Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin

Maryam Abdul-Aleem | 4/12/2011, 4:38 p.m.
Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin

It was 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. A group of four female students, returning from Booker T. Washington High School, boarded the bus, paid their fares and then took their seats. The girls were seated near each other in opposite rows of two seats. They were seated as far up as they "were allowed to sit," under the laws of segregation, at the time. And then the bus got crowded.

"We had not planned to protest," said Claudette Colvin, one of four plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case that led to the desegregation of the buses in the federal district court in June of 1956. It was upheld in the Supreme Court in December of the same year.

Three of the four girls got up for a white woman who had boarded the bus, but not Colvin, who was seated next to a window. She said that the woman could have sat down on the empty row of seats that was opposite her. But the woman would not sit in the same section as Colvin, she said. She had a "whole seat by herself across from me," Colvin said, and she could have sat down. However, the "bus motor," who asked Colvin to get up, never stopped the bus completely during this whole ordeal. He went to court square, "where the buses make the connections," Ms. Colvin said,

A traffic patrolman got on the bus through the back door and asked if the bus driver asked her to get up. Colvin told the AmNews that she told the patrolman,"I paid my fare. It is my constitutional right" to sit.

"I was glued to the seat: [The spirit of] Harriet Tubman put her hand on my shoulder and said, 'Sit down, girl,'" she said with a chuckle in the telephone interview.

It was the month of February, and the teacher complained that the students didn't know the contributions African-Americans like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Jackie Robinson made. The students in class were learning about Marian Anderson and others when this happened.

Colvin said the patrolman on the bus told the bus driver it wasn't in his jurisdiction to arrest her. She said she was not making any noise. Then two policemen came on the bus, "saw me sitting there" and asked if the bus driver asked her to get up. She repeated that she paid her fare and it was her constitutional right to sit.

"I refused to get up," she said. "They knocked my books out of my lap." They physically removed her from the bus, she told the AmNews.

"I was a teenager. I had no fear. If [white people] didn't know you, they didn't know how to be polite," she said, "so we were use to their behavior and attitude."

When off the bus, the policemen "asked me to stick my hands out the window" and then they put handcuffs on me, she said. They then took her to City Hall and then to the city jail.