The Incredible Story of Historical Icon Claudette Colvin
| LAST UPDATE 10/17/2021
It's a tale many have never heard. As a teen, Claudette Colvin made an incredible impact on the world, of which we can still see the effects today. But, it took several decades to uncover the story that seemed to be hidden in history.
A Rocky Beginning
On the 5th of September, 1939, in Birmingham, Alabama, a baby girl named Claudette Austin was born to Mary Jane Gadson and C.P. Austin. Before long, little Delphine was born, expanding the family yet again.
The eldest, Velma, had moved out of the house before life took an unexpected turn. Unfortunately, Austin abandoned his family, leaving Mary Jane without the financial means to care for Claudette and Delphine. Turning towards family, Mary Jane sent the girls to live with their great aunt and uncle, Mary Anne and Q.P. Colvin.
Challenging Early Life
This had a natural consequence of bestowing a confusing family life onto the young sisters. They were coping with being separated from both of their parents and were adjusting to their new home space. Luckily, Mary Anne and Q.P. took them in with open arms. This led the girls' sense of safety and security to return.
The sisters referred to their great aunt and uncle as their parents and even took their last name, Colvin. When Claudette was eight years old, the family moved to King Hill, a low socioeconomic status neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama. But, this wasn't the last adjustment the family would have to deal with.
Family Tragedy Struck
Claudette and Delphine were very close, as they had experienced many drastic life changes together at such a young age. From a full house to a single-parent household, to moving several times, and redefining "family," they needed some time to just stand still.
Unfortunately, that's the opposite of what happened, and Colvin could never have expected what occurred next. Just two days before Colvin’s 13th birthday, her beloved younger sister, Delphine, passed away from polio. Shortly after, Claudette began attending Booker T. Washington High School.
High School Troubles
Despite being a good student, Colvin had difficulty in school due to dealing with so much grief from her sister's passing. According to biography.com, Claudette struggled but worked very hard to become an honor student. She managed to receive A's in nearly all of her classes. And in time, she began to find her social circle.
In her classes, Claudette was thrilled to learn about the Civil Rights Movement. Even more so in February, when the school focused on learning and celebrating Black History Month. Colvin even became a member of the NAACP Youth Council, where she gained confidence in her voice and became close with her mentor, Rosa Parks.
Bus Segregation in Montgomery
Colvin, like many others, depended on Montgomery's public transportation to get to and from school. According to several interviews, she and her classmates were released from classes early on March 2nd, 1955, and decided to walk downtown. Along the way, they saw a bus and hopped on, thinking it would be a quick ride into town.
At this time in history, white and Black citizens were strictly segregated when it came to buses, water fountains, and common spaces. On public transport, in particular, if all of the designated "white seats" on a bus were full, Black patrons were expected to give up their seats so the white residents could sit comfortably.
Trouble on the Bus
That afternoon, a white woman entered the bus and stood at the front. Noticing the situation, the bus driver ordered Claudette and her three classmates to move immediately. Her friends quickly got up, but Colvin did not. At the time, she had no idea her actions would spark a historical moment that would change her life forever.
In the book Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History, Colvin is quoted saying, "She couldn't sit in the same row as us because that would mean we were as good as her." She was commanded to move again, but according to Newsweek, Claudette declared, "It is my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare."
“History Had Me Glued to the Seat”
This groundbreaking moment of standing up for her rights took place nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. But unfortunately, the majority of history books left Claudette Colvin's name out of their pages. What gumption caused Colvin to say no that day? As she phrased it, "History had me glued to my seat."
In later years, Claudette spoke in many interviews about that Spring day. To ABC News, she recalled feeling as though "Harriet Tubman's hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth was pushing me down on the other shoulder...Between these two historical women, I could not move; I was paralyzed in that seat."
Arrested at 15 Years Old
Colvin remembered wearing a light blue sweater and navy blue skirt that day. She told the Philadelphia Tribune, "I didn't get up and stand up. I just sat there." At the intersection of Bibb and Commerce streets in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, Claudette's actions caused her to be forcefully dragged off the bus backward.
"For these historical women I had been taught so much about, I just couldn't move," Claudette explained. "That's the only way I knew how to resist, to not move," she told the Montgomery Advertiser. Despite the young fifteen-year-old being scared and stunned, Colvin stood her ground until she was in the back of a police car.
