Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus | KUOW News and Information

Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus

Mar 2, 2015
Originally published on March 3, 2015 6:43 am

Rosa Parks is well-known for her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., in December 1955. But Parks' civil rights protest did have a precedent: Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin, a student from a black high school in Montgomery, had refused to move from her bus seat nine months earlier. However, Colvin is not nearly as well-known, and certainly not as celebrated, as Parks.

Montgomery was segregated, which meant that black people couldn't use the dressing rooms at department stores or ride in the front of the bus. Colvin didn't like that.

"I knew that this was a double standard," she says. "This was unfair."

The bus incident

On March 2, 1955, Colvin got on the bus with three other students who settled themselves in a middle row. The first 10 seats in the front of the bus were for whites only. That was the law and Colvin knew it.

"And so as the bus proceeded on downtown, more white people got on the bus," she says. "Eventually the bus got full capacity, and a young white lady was standing near the four of us. She was expecting me to get up."

"The bus driver saw the situation through the rearview mirror and said, 'I need those seats,' " says Phillip Hoose, the author of Claudette Colvin, Twice Towards Justice. "Three of the girls got up and walked to the back of the bus. Claudette didn't."

"I just couldn't move," she says. "History had me glued to the seat."

The bus driver called a police officer, who confronted Colvin.

"And I said, 'I paid my fare and it's my constitutional right,' " she recalls. "I remember they dragged me off bus because I refused to walk. They handcuffed me and took me to an adult jail."

She was charged with assault and battery, disorderly conduct and defying the segregation law.

"Everything changed"

"My mom and dad got me out of jail and my dad said, 'Claudette, you put us in a lot of danger,' " she recalls. "He was worried about repercussions from the KKK. So that night, he didn't sleep. He [sat] in the corner, with his shotgun fully loaded, all night."

When Colvin went to school the following Monday, she got a mixed reaction. Some students were impressed by her courage, while others felt that she made things harder for them.

"Everything changed," she says. "I lost most of my friends. Their parents had told them to stay away from me, because they said I was crazy, I was an extremist."

She wanted to fight in court

Other African-Americans had previously refused to give their seats to white passengers, says Hoose. "What was without precedent, though, is Colvin wanted to get a lawyer and she wanted to fight," he says.

The lawyer she chose was Fred Gray, one of two African-American lawyers in Montgomery at the time. After speaking with Colvin, Gray says, he was prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit to contest segregation on buses in Montgomery. But after discussing Colvin's incident with other local African-American community leaders, the community decided to wait, he says.

Colvin was just 15 and did not have civil rights training. Gray says the community was not quite prepared for Colvin's situation.

"Later I had a child born out of wedlock; I became pregnant when I was 16," Colvin says. "And I didn't fit the image either, of, you know, someone they would want to show off."

Nine months later, Rosa Parks did the exact same thing as Colvin. She was 42 years old, a professional and an officer in the NAACP. Hoose says Parks was the symbol that civil rights leaders were looking for.

"I knew why they chose Rosa," Colvin says. "They thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa."

Gray, who went on to represent civil rights icons Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., says that Colvin is one of thousands of unnamed individuals who played a key role in civil rights history.

"Well, today, I'm-75-years old. It's good to see some of the fruit of my labor," says Colvin. "To me, I don't mind being named, as long as we have someone out there to tell our story."

In 1956, about a year after Colvin refused to give up her seat, Gray filed the landmark federal lawsuit Browder v. Gayle. This case ended segregation on public transportation in Alabama. The star witness was Claudette Colvin.

This story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries and edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman. You can find more Radio Diaries stories on the Radio Diaries podcast.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to hear about the teenager who 60 years ago today pushed against racial boundary lines in Montgomery, Ala. She learned about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth at her segregated high school, and the lessons stuck with her. On March 2, 1955, the black teenager refused to give her seat to a white passenger on a public bus. This was months before Rosa Parks did the same thing. But Claudette Colvin's stand is largely left out of the history books. Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries produced this story about that moment and what followed.

CLAUDETTE COLVIN: My name is Claudette Colvin, and I was 15 years old when I was arrested for violating the Montgomery segregation law. Well, I was the kind of teenager that wore my hair in braids. Everybody else was battling with a straightening comb and pomade (laughter). I didn't mind being different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLVIN: Montgomery - it's a nice, little southern town, but everything was segregated. This is for colored folks and this is for white folks - couldn't try on clothes in the store, couldn't go to the movie theater when a good movie come in town, you know, things that teenagers like to do. So I knew that this was a double standard. This was unfair.

