Nine months before NAACP secretary Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, a 15-year-old young woman would not move from her seat on a Montgomery bus on this day 60 years ago.
At 15 Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Her resistance led to her arrest, but it wasn’t until Parks’ arrest in December 1955 that plans for the bus boycott came to life.
Democracy Now! interviewed Colvin in 2013 about her courageous act on March 2, 1955.
CLAUDETTE COLVIN: I tell—one of the questions asks, “Why didn’t you get up when the bus driver asked you, and the policemen?” I say, “I could not move, because history had me glued to the seat.” And they say, “How is that?” I say, “Because it felt like Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder, and I could not move. And I yelled out, ’It’s my constitutional rights,’” because I wasn’t breaking a law under the state’s law, separate but equal; I was sitting in the area that was reserved for black passengers. At that time, we didn’t even want to be called “black,” because black had a negative connotation. We were called “coloreds.” So I was sitting in the coloreds’ section. But because of Jim Crow law, the bus driver had police force, he could ask you to get up. And the problem was that the white woman that was standing near me, she wasn’t an elderly white woman. She was a young white woman. She had a whole seat to sit down by—opposite me, in the opposite row, but she refused to sit down; because of Jim Crow laws, a white person couldn’t sit opposite a colored person. And a white person had to sit in front of you. The purpose was to make white people feel superior and colored people feel inferior.
Under Jim Crow laws buses, among other public spaces, were segregated. Blacks found resisting those laws were often arrested, beaten or killed.
CLAUDETTE COLVIN: Well, they asked me to get up, and I refused. And one of the policemen was a traffic policeman at Court Square. And he yelled to the bus motorman that he had no jurisdiction here, and he got off. So the bus driver moved the bus to Bibb and Commerce, and then two squad car policemen came on the bus. And they—I became more defiant. And when they asked me the same question, and the gal, “Why are you sitting there?” I said, “It’s my constitutional right. I paid my fare; it’s my constitutional right.” And he said, “Constitutional rights?” And then one kicked at me, and when one—and he knocked the books out of my hand—out of my lap. And then one grabbed one arm, and one grabbed the other, and they manhandled me off the bus. And after I got into the squad car, they handcuffed me through the window and took me to booking and then to—not to a juvenile facility, but to an adult jail. And I stayed in jail three—approximately three hours, until my pastor, Reverend H.H. Johnson, and my mother came and bailed me out.
Some historians, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! names historian Douglas Brinkley as one, believe that the months between Colvin and Parks’ arrests give Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. time to emerge as a leader. Brinkley suggests that Dr. King most likely would not have led the Montgomery bus boycott if it had happened in the spring but would have been “just another Montgomery preacher.”