Colvin's Court Charges
According to The Black Post: Remembered and Reclaimed, in court, the young girl was represented by Fred Gray, a lawyer for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Unfortunately, Gray's argument was not powerful enough to spare Colvin of the claimed charges.
According to court records, Claudette was charged with assault and battery, disorderly conduct, and violation of city segregation laws. She subsequently pleaded not guilty, but according to biography.com, the court ruled against Colvin and put her on probation.
Jail Time for Claudette
Recalling her time in jail to the Montgomery Advertiser, Claudette said, "As a teenager, that's when I became really scared...In an old Western, when the bandits are put in the jail, you can hear the sound of the key go 'click.' I could hear the sound when the jailer locked it..."
She continued, "I knew I was locked in, and I couldn't get out. I started crying. I started reciting the 23rd Psalm." Claudette spent several hours in the cell. Fortunately, this was enough time for her friends to find her mother at work. Shortly after, Mary Anne and the community Pastor came to bail young Colvin out.
Her Case was Appealed
Later that month, a juvenile court judge found Claudette guilty of violating the city segregation law "By refusing to move to the rear of a City Lines bus when requested by the driver," according to Montgomery Advertiser. This was the definition of unfair to the Colvin's, but there was nothing anyone could do, or was there?
Well, Colvin's case was appealed to the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955. Thankfully, the charges of disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws were dropped. This was a step in the right direction for Claudette. But, according to The Black Past, the conviction of assaulting a police officer was upheld.
"There Was a Dark Shadow in My Life"
Once she was released from jail, the fifteen-year-old dug into the deeper emotions behind what happened. "It was difficult because people looked at me differently," Colvin told the Montgomery Advertiser. "The people who didn't know me said that I was crazy. That I was causing trouble," she continued.
"Some of the parents didn't want their children to be associated with me," Colvin reluctantly recalled. In one day, Claudette's life changed forever. She had been labeled as a troublemaker, and she didn't know what to do. "There was a dark shadow in my life, a darkness," she remembered.
A Self-Established Pioneer
Not allowing other people to write her story for her, Claudette quickly bounced back. She became a self-established pioneer of the 1950’s Civil Rights Movement, which her life had been intertwined with from May 2nd onward. This led her to do what she could to take action in striking down segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama.
Claudette later served as a key plaintiff in Browder vs. Gayle, intending to label Montgomery's city bus segregation as unconstitutional. Colvin claimed, "When it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You have to take a stand and say, 'This is not right,'" according to the book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.
Browder v. Gayle
Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle. Per court records, Claudette took to the courtroom alongside Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith. Jeanatta Reese was due to be a plaintiff as well, but she withdrew after she and her husband were threatened with revenge and violence.
Author Douglas Brinkley wrote about Colvin's recollections of the case. She described her arrest: "I kept saying, 'He has no civil right…This is my constitutional right…You have no right to do this'…I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person."
The Court's Ruling
Finally, the case began to see movement. On June 5, 1956, the United States Middle District Court of Alabama issued a ruling that declared the state's and Montgomery's laws mandating public bus segregation as unconstitutional. Claudette and her team of strong women won! But, this wasn't the end of Colvin's fight for justice.
Under six months later, on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed the District Court decision. Then, in another leap in the right direction, December 20, 1956, marked an important day. The court ordered Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation permanently!
Colvin Tried to Move On
Claudette then attempted to move on with her life. In March 1956, she gave birth to her first son, Raymond. Two years later, she moved in with her sister, Velma, in the Bronx neighborhood of New York. According to the Chicago Tribune, she had trouble finding and keeping work after her glorious winning of the federal court case.
Colvin was stigmatized as a troublemaker by many and struggled in her local environment, according to biography.com. She subsequently withdrew from college. Life seemed unlivable until 1969, when Claudette landed a job as a nurse aid in a Manhattan nursing home. She worked there for thirty-five years until she retired in 2004.
She Created a Family of Her Own
"Living in a segregated society, I wasn't going out of my boundaries looking for trouble," the history-maker told the Montgomery Advertiser. "I didn't have the support...I was ostracized...I knew I had to take care of myself," she continued. Claudette knew if she wanted to live a good life, she must create it for herself.
