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Black History Month : Claudette Colvin

It is 1955. It is the Jim Crow South. Buses have different sections for white and colored people. One woman in Montgomery, Alabama has had enough of it. This brave African-American woman decides to take a stand and hence decides to just sit. She does not give up her seat when asked to by the driver because as per the law when there is no other seat to move to, you don’t have to give up your seat as long as it is not for an emergency or for a disabled person. And this was certainly not anyone of those. This was just pure racial discrimination and segregation at its worst. The police get called and they eventually arrest her and takes her away to Jail forcibly. This would spark one of the most important social movement in U.S. history.

Ah, Rosa Parks? Well, no! This is Claudette Colvin who pulled off this brave act almost nine months before Rosa Parks. While she was just fifteen. She was the first one to do. Hers is the one that triggered a few others to take the stand. And eventually Rosa Parks. She was one of the five Plaintiffs that would sue the City for segregation (Parks was not in the five) in the famous Browder vs Gayle case. A young pastor in the city, Dr. Martin Luther King would get involved in this and later go on to lead the movement. That part of the story we know. But it all started with young Claudette.

This book is the story of Claudette Colvin, one of the almost forgotten true heroes of the Civil Rights Movemement. Thanks to Phillip Hoose (Wikipedia) who would go through the archives and research and bring this story out. The book won the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature, a Newbery Honor award and many other well-deserved ones.

Claudette Colvin

It is a heart wrenching start right in the first paragraph. Claudette describes how she got to know about Race. When she was four years old, she is in a shop when a group little boys get curious and one of them takes her hand and compares his hand to hers. Claudette’s mom hurries toward her and gives her a backhand slap across the face and tells her, “Don’t you know you are not supposed to touch them?”. The white boy’s mother who was watching this nods approvingly. Claudette’s mom grabs her hand and rushes her away from the store.

JIM CROW

WHO WAS JIM CROW?

Between the 1830s and the 1950s, minstrel shows starred white performers who smeared burnt cork on their faces and ridiculed African-American life. Thomas “Daddy” Rice is credited with popularizing minstrel shows with the song “Jump Jim Crow,” which, he said, he’d heard from a black singer. After the sheet music sold widely, Jim Crow became a standard character in minstrel shows and then evolved into a term to represent the whole system of laws and customs that segregated black and white Americans.

Together, the whole system of racial segregation was known as “Jim Crow.”

Jim Crow’s job was not only to separate the races but to keep blacks poor.

Jim Crow controlled your life from womb to tomb.

About the bus riding experience.

But everything about riding a bus was humiliating for black passengers. All riders entered through the front door and dropped their dimes in the fare box near the driver. But, unless the entire white section was empty, blacks alone had to get back off the bus and reenter through the rear door. Sometimes the driver pulled away while black passengers were still standing outside.

Brown vs. Board of Education

This is a short snippet about the landmark Brown vs Board of Education case.

On Monday, May 17, 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools.

Linda Brown was a third-grade student who lived in Topeka, Kansas. She had to walk five long blocks to her school every day, even though she lived much closer to a school for whites only. Linda’s father sued the city government to let her go to the all-white school. The case was combined with several similar cases around the country, and it was argued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, under the title Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled 9–0 that segregated schools did not give black students an equal chance for a good education. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote on behalf of the nine justices: “We conclude, unanimously, that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

On her school days.

My Sunday school teacher said we had been cursed by one of Noah’s sons. I didn’t buy that at all. To me, God loved everyone. Why would He curse just us?

I told my pastor, Reverend H. H. Johnson, “I don’t want to serve a God that would have a cursed race.” He seemed proud of me for saying that.

Our school was a one-room white wooden building

One teacher taught all six elementary grades,

On her idol Harriet Tubman.

I admired Harriet Tubman more than anyone else I read about—her courage, the pistol she wore, the fact that she never lost a passenger on the Underground Railroad.

Mary Louise Smith, the teenager who would follow Claudette.

