Ala. Teen's Bus Defiance Set Stage for Rosa Parks
PORTLAND, Maine - More than 50 years after her refusal to surrender her bus seat to a white woman set the stage for a similar act of defiance by Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin is finally getting her due as a civil rights pioneer.
On March 2, 1955, the 15-year-old schoolgirl from Montgomery, Ala., was dragged off the bus by police, handcuffed and jailed. But her bold act drew little support from classmates - many of whom shunned her - or from the city's black leadership.
She went to court the following year as a plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit that struck down the legal underpinnings for segregated buses in the Jim Crow South and ended the bus boycott that kick-started the civil rights movement.
But even then she won scant recognition and had remained a footnote to history.
Author Phillip Hoose stumbled upon Colvin's story during research for a book on the role of young people in U.S. history. It took him more than six years to track down Colvin, who was living in the Bronx, N.Y., for a series of interviews that led to his book, "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice," which was released last month.
The book, told in part in Colvin's own voice, relates how the daily humiliation of riding the bus to and from Montgomery's Booker T. Washington High School fueled her refusal to heed the driver's order to vacate her seat.
The 69-year-old, who called that act of defiance "a very impulsive act," said she was inspired by figures from her school's Negro History Month.
"It was Sojourner Truth pushing me back down on the seat, saying 'Girl, you can't get up,' and Harriet Tubman, too. All of those people were in the back of my mind," she said.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch, whose three-volume biography of King is regarded as a definitive history of the civil rights movement, said Colvin's action was a missed opportunity.
"People were waiting and hoping and praying for some way to challenge segregation, and they decided she wasn't it," Branch said in an interview. Instead, he said, it took an extraordinary person like Rosa Parks to galvanize the downtrodden black community to the point where 50,000 riders would boycott the buses for more than a year.
After Colvin was arrested and charged with violating segregation laws, disorderly conduct and assault, black leaders met with police to try to resolve the case. Among those present was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, then 26, who had just arrived from Atlanta to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
The idea of a bus boycott, which King went on to lead, was gaining momentum in the black community, Hoose said, but its organizers didn't think Colvin was the one whose case should trigger such a risky campaign.
"It always gets to the point where she's deemed unacceptable to be the face of the movement," the author said. She was described as "feisty" and "profane" - even though she never used foul language - at a time when black leaders were bent on someone who would project an image of unimpeachable integrity.
Hoose suggested that other factors also may have come into play. Colvin had dark skin, at a time when fairer skin carried more status among blacks. She also came from a neighborhood of unpaved streets lined with shotgun shacks and outdoor privies.
To complicate matters, Colvin discovered during the ordeal that she had been impregnated by a much older, married man. When the pregnancy was discovered, she was expelled from school.
Black churches and community groups raised money to pay for Colvin's appeal. The judge dropped two of the charges but kept the conviction for "assaulting" officers who dragged her off the bus.
She was ordered to pay a small fine.
Nine months after Colvin's arrest, a lighter-skinned department store seamstress named Rosa Parks took her stance, winning a place in history.
But Colvin was not yet forgotten by members of the civil rights movement. In early 1956, Colvin's lawyer enlisted the teenager as one of four black female plaintiffs in the lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of segregated public transportation.
The U.S. District Court ruled 2-1 in their favor, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court.
The long-forgotten case, Browder v. Gayle, led to integration on buses, doing for public transportation what the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education did for education in 1954.
But things didn't work out as well for Colvin. As white resentment about her role in the campaign made it difficult to get a job, she moved to New York, where her sister was living.
She has lived there in quiet anonymity, now retired after working as a nursing home aide.
Colvin said she harbored no resentment about her lack of recognition, but was disappointed that her story and that of her fellow plaintiffs have gotten short shrift. She said she was proud to be able to tell her five grandchildren of her accomplishments and believed her sacrifices made life better for them.
Hoose said he was surprised that Colvin's story had never been chronicled in detail.
"I hope it makes it impossible to talk about the beginnings of the civil rights movement without really describing what Claudette Colvin did," he said. "That's really my own standard for the success or failure of the book."