Nearly a year before Rosa Park’s historic act of civil disobedience, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman.
“History kept me stuck to my seat,” said Colvin, who was active in the NAACP Youth Council and knew Parks, who served as chapter secretary at the time. “I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other.”
She was arrested and forcibly removed from the bus by police, who made lewd comments to the teen as they drove her to the police station. She was tried as a juvenile and convicted of disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws, and assaulting a police officer. She appealed to a higher court, which dropped the first two charges but upheld the charge of assaulting an officer.
Civil rights leaders didn’t publicize Colvin’s action and arrest because she was unmarried and pregnant. They needed an unimpeachable spokesperson for their public campaign, and they would find her in Rosa Parks. Colvin’s mother told her, “white people aren’t going to bother Rosa, they like her.”
Colvin’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement may have been less visible, but it was critical nonetheless. In 1956, she was one of four plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gale, which challenged city bus segregation in Montgomery as unconstitutional. The case was argued by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who had presented Colvin in her previous trial. The plaintiffs were victorious in district court. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the original ruling at the end of 1956, putting an end to bus segregation in the state of Alabama.
After Browder, Colvin moved to New York City, where she worked for 34 years as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home. In 2021, a judge granted Colvin’s request to have her juvenile record expunged, stating that Colvin’s refusal had “been recognized as a courageous act on her behalf and on behalf of a community of affected people.”