Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin

In Mother Jones, Michael Mechanic lays out the history of Claudette Colvin, the original Montgomery black woman who refused to sit in the back of the bus.

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Most Americans know of Rosa Parks, but few have heard of Claudette Colvin. As a teen, Colvin fought and was arrested for keeping her seat at the front of the bus — nine months before Parks would do the same. But she was deemed too controversial to be a catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, writes Michael Mechanic in Mother Jones.

On March 2, 1955, a full nine months before Rosa Parks took her famous stand, Colvin boarded a city bus with her friends, taking a seat behind the first five rows, which were reserved for whites. Although the practice was illegal, drivers would routinely clear whole rows to accommodate a white rider if the white section was full—even if it meant those black riders would have to stand.

That’s what happened that day. When the driver shouted, “I need those seats!” Colvin’s friends dutifully moved to the back, but she stayed put. The driver chewed her out, to no avail. A couple of stops later, city police were there to meet the bus. Still Colvin refused to leave her seat. “It’s my constitutional right!” she shrieked again and again as the police dragged her from the bus.

This was nothing like Rosa Parks’ quiet arrest later. (Parks was neither handcuffed nor jailed, and was released after being found guilty of disorderly conduct and paying a ten dollar fine.)

Somehow one of the cops got scratched in Colvin fracas, and the girl was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer in addition to breaking the city’s segregation law. On the ride to the station, Colvin told author Hoose, the police called her a “nigger bitch,” and took turns trying to guess her bra size. When she arrived, other officers called her “thing” and “whore.” After booking, she was thrown in the city’s adult jail.

Read  Michael Mechanic’s entire piece at Mother Jones.

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