MARCH 2, 1955
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
“History had me glued to the seat,” the civil rights pioneer told the Guardian. “It felt as if Harriet Tubman’s hand was pushing me down on one shoulder, and Sojourner Truth’s hand was pushing me down on the other. Learning about those two women gave me the courage to remain seated that day.”
She aspired to become a civil rights lawyer and when the bus driver ordered her to move, she responded, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare.”
When two White police officers tried to drag her from the bus, she told them it was her constitutional right to stay. They handcuffed her, jailed her and charged her with violating segregation laws, disturbing the peace and assaulting a police officer. She learned of racism at a young age, and she was disturbed by what she heard in her all-Black school.
“One thing especially bothered me – we Black students constantly put ourselves down,” she said in Twice Toward Justice. “The N-word – we were saying it to each other, to ourselves. I’d hear that word and I would start crying. I wouldn’t let people use it around me.”
After her arrest, she grew close with Parks. Other Black women followed her lead, refusing to surrender their seats, including Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald. They brought the groundbreaking Browder v. Gayle lawsuit that resulted in Montgomery’s segregated bus system being declared unconstitutional.
“When it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it,” she said. “You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’”