Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin
Dr. Dean Chavers
She launched the modern civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white man. But a teenager named Claudette Colvin had done the same thing nine months before Parks. Colvin got almost no attention, while Parks became an icon of civil rights.
On March 2, 1955, Claudette was riding the city bus home from school when the bus driver ordered her to move. She was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School. She refused to move and two policemen handcuffed her and dragged her off the bus. They took her to an adult jail. Her books went flying all over the place. She was only 15 years old and should have been taken to a juvenile jail. She said it was the worst scare of her life. She began crying and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again. They would not let her make a phone call.
The two policemen called her “a thing” and “a whore” and “nigger bitch,” which scared her. One of them kicked her. She insisted, “I have paid my fare. I have as much constitutional right to sit here as that lady,” referring to a white lady sitting near her.
She said, “I could not move because history had me glued to the seat. … Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder.”
Phil Hoose learned of her courage a decade ago and wrote a book about her called “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.” She was 69 years old in 2007, retired and living in the Bronx. Some of her classmates who were on the bus with her called her mother Mary Ann at the house where she worked as a maid and told her Claudette had been arrested. Her mother and the Rev. H. J. Johnson paid her bail later that night. Some people in the Black community condemned her. But most of the neighbors were proud of her and came to the house to congratulate her. “They were just squeezing me to death,” she told Hoose.
The neighborhood, called King Hill, was afraid the Klan would strike back. Her father sat in the house awake all night, with his shotgun in his lap. She said, “Probably nobody on King Hill slept that night.”
They had been learning about the injustices Alabama whites had been doing to Black people for hundreds of years. She knew about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
“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 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.”
Claudette remembered for the rest of her life the many injustices she had to endure as a child. She could not eat at a white lunch counter. She had to wait in the Colored section at the interstate bus stations. She had to use the Colored restrooms wherever she went. She could not try on clothes or shoes at a clothing store. “You had to take a brown paper bag,” she said, “and draw a diagram of your foot … and take it to store.”
A few other Black women did protest the seating arrangement on the city buses. They were all arrested, paid their fines, and went home. No publicity followed them.
But the revolution arrived 10 months later. When Rosa Parks, the Secretary of the NAACP charter, was arrested, she set off a firestorm that should have started with Claudette. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the back of the bus to a white man who demanded it. She was a seamstress and had worked a long day and was tired. She was arrested, which stirred the local ministers to get behind her.
The upshot was a federal case, Browder v. Gayle, that determined segregation on city buses was illegal. She was one of the four complainants and the lead person testifying. But the Black people in the city had to organize a bus boycott that lasted a whole year. The ministers named the dynamic young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Atlanta as their spokesman. He was minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, but soon had a national reputation as “the” leader of the civil rights movement.
Jackie Robinson, who later was the first Black player in major league baseball, first challenged the law regulating seating on buses in 1944. He was a second lieutenant stationed at Camp Hood, Texas. He refused to give up his seat and move to the back of the Army bus when ordered to do so by a white bus driver, Milton Reneger. The Southwestern Bus Company that Reneger worked for was insisting on enforcing the segregationist rules in Texas of the time. He ordered Jackie to move from the seat he was occupying next to a white woman. Jackie refused. He was court-martialed for it, but acquitted.
Jackie’s actions stimulated the issuance of War Department Order No. 97, which forbade segregation in recreational facilities like theaters, and on transportation vehicles, like buses. Four years later the military became the first U.S. institution to outlaw segregation based on race. Jackie went on to break the color barrier in major league baseball and be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Claudette probably did not know of Jackie’s actions during World War II. But she had her own exposure to evils of segregation that applied to jobs, housing, education, and health care.
Once Parks was arrested, she was aided by a local Black leader, E. D. Nixon, the local president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a railroad union. Nixon knew about Claudette, but did not act on her case when he learned she was pregnant. Parks was an outstanding citizen, so Nixon took on her case with zeal.
The Montgomery Improvement Association, which Nixon organized, was centered around a dozen and a half Black ministers and their churches. They declared a boycott of the buses, and for a year people walked to work, carpooled, and hitchhiked. They picked Dr. King, who soon was regularly featured in magazines, newspapers, and national TV news.
The White Citizens Council, which was similar to the Klan, firebombed the houses of Dr. King and his sidekick Rev. Ralph Abernathy, along with four Black churches. They also shot into buses and firebombed the house of Rev. Robert S. Graetz, a white minister who supported the boycott. Despite the violence, Dr. King prevailed, calling on protesters not to use weapons, and to love their white brethren.
The Supreme Court upheld the Browder decision that had been handed down by the circuit court. The lawsuit had been brought by Aurelia Browder, a widow with six children who had been arrested a month after Claudette. After 381 days the boycotters won and the bus boycott ended. There was still violence; the White Citizens Council of the Klan lynched a black man, Willie Edwards. They claimed he was dating a white woman.
Claudette was a straight A student in high school. After she had a son, she dropped out of college and moved to New York. She worked as a nurse’s aide for the next 35 years, retiring in 1995.
Three years after Claudette’s refusal to give up her seat, my people, the Lumbee Indian people of North Carolina, chose an entirely different way to deal with the Klan. When the Klan leader James W. “Catfish” Cole announced he was coming from South Carolina to teach the “Indian niggers” a lesson, his party of 50 Klan members was surrounded by 500 Indians carrying rifles, shotguns, axes, pitchforks, and hoes.
Sanford Locklear shot out the light over the Klan’s flatbed truck and they ran off. Catfish ran his car into a ditch and ran off on foot, leaving his wife stranded in the car. The Lumbee boys, many of whom were former military in World War II and Korea, pulled her car out and took care of her. A Lumbee judge, Lacy Maynor, later sentenced Catfish to two years in prison. He died in a car accident a few years later. The Klan has not been back to mess with us.
The Indian way has been non-violence. Except for the Lumbee incident, called the Battle of Hayes Pond, and the takeover of Wounded Knee in 1973, modern Indian resistance has been non-violent. I have been involved in non-violent protests at Alcatraz, Pit River, and Gallup and never saw anyone hurt.