"I'm a self-made woman. You have to have strong courage, strong faith and belief in yourself," Colvin declared. The strong-willed woman gave birth to her second son, Randy. In time, her family grew to include five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
A Second Family Tragedy
The family-focused woman created a liter of accomplished children. They went on to become a doctor, a nurse, an international businesswoman, and military veterans. She had so much to be proud of. But, in 1993, a terrible tragedy struck Colvin's family again, leaving her in shambles.
After dedicating her adult life to caring for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, something happened that she never could've prepared for. Her first-born son, Raymond, suddenly passed away from a heart attack in 1993 at the age of thirty-seven.
Reflecting on Her Life
This extreme loss added to the list of hardships Claudette lived through. In 2005, Colvin was questioned yet again about her decision not to give up her seat on the bus all of those years ago. After expressing her pride, she said, "I do feel like what I did was a spark, and it caught on," reported the Montgomery Advertiser.
The Chicago Tribune asked if Colvin was upset over the lack of credit for her actions, which Parks mirrored nine months later. "I'm not disappointed," she said. "Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But know [that] four other women [went] to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation."
Colvin Received Delayed Recognition
Even though her name wasn't broadcasted across news stations, recognition did come, but much later in her life. Colvin remembers meeting and shaking Martin Luther King Jr's hand. As she recalled in an interview with 1010 Wins, King said, "Claudette, you're a very brave girl." Years later, her accomplishments were honored.
In 2017, Mayor Todd Strange had March 2nd officially declared "Claudette Colvin Day." In addition, after being released from jail sixty-four years prior, the street that led her home was renamed "Claudette Colvin Way." In 2018, she was even honored for her lifetime commitment to public service with a Congressional certificate.
Voices Spoke Out On Her Behalf
Reflecting on prior experiences, Claudette's former attorney, Fred Gray, divulged to Newsweek, "Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks." This felt reassuring to Colvin, but something still didn't seem right.
Although Gray's words were kind, and she could tell they were genuine, Claudette felt shafted. As mentioned earlier, she was not disappointed that Parks led the bus boycott and became credited worldwide for changing history. But, she did believe that the world needed to know her name and story too.
Claudette in Literature
While many public leaders spoke out to show appreciation for Colvin's bravery, she outwardly received credit many years prior. In 1999, former U.S.-based poet, Laureate Rita Dove, commemorated the trailblazer in her poem "Claudette Colvin Goes To Work." The piece was later published in Dove's book On the Bus with Rosa Parks.
In 2006, the work was transformed. Former poet-turned-folk-singer, John McCutcheon, turned Rita Dove's poem into a beautiful song. He first publicly performed the piece in Charlottesville at Virginia's Paramount Theater. The act can be found on YouTube via "John McCutcheon sings Rita Dove's 'Claudette Colvin.'"
Colvin in Pop Culture
In more recent years, Colvin started being portrayed in pop culture, including 2013's HBO series The Newsroom. In its 2nd season, the lead character utilizes Claudette's refusal to comply with segregation as a model of how "One thing" can alter everything, according to "The Newsroom: Will McAvoy On Historical Hypotheticals."
According to IMDb, the following year, a re-enactment of Colvin's resistance was portrayed in an episode of the comedy TV series Drunk History. The episode's topic was Montgomery, Alabama, and the brave icon, Claudette, was played by Mariah Iman Wilson. Finally, she had begun to receive the credit she deserved.
Women's History Month Celebrations
In an ABC News segment from March 2020, Women's History Month, a significant bit of news was re-announced nation-wide. At the corner of Unionport Rd. and East Tremont Ave in Montgomery was a street named in Claudette's honor. The ABC News anchor referenced Colvin as "A woman who has paved the way for so many others."
The same month, Colvin was interviewed at the Embrace Ambition Summit. When asked, Claudette explained that her courage on March 2, 1955, came impulsively. She recalled not getting up in part due to the elders who stayed seated on the bus. Instead of fleeing, they stood their ground, and even at fifteen-years-old, so did she.
Current Day Claudette
Colvin then called attention to the previous month's importance. February is Black History month, a time in which bringing light to the stories and lives that make up Black culture is highlighted. But, "It's not just a one-day thing…it's every day, every minute, every second," Claudette reminded.
Sixty-six years after young Claudette Colvin began to change the world, we continue to learn more about the incredible icon she was then and is now. If we've learned anything from the now eighty-two-year-old, it's that while many stand up, sometimes, justice can be achieved by confidently sitting down in the name of freedom.