But Mary Louise Smith, the second teenager with the nerve to face down Jim Crow on a city bus, was, like Claudette, branded “unfit” to serve as the public face of a mass bus protest.

Rosa Parks

ON DECEMBER 2, 1955, tens of thousands of black Montgomery residents studied an unsigned leaflet bearing a brief typewritten message. It began: “Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped.”


Claudette had lit the fuse to a powder keg of protest, but her rebellion had caught black Montgomery by surprise. Now, nine months later, Rosa Parks was embraced by a community ready for action. Claudette had given them the time to prepare. As Fred Gray later said, “I don’t mean to take anything away from Mrs. Parks, but Claudette gave all of us the moral courage to do what we did.”

On being left out.

When I heard on the news that it was Rosa Parks, I had several feelings: I was glad an adult had finally stood up to the system, but I felt left out. I was thinking, Hey, I did that months ago and everybody dropped me.

Dr. King’s inspiring speeches and rallying the people.

“And we are determined here in Montgomery, to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

“Standing beside love is always justice. Not only are we using the tools of persuasion — but we’ve got to use the tools of coercion.”

During the bus boycott which would go on for well over a year, the majority of the people who still had to commute had a very tough time. They would come up with their own carpool system (even though there weren’t as many cars nor as many African Americans who had cars). A small incident where a volunteer sees an old woman walking and offers her a lift.

One MIA driver told the story of having come upon an elderly woman hobbling along the road. “Jump in, grandmother,” he said to her, pushing open the door. She waved him on. “I’m not walking for myself,” she said. “I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.”

This was one of the ways that started it. “Separate but Equal”.

In 1896, in a famous court case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Louisiana could racially segregate its buses, streetcars, and trains without violating the U.S. Constitution as long as the separate sections of compartments were “equal.” Separate but equal became the legal basis for segregation throughout the South. But the idea that the schools, parks, hotels, restaurants, and sections of buses and trains were “equal” was a sham.

Browder vs. Gayle

THE FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION In Browder v. Gayle, lawyers representing black riders claimed that the segregation laws governing Montgomery’s city buses violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ratified in 1868 to secure freedom for slaves, the Fourteenth Amendment said in section one, No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. This amendment was used in several important cases during the civil rights era to dismantle legal segregation, including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Judge Frank Johnson

thirty-seven-year-old Frank M. Johnson, who had just been appointed by President Eisenhower as the new federal judge for the middle district of Alabama.

Browder versus Gayle changed relationships of blacks and whites in America and the world. Yet few people know about the case and even fewer know about the plaintiffs. —Filmmaker and journalist William Dickerson-Waheed, Rivers of Change All the boycotts and sit-ins and marches in themselves did not cure the illness of discrimination. It was the court decisions that did it. —Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.

The Ruling and aftermath.

By a 2–1 decision a federal court abolished segregated seating on Montgomery’s—and Alabama’s—buses.

The U.S. Supreme Court had just affirmed the lower court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle.

A team of creative lawyers and four tough women—two of them teenagers—had just booted Jim Crow off the buses.

Claudette’s life after the events.

Claudette received nurse’s training and took a job as a nurse’s aide in a Catholic hospital in New York, where she cared for elderly patients, often at night.

Decade by decade, she watched Rosa Parks’s fame grow as the person who had ignited the movement by refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Browder v. Gayle, overshadowed by the more famous school case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, was rarely mentioned in histories of the movement.

Author’s note

In the year 2000, while I was writing my book We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History, someone told me that a fifteen-year-old African-American girl had taken the same defiant stand as Rosa Parks, in the same city, but almost a year earlier.

Her protest had taken place almost nine months to the day before Rosa Parks had famously taken the same stand.

Hers is the story of a wise and brave woman who, when she was a smart, angry teenager in Jim Crow Alabama, made contributions to human rights far too important to be forgotten.

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

Fine set of educational materials on Browder v. Gayle and the plaintiffs, including Claudette.

Web site for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.


This is a very important book. Please do read this and more importantly get this for the children and the young adults you know and care about.

Happy Reading!