Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Sarah from Bloomington, MN. Sarah Wonders, “Who is Claudette Colvin?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Sarah!
If you’ve been WONDERing with us for a while, you may already know what it means to stand for something. And, thanks to Rosa Parks, you know people can take a stand by sitting down. But did you know Rosa Parks wasn’t the only person arrested for keeping her seat on a bus?
Claudette Colvin was born on September 5, 1939. As a Black girl growing up in Alabama, she was no stranger to discrimination. In fact, she attended segregated schools—and rode segregated buses—in Montgomery, Alabama.
In early 1955, Colvin’s class had been learning about Black history at school. They read the 14th Amendment. They also learned about famous Black like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Colvin took these lessons to heart, and they would influence her actions.
Colvin was also part of the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rosa Parks was a friend of Colvin’s family as well. At age 15, Colvin dreamed of a future as a lawyer and civil rights activist.
On March 22, 1955, Colvin boarded a Montgomery public bus. She and several fellow students were on their way home from school. They sat down in the section of the bus set aside for Black people and settled in for the ride.
Soon, though, the bus became crowded. A group of white people boarded, and the bus driver told the Black students to move. The other students gave up their seats, moving farther back in the bus. Colvin refused to stand.
Instead of moving, Colvin cited the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She told the bus driver she had the right to keep her seat. She had paid for the ride just as the white passengers had done.
Later, Colvin shared, “It felt like 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.”
Soon, police officers arrived. They dragged Colvin from the bus as she shouted that her rights were being violated. The officers locked her in a jail cell. She stayed there for hours until her mother and minister came to take her home. All of this happened nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on another Montgomery bus.
Word about what happened to Colvin spread quickly. Why, then, 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 Rosa Parks was more likely to receive sympathy from the public—and especially from white people—than Claudette Colvin.
There were many reasons for this. Colvin was only 15 at the time, while Parks was an adult at 42. Additionally, Colvin came from a family experiencing poverty and had darker skin than Parks. Soon, Colvin also became a single mother. Leaders knew that, due to racism and other forms of bias, this would make people less likely to support Colvin.
Still, Colvin did her part for the movement. Along with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith, she brought a suit that challenged segregation in Alabama buses. All four women had been arrested for refusing to give up their seats on a public bus. They won the case, Browder v. Gayle, before the Supreme Court in 1956.
Today, Claudette Colvin lives in Texas. In 2021, her record was cleared of charges related to her refusal to give up her seat on the bus—66 years after she was arrested.
Can you think of any other unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement? Change only happens when many people work together. What kind of change would you like to make in the world?
Standards: C3.D2.Civ.12, C3.D2.Civ.14, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.R.3, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.W.1, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.L.2, NCAS.A.1, NCAS.A.2, NCAS.A.3