PHILLIP HOOSE: My name is Phillip Hoose, and I wrote a book titled "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice." March 2, 1955, was a Wednesday. Claudette got onto the bus with three other students, and they all settled themselves into a row in the middle of the bus. The rule back in Montgomery at that time was 10 seats in the front of the bus were for whites only and the whites always had to be in front.

COLVIN: I knew that rule by heart. I was sitting near the window - the last seat that was allowed for colored people. And so, as the bus proceeded downtown, more white people got on the bus. Eventually, the bus got full capacity, and a young white lady was standing near the four of us. She was expecting me to get up.

HOOSE: The bus driver looked in the mirror and saw the situation and said, I need those seats. And three of the girls got up and walked to the back of the bus. And Claudette didn't.

COLVIN: I just couldn't move. History had me glued to the seat.

HOOSE: And people started yelling in the bus, come on, let's go, let's - move.

COLVIN: Hear those white people are complaining to each other - talking, talking, talking, talking, talk. I could see their mouths moving and talking to each other. I didn't know what was going to happen.

HOOSE: The bus driver called for a police officer, and a police officer boarded the bus and confronted Claudette.

COLVIN: Gal, why are you sitting there? You didn't know the law? And I said, I paid my fare and it's my constitutional right. I remember they dragged me off the bus because I refused to walk. They handcuffed me, and they took me to an adult jail. I had three charges - assault and battery, disorderly conduct and going against the segregation law. My mom and dad got me out of jail. And my dad said, Claudette, you know you put us in a lot of danger, in a lot of danger. He was worried about some repercussion from the KKK. And so that night he didn't sleep. He sit in the corner with his shotgun fully loaded all night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOOSE: When she got to school the following Monday after the arrest, it was a very divisive thing. On one hand, some students were impressed by her courage. On the other hand, there were many students who thought Claudette had made things tougher for them now, and they didn't appreciate it one bit.

COLVIN: Everything changed. I lost most of my friends. Their parents had told them to stay away from me because they said that I was crazy, I was an extremist.

HOOSE: There was precedent for African-Americans refusing to surrender their seats to white passengers. What was without precedent, though, is she wanted to get a lawyer and she wanted to fight.

FRED GRAY: My name is Fred Gray. Claudette Colvin was my first civil rights case. I received a phone call from her parents telling me about the incident. I was prepared to file a federal lawsuit to desegregate the buses. But because she had not had the age experience, the maturity, nor the training and civil rights activities, when we discussed it with other persons in the community, they felt that we should not do it at that time.

COLVIN: My parents wasn't connected to the elite, right people. Later, I had a child born out of wedlock. I became pregnant when I was 16. And I didn't fit the image either of a, you know, someone that they would want to show off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Just the other day, one of the fine citizens of our community, Mrs. Rosa Parks, was arrested because she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger.

HOOSE: Nine months after Claudette took her bus stand, Rosa Parks did the same thing - 42 years old, she was a professional, an officer in the NAACP. And at last, African-American Montgomery had its symbol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSA PARKS: I didn't feel that I was being treated as a human being. I refused to give up the seat. I said no, and I wouldn't give it up.

COLVIN: I knew why they chose Rosa. They thought I would have been too militant for them. They wanted someone mildly genteel like Rosa. They didn't want to use a teenager.

GRAY: I represented Claudette Colvin in 1955, also Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King. And what you have to realize is there are literally hundreds and probably thousands of individuals like Claudette Colvin and many others. You never see their names. You never see their faces. But they laid the foundation so that we could honor the Dr. Kings and the Rosa Parks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLVIN: Well, today I'm 75 years old. It's good to see some of the fruit of my labor. To me, it doesn't bother me not being named as long as we have someone out there so we can tell our story.

SIEGEL: In 1956, about a year after Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat, her lawyer, Fred Gray, filed the landmark federal lawsuit Browder versus Gayle. The case ended segregation on public transportation in Alabama, and the star witness was Claudette Colvin.

Our story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries and edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman. You can find more Radio Diaries stories on the Radio Diaries podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.