Who is Claudette Colvin?

Quck answer

Claudette Colvin is a civil rights activist who played a significant role in the desegregation of buses in Montgomery, Alabama. She refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks did the same. Colvin’s arrest and subsequent trial were important factors in the legal battle against segregation. Although her story was largely overshadowed by Parks, Colvin’s bravery and defiance were instrumental in challenging racial discrimination. She is an unsung hero of the civil rights movement, whose actions paved the way for future progress in the fight for equality.


If you have been wondering with us for a while, you may already understand the concept of standing up for something. And, thanks to Rosa Parks, you know that people can make a statement by remaining seated. However, were you aware that Rosa Parks was not the only person who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus?

Claudette Colvin was born on September 5, 1939. As a young Black girl growing up in Alabama, she was no stranger to discrimination. In fact, she attended schools that were segregated and she rode segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

In the early months of 1955, Colvin’s class was learning about Black history at school. They studied the 14th Amendment and learned about influential Black figures such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. These lessons deeply impacted Colvin and influenced her actions.

Colvin was also a member of the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Additionally, Rosa Parks was a friend of Colvin’s family. At the age of 15, Colvin aspired to become a lawyer and a civil rights activist in the future.

On March 22, 1955, Colvin got on a public bus in Montgomery. She and several other students were on their way home from school. They sat in the section designated for Black people and prepared for the journey.

However, the bus soon became crowded. A group of white individuals boarded and the bus driver instructed the Black students to move. The other students relinquished their seats and moved to the back of the bus. Colvin, on the other hand, refused to stand.

Instead of complying, Colvin referenced the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. She informed the bus driver that she had the right to keep her seat as she had paid for the ride, just like the white passengers.

Later, Colvin shared, “It felt as though Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”

Before long, police officers arrived at the scene. They forcefully removed Colvin from the bus while she protested that her rights were being violated. The officers then detained her in a jail cell. She remained there for several hours until her mother and minister came to take her home. All of this occurred nine months prior to Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on another bus in Montgomery.

News of Colvin’s ordeal spread rapidly. So, why do so few people know her story today? Why did Rosa Parks become the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott later in 1955 instead of Colvin? The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement believed that Rosa Parks would be more likely to gain sympathy from the public, especially from white individuals, compared to Claudette Colvin.

There were multiple reasons for this decision. Colvin was only 15 at the time, while Parks was an adult of 42. Additionally, Colvin came from a financially disadvantaged family and had darker skin than Parks. Furthermore, Colvin eventually became a single mother. The leaders were aware that due to racism and other forms of prejudice, this would make it less likely for people to support Colvin.

In addition to her contribution to the movement, Colvin, along with Browder, McDonald, and Smith, filed a lawsuit challenging segregation on Alabama buses. The four women were arrested for refusing to give up their seats on a public bus. In 1956, they won the Browder v. Gayle case before the Supreme Court.

Today, Claudette Colvin resides in Texas. In 2021, her charges related to her refusal to give up her seat on the bus were cleared, 66 years after her arrest.

Can you think of any other unrecognized heroes of the Civil Rights Movement? Significant change only occurs when many people collaborate. What kind of change would you like to bring about in the world?

Try It Out

Are you ready to delve deeper into Claudette Colvin’s story? Enlist the help of a friend or family member to explore the following activities:

  • As discussed in today’s Wonder, Claudette Colvin played a role in a Supreme Court case that ended segregated bus seating in Alabama. Read this article about Browder v. Gayle. After reading, reflect on the three most intriguing facts you learned about the case. Did you already know about this Supreme Court case and Claudette Colvin? Share the three facts with a friend or family member. Ask them what they knew about this significant moment in civil rights history.
  • For various reasons, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement decided that Rosa Parks would be able to garner more sympathy and support from the public than Claudette Colvin. Do you believe this was the right decision on the part of the Civil Rights Movement leaders? Do you think more effort should have been made to highlight Claudette Colvin’s character and actions over the years? Write a paragraph explaining why you think she deserves more recognition. Share your writing with a friend or family member.
  • Now that you have learned about Claudette Colvin and her significance in the history of civil rights, create an infographic to share what you have learned. You can use paper and markers, crayons, paint, or create one online using one of the Wonderopolis infographic templates on Canva.

Wonder Sources

  • https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/claudette-colvin-who-was-arrested-for-refusing-to-give-up-her-bus-seat-in-1955-is-fighting-to-clear-her-record-180978959/ (accessed 04 Feb. 2022)
  • https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin (accessed 04 Feb. 2022)
  • https://www.cbsnews.com/news/claudette-colvin-record-expunged/ (accessed 04 Feb. 2022)
  • http://www.core-online.org/History/colvin.htm (accessed 04 Feb. 2022)
  • https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/browder-v-gayle-352-us-903 (accessed 04 Feb. 2022)
  • https://learnersdictionary.com/ (accessed 04 Feb. 2022)

FAQ

1. Who is Claudette Colvin?

Claudette Colvin is an African-American woman who played a significant role in the civil rights movement. She was born on September 5, 1939, in Montgomery, Alabama. At the age of 15, she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, nine months before Rosa Parks did the same. Her act of defiance led to her arrest and became one of the first legal challenges to segregation in the United States.

2. What was Claudette Colvin’s role in the civil rights movement?

Claudette Colvin’s refusal to give up her bus seat sparked a legal case known as Browder v. Gayle, which challenged the segregation laws in Montgomery. Although her case did not receive as much attention as Rosa Parks’, it was an important milestone in the fight against racial segregation. Colvin’s courageous act inspired and laid the groundwork for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was a pivotal event in the civil rights movement.

3. How did Claudette Colvin’s actions impact the civil rights movement?

Claudette Colvin’s actions played a significant role in the civil rights movement. By refusing to give up her bus seat, she challenged the unjust laws of segregation and inspired others to join the fight for equality. Her case, along with other similar incidents, led to legal challenges against segregation in public transportation, ultimately culminating in the landmark Supreme Court case, Browder v. Gayle. Colvin’s bravery and determination helped pave the way for the desegregation of buses and other public spaces.

4. What challenges did Claudette Colvin face after her arrest?

After her arrest, Claudette Colvin faced numerous challenges. She experienced backlash from the community, received threats, and was labeled as a troublemaker. She also faced difficulties finding employment due to her involvement in the civil rights movement. Despite these challenges, Colvin remained committed to the cause and continued her activism. Her story serves as a reminder of the sacrifices and hardships many individuals faced during the fight for civil rights.

5. What is Claudette Colvin’s legacy?

Claudette Colvin’s legacy is one of bravery and resilience. Although her contributions were initially overshadowed by Rosa Parks’ similar act of defiance, Colvin’s actions were instrumental in the fight against segregation. She paved the way for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and subsequent legal challenges to segregation. Colvin’s story serves as a reminder of the ordinary individuals who played extraordinary roles in the civil rights movement. Her courage and determination continue to inspire future generations in the ongoing pursuit of equality.

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