Claudette Colvin -- #blacklivesmatter

Do you know the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Who do you think ignited the Black people? If you say Rosa Parks, you are incorrect. There were actually two teenagers before Rosa Parks. The first was Claudette Colvin. At age 15 Claudette Colvin refused to give her seat up on the bus. She was arrested and put in jail and this was about nine months to the day before Rosa Parks does the same thing. Today I am going to share a bit about Claudette Colvin and her important role in the Civil Rights Movement as part of our Black Lives Matter Series. This post is late today because our public library now has curbside pickup and I was able to get a middle grade book about Claudette and I wanted to read it all today. It was amazing to learn so much different than I have been taught previously.

Claudette Colvin Source: The Visibility Project, Claudette Colvin / Public domain
Claudette was born Claudette Austin on September 5, 1939 in Birmingham, Alabama. Her birth mother was Mary Jane Gadson and her biological father was C.P. Austin. When she was a baby she went to live with her great aunt and great uncle, Mary Ann and C.P. Colvin in a small town called Pine Level in Alabama. It was her great aunt and  great uncle are who she called mom and dad. Later her younger sister, Delphine, also came and lived with them. In Pine Level she went to a one room school house and often spent the night at various people's house all over Pine Level. Most were the homes of her parents' friends. She was a very inquisitive child. When she turned eight her family moved to Montgomery. They lived in a neighborhood called King Hill which was known as a very poor neighborhood. She grew up hearing the adults around her complain when they were home about segregation but accepting it in public. She didn't understand that. Claudette is very smart. She learned the work for a year ahead when she was at the one room school house and skipped a year, so she was young compared to her classmates in Montgomery. 

Just two weeks before Claudette was to be a freshman at Booker T. Washington High School, Delphine got sick with polio. She was taken to the hospital and Claudette never saw her alive again. Delphine died on Claudette's thirteenth birthday. In November that year a sixteen year-old neighbor, Jeremiah Reeves, was accused of raping a white housewife. He was sentenced to death in the electric chair. This helped enrage the race fire. It also was a turning point for Claudette. It really got the Black students thinking about prejudice and racism. 

At the end of her sophomore year the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools in the Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka case. This opened a new hope for many Black people. Of course many students thought about whether they would want to be in classes with white people, after all they were not allowed to sit next to them on the bus. 

Now the segregation on the buses were bad in the South and even worse in Montgomery. The bus drivers in Montgomery basically had the rights of police officers on their buses. Some even carried guns. The first ten rows of seats were for white people. The back of the bus was for Blacks. The middle was a bit mixed however if there were no seats left in the white section a Black person would be asked to give up his or her seat and usually it was the entire row of seats would be given up for that one white person. The Blacks also had to board the bus at the front door and pay their fare. Then they had to step off the bus and board at the back door. They were not allowed to walk through the white section. Sometimes the bus driver would take off while the person was walking to the back door after having paid his or her fare. 

On March 2, 1955, Claudette and some of her friends and classmates boarded the bus. The white section of the bus filled up and a white woman was standing in the aisle between the seats she and her classmates were in. The driver said he needed the seats and the three classmates moved but Claudette refused. She had been studying the Constitution that year and also knew of the Alabama law that said no one could be forced to give up a seat for another person when no other seat was available. She stuck to her guns and refused to move. The driver called the transit police over. They could not get her to move and did not have the authority to arrest her. The bus went to the next stop where the police were waiting. Before the police boarded however one of her pregnant neighbors sat down next to her not knowing what was going on. The police were weary of doing anything to a pregnant woman but she moved when asked. When the police officers forced Claudette off the bus and arrested her she let her body go limp but did not resist in any other way. 

The officers were not kind to Claudette and were certainly not respectful. She was a fifteen year-old Black girl. They put her in the back of the squad car and had her stick her hands through the window so they could put handcuffs on. One of the officers sat in the back seat with her and insulted her the entire trip. She was put into the jail cell without a phone call. Her classmates however went to tell her mother at the white family's house where she worked. Her pastor came with her mother and paid her bail. She was charged on three charges. 

The Black leaders helped with her case. She was asked to join the NAACP youth group that Rosa Parks ran. This is where she met Rosa Parks. Rosa made Claudette the group's secretary. Her legal case was an important one. It was the first time a Black person was going to plead not guilty to a segregation charge. A young lawyer, Fred Grey, agreed to take the case. When her day in court came she was found guilty on all three charges. She was going to have record. Her lawyer appealed it with hopes of taking it to the Supreme Court. However the appeals court dropped the guilty on two of the charges including the segregation laws one. Now there was no reason to continue appealing at least for the Black leaders. 

With the guilty charges Claudette went from being a hero to being ridiculed. Her classmates were talking about her and making fun of her. She was being called things like crazy and unstable. At the time all the Black students were straightening their hair and trying to look more white. This really bothered Claudette and she decided to fight back the ridicule by letting her hair go more natural. This of course caused even more ridicule. 

That summer Claudette was befriended by an older man. She was at her lowest point and no one around seemed to understand her and this man seemed to. Unfortunately she got pregnant. All of these things seemed to make the Black leaders of Montgomery to think she was not the right person to spark the bus boycott. On October 21 an eighteen-year-old named Mary Louise Smith also refused to give up her seat on the bus. She was arrested, booked and jailed but released in a couple of hours when her father paid her fine. 

Then in December Rosa Parks was arrested. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began. Do you know what caused the end of the boycott? It wasn't the amazing negotiating skills of the Black leaders in Montgomery like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There was a law case, Browder vs. Gayle. Fred Grey represented four Black women to file a civil suit against Montgomery and the state of Alabama. Claudette and Mary Louise Smith were two of the four plaintiffs. Since it was against the city and state it would be tried in a federal courthouse. The four women shared their negative experiences riding the bus. Fred Grey saved Claudette for last. Many say she did more for ending segregation and the Civil Rights Movement than any of the others at the time. They won! The mayor (Gayle) refused to desegregate the buses until the federal government came to Montgomery and forced them to. He also had many of the Black leaders and drivers arrested to stop the Blacks from being able to boycott, but it did not end the boycott. The mayor also appealed the decision and it went to the Supreme Court who upheld the decision and declared the segregation on the buses unconstitutional. The federal government sent marshals to ensure the court order was followed. This is what ended the boycott. After testifying that day Claudette did not really hear from any of the local Black leaders. 

Claudette got her GED since she was told she could not come back to Booker T. Washington due to her baby, Raymond. She moved to New York but left Raymond in Montgomery with her great aunt and great uncle. She had another baby there. She also got trained as a nurse. She worked with the elderly in a nursing home. She retired in 2004 and still lives in New York City.

Now I found some books about Claudette Colvin. Her story is finally being told.

I read the middle one and it is amazing!! Claudette worked with Phillip Hoose to tell her story and strongly recommend it for middle school to young adults. I hope you will check out her story and teach it to your kids!