Rosa Parks was chosen to be the face of the bus boycotts, but young Claudette Colvin was the first to refuse to move from her seat.
Nine months before civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus for a White person, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin (born Claudette Austin) did the same. She was, in fact, the first individual to do so. The incident took place in 1955 when Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city of Montgomery, Alabama. On March 2, as she returned home from school, the "White seats" in the front of the bus filled up. At the time, African Americans were expected to stand and give up their seats in the "colored" section. Colvin refused.
The Bus Incident
Bus driver Robert W. Cleere commanded the young teenager and three other black women to stand up for a White woman who did not find a seat on the bus. While the three other women moved, Colvin remained seated. Another pregnant woman, Ruth Hamilton, got on and sat next to her. "[The bus driver] asked us both to get up. [Mrs. Hamilton] said she was not going to get up and that she had paid her fare and that she didn't feel like standing," Colvin recalled in an interview with Newsweek from 2009. "So I told him I was not going to get up either. So he said, 'If you are not going to get up, I will get a policeman.'" Two police officers, Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley, arrived and convinced a Black man sitting behind the two women to move, but Colvin still refused. Therefore, she was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested by the two policemen.
Colvin was advised by her mother to let Parks "be the one" to inspire the movement. She later said, "My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me to let Rosa be the one: white people aren't going to bother Rosa, they like her." There were several factors that explained why Parks received more attention than she did. To name a few, she did not have ‘good hair.’ she was not fair-skinned, she was a teenager, and she got pregnant. As leaders within the civil rights movement attempted to "keep up appearances" so as to further their cause, Colvin was marginalized by the very group that had ought to protect her.
Browder v. Gayle
Colvin fought the law that called for segregated buses with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese in the now-famous court case of Browder v. Gayle. During 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.' And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a White person." The case eventually made its way through the courts, ultimately the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. The court ruled that the state of Alabama and Montgomery's laws mandating public bus segregation were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court later declined to reconsider, and Alabama was ordered to end bus segregation permanently.
Following the court case, Colvin rarely discussed her experiences. Nonetheless, she essentially paved the way for the incredibly successful Montgomery bus boycott movement of 1955, which gained national attention. In 2005, however, she shared her thoughts in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser. She said she would not have changed her decision to remain seated on the bus. "I feel very, very proud of what I did," she affirmed. "I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on."