#RespectYourElders: Everyone knows Rosa Parks, her influence on African American civil rights and her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. But nine months before Parks became known for her protest, the police arrested a woman named Claudette Colvin in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus.
Colvin, 80, is a retired American nurse aide and pioneer of the African American civil rights movement. She grew up in a low-income community in Montgomery. Colvin worked hard in school and dreamed of one day becoming president. In 1955 and at the age of 15, she attended the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city. Colvin relied on taking the bus to and from school. One day in March, she was on her way home and the bus driver asked her to give up her seat to a white woman and move to the back of the bus.
In an interview with Newsweek, Colvin recalled thinking, “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.”
The police arrested Colvin on several charges, including violating the city’s segregation laws. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) considered taking up her case but opted against it because they did not feel it was right for someone young, pregnant and not established in the civil rights community to be the face of what became a historic legal battle.
Nine months following Colvin’s arrest, the police arrested Rosa Parks, 42 at the time, for the same thing. Parks, secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP at that time, became the face of the Montgomery bus boycotts.
Fred Gray, one of two African American lawyers in Montgomery at the time, represented both Parks and Colvin. In 1956, he filed the landmark federal lawsuit Browder v. Gayle, which ended segregation on public transportation in Alabama. Colvin testified as the lead witness.
The young high schooler moved to Manhattan in 1958. She spent 35 years as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home before retiring in 2004.
Claudette is considered one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, but the Montgomery Council passed a resolution in 2017 marking March 2nd as Claudette Colvin Day.
In October 2019, Colvin returned to her roots by moving back to Alabama.