Colvin was 15 years old when she was heading home from school on a Montgomery city bus and was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. (Submitted photo)
While you may not know her name, Claudette Colvin's actions changed history. (Source: WSFA 12 News)
MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -
This year we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was a turning point in history, and it produced Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Attorney Fred Gray, Rosa Parks and so many others who were key to the movement.
We caught up with one of them now living in New York. While you may not know her name, her actions changed history.
Claudette Colvin was 15 years old when she was heading home from school on a Montgomery city bus. The bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white passenger. It happened March 2, 1955, and she did the unthinkable at the time -- she refused.
"I didn't think I would be arrested. I knew there was some action that would take place," Colvin said.
She was arrested and charged with assault and battery of an officer, disorderly conduct and violation of segregation laws. Colvin was fed up.
"Most people ask me why didn't you get up when the bus driver asked you to get up. I say I couldn't get up because history had me glued to my seat," Colvin said.
Her story didn't immediately hit the national spotlight. Instead, nine months later Rosa Parks did the same thing, and she became the face of a movement that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
"I think they were looking for the right person. The face of the total movement," Colvin said.
But, why not Colvin? Many speculated it was her age, and a pregnancy not long after her arrest. Attorney Fred Gray, who represented Colvin and Parks in court, said it was timing.
"Nobody was doing what they were doing for recognition. People look back 60 years, but you have to look at it in terms of what was the situation at that particular time," Gray said.
Times were tense under Jim Crow laws. The schools were segregated, marriage between the races was considered a crime and if a white person needed to sit down on a city bus, a black person would be asked to give up his or her seat.
Gwen Patton is an archivist for Trenholm State Community College. She said it was time for action.
"These folks were sitting in the black section of the bus, they were not breaking the law -- Jim Crow law. But the pattern, the custom, the moray was if the white section of the bus got full them black people had to get up by rows accordingly," Patton said.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted more than 380 days and just about every black person in the city refused to ride the segregated buses. But, while the bus boycott was happening, Gray and others were mounting a federal case against the city and state that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Parks wasn't named in the federal lawsuit. The attorney's didn't want to appeal her case for fear it would get tied up in the state court system. So, Gray called on Colvin and four other women who were also unfairly treated on a city bus to become plaintiff's in Browder versus Gayle, the case that ended bus segregation.
"That's why he had to come back to the rejects. We were rejects, me and Mary Louise Ware, cause they said Mary Louise Ware's father was an alcoholic and that wasn't true and that I was pregnant so we were not fit to be profiled, but they had to come back to us," Colvin said.
Gray said despite the gossip, calling on them was a matter of getting justice.
"If she had not been arrested on that date, there would have been no trial on Dec. 5. There would have been no meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King would not have been introduced to the community, to the nation, to the world. The whole Civil Rights Movement may have been different," Gray said.
Colvin doesn't regret what she did that day. She's not bitter at how some have portrayed her past. Her joy comes in knowing that Rosa Parks was able to continue what she started on a Montgomery city bus 60 years ago.
Colvin moved to the Bronx in New York a few years after her arrest. She's now retired and spends a lot of time sharing her story. She has a book called Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.