Rosa Parks’ decision to remain seated on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955 — effectively starting the boycott that would help galvanize the civil rights movement — did not come out of nowhere. In fact, the NAACP leader wasn’t even the first woman that year to assert herself in such a way.
Just nine months earlier in Montgomery, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had also refused to sacrifice her spot for a white passenger.
On March 2, 1955, Colvin was dragged out to the street, handcuffed, and jailed — eventually becoming one of the four plaintiffs in the court case that would overturn the state’s bus segregation laws.
Same cause, same city, same peaceful act of civil disobedience. But while Parks’ name became iconic, Claudette Colvin’s was quickly forgotten.
In recent years, the now-77-year-old Colvin has received a new wave of attention. Her story serves as a reminder that the civil rights movement was more carefully strategized than it sometimes seemed, that young people have always been a powerful force for change, and that women’s roles in achieving equality was greater than most people realize.
Colvin, then 15 years old, had been riding home from school when a middle-aged white woman stepped on the crowded bus. The driver ordered Colvin to go stand in the back, even though two other seats in Colvin’s row were empty.
“If she sat down in the same row as me, it meant I was as good as her,” Colvin told The New York Times.
The police were called and they dragged a crying Colvin backward off the bus. One officer kicked her on the way.
“I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right,” the teen, who had been studying Jim Crow laws in school, yelled in a squeaky voice.
On the way to the police station the cops called her a “thing” and a “nigger bitch” and guessed at her bra size. She sat handcuffed between them, reciting the 23rd Psalm over and over in her head.
Colvin was put in a cell by herself in the adult jail. After her pastor bailed her out, black leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spread her story. More than a hundred letters of support flooded into Montgomery and Colvin said she felt proud.
But the NAACP decided that the teen wouldn’t serve as an effective vessel to represent the movement at the national level.
“They worried they couldn’t win with her,” said Phillip Hoose, who wrote Colvin’s story in a 2010 book. “Words like ‘mouthy,’ ’emotional’ and ‘feisty’ were used to describe her.”
Parks, on the other hand, was stoic and had extensive experience within the movement.
Colvin suspected that her darker skin also had something to do with the decision. Others have suggested that Colvin becoming pregnant with a married man’s baby soon after the incident ultimately caused her to be passed over.
“I know in my heart that she was the right person,” Colvin said of Parks, who used to make Colvin peanut butter crackers and invite her to sleepovers at her apartment.
Colvin left Montgomery for New York soon after her arrest in search of anonymity, though she returned to testify in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that found bus segregation to be unconstitutional. The four other plaintiffs in that case were also women whom bus drivers had discriminated against.
“The real reality of the movement was often young people and often more than 50 percent women,” historian David Garrow told NPR.
The reality of social movements is that most of the people involved will never have their names printed in history books.
“It’s an important reminder that crucial change is often ignited by very plain, unremarkable people who then disappear,” Garrow said.
In Claudette Colvin’s case, she went on to lead a fairly unremarkable life. Never married, she worked as a nurse’s aide in a Manhattan nursing home for 35 years. Her second son is an accountant in Atlanta. She’s an Alicia Keys fan and enjoys watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
In other words, she’s human. But then again, so were all of the civil rights leaders who have been idolized in history.
“He was just an average-looking fellow — it’s not like he was Kobe Bryant or anything,” Claudette Colvin remembers of Dr. King. “But when he opened his mouth he was like Charlton Heston playing Moses.”
Intrigued by this look at Claudette Colvin? Next, learn ten things you didn’t know about Martin Luther King Jr. Then, read up on six civil rights leaders you don’t know but should.