. I was shouting out my rights.

It just killed me to leave the bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat when so many black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door. They stood outside and talked to each other for a minute, and then one came back and told me to stick my hands out the open window. He handcuffed me and then pulled the door open and jumped in the backseat with me. I put my knees together and crossed my hands over my lap and started praying.

All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me “nigger bitch” and cracked jokes about parts of my body. I recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm over and over in my head, trying to push back the fear. I assumed they were taking me to juvenile court because I was only fifteen. I was thinking, Now I’m gonna be picking cotton, since that’s how they punished juveniles—they put you in a school out in the country where they made you do field work during the day.

But we were going in the wrong direction. They kept telling me I was going to Atmore, the women’s penitentiary. Instead, we pulled up to the police station and they led me inside. More cops looked up when we came in and started calling me “Thing” and “Whore.” They booked me and took my fingerprints.

Then they put me back in the car and drove me to the city jail—the adult jail. Someone led me straight to a cell without giving me any chance to make a phone call. He opened the door and told me to get inside. He shut it hard behind me and turned the key. The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard. It sounded final. It said I was trapped.

When he went away, I looked around me: three bare walls, a toilet, and a cot. Then I feel down on my knees in the middle of the cell and started crying again. I didn’t know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there. I cried and I put my hands together and prayed like I had never prayed before.

When Claudette’s mother Mary Ann heard her daughter had been arrested, she immediately phoned their pastor, H.H. Johnson, who rushed her to the police station:

When they led Mom back, there I was in a cell. I was cryin’ hard, and then Mom got upset, too. When she saw me, she didn’t bawl me out, she just asked, “Are you all right, Claudette?”

Reverend Johnson bailed me out and we drove home. By the time we got to King Hill, word had spread everywhere. All our neighbors came around, and they were just squeezing me to death. I felt happy and proud. I had been talking about getting our rights ever since Jeremiah Reeves was arrested, and now they knew I was serious. Velma, Q.P. and Mary Ann’s daughter, who was living with us at the time, kept saying it was my squeaky little voice that had saved me from getting beat up or raped by the cops.

But I was afraid that night, too. I had stood up to a white bus driver and two white cops. I had challenged the bus law. There had been lynchings and cross burnings for that kind of thing. Wetumpka Highway that led out of Montgomery ran right past our house. It would have been easy for the Klan to come up the hill in the night. Dad sat up all night long with his shotgun. We all stayed up. The neighbors facing the highway kept watch. Probably nobody on King Hill slept that night.

But worried or not, I felt proud. I had stood up for our rights. I had done something a lot of adults hadn’t done. On the ride home from jail, coming over the viaduct, Reverend Johnson had said something to me I’ll never forget. He was an adult who everyone respected and his opinion meant a lot to me. “Claudette,” he said, “I’m so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We’ve all been praying and praying. But you’re different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.”

But the revolution would have to wait just a little while longer.  Although Colvin received many letters of support and her ordeal marked the political activism debut of a young reverend named Martin Luther King Jr., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) ultimately decided not to make her a symbol of the black struggle for equality. While Rosa Parks was mellow, lighter skinned and middle aged, with “the right hair and the right look,” the teenager Colvin was “mouthy,” “emotional” and “feisty.” Claudette also got pregnant, and the father was a married man. Civil rights leaders correctly perceived that the non-threatening Parks was much more likely to garner white sympathy than the impetuous rebel Colvin. “My mother told me to be quiet about what I did,” Colvin told the New York Times. “She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa– her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.”

Civil rights leader like MLK (left) thought Parks had the "right look."

Still, it was Colvin, who as the federal government’s star witness in the landmark Browder v. Gayle, helped to end bus segregation in Alabama. It was the beginning of the end for Jim Crow. Claudette came to terms with her “raw feelings” towards Rosa Parks and participated in the bus boycott the began after Parks refused to give up her seat nine months later. It was, after all, the same city and the same bus system. Claudette even sometimes spent nights over Park’s apartment, where the kindly woman would make her Ritz crackers topped with peanut butter.

Claudette Colvin settled into a life of obscurity. She never married. She moved north to New York and became a nurse’s aide, retiring in 2004. She watches a lot of TV and is a regular at her local diner. She remembers Dr. Martin Luther King fondly (“an average looking fellow– it’s not like he was Kobe Bryant or anything”) and, especially since Hoose’s book became a hit, she now talks about her important yet largely forgotten role in civil rights history. “I feel proud of what I did,” she told the Montgomery Advertiser. “I do feel like what I did was a spark, and it caught on.” She still harbors no bitterness towards Rosa Parks, who died in 2005.

“I know in my heart that she was the right person,” she said.

Phillip Hoose & Claudette Colvin at the 2010 National Book Festival (Colvin begins speaking around 22:00):

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