By Rachel Tefft
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be posting one story each day of March written by local citizen journalists about a revolutionary woman from history or today who has inspired them as women.
A 15-year-old girl sits alone on a bus. Two grown men stand above her, yelling at her to get up. She refuses, stating that it is her constitutional right to sit there. They each grab an arm, one of them kicking her in the stomach, while they drag her backwards off the bus. These men are policemen and she is a black girl in Montgomery, Alabama. It is March 2nd,1955 and Claudette Colvin has refused to give up her seat for a white woman.
She is thrown into a police car and handcuffed while being called “thing” and “whore”. They make jokes about her body while they drive to the city jail – the adult jail – where she is locked in a cell without a phone call. The charges against her include violating the segregation law, disturbing the peace and “assaulting” the police officer that pulled her off the bus.
And this isn’t even the most courageous thing she has done.
Claudette Colvin was not the first black woman to experience this; many before her were beaten, thrown off the bus and arrested for not giving up their seat. She was the first, however, to plead not guilty to these charges, confronting Jim Crow head on. Her lawyer, Fred Gray, challenged the bus segregation laws, maintaining that the provisions of Alabama’s laws and Montgomery’s city ordinances requiring racial segregation were unconstitutional. Many leaders in the civil rights movement attended Claudette’s hearing.
The judge ruled Claudette guilty of all charges following a hearing that lasted less than a couple hours. After the verdict many of her friends at school turned against her, ridiculing her with shouts of “It’s my constitutional right!” when they saw her in the hallways. She was called a troublemaker, overemotional and uncontrollable by the very people she believed she was taking a stand for.
Despite the mockery and rejection Claudette’s resolve deepened. She stopped straightening her hair and began wearing it in braids. She said that wearing it natural was her way of saying “I think I am as pretty as you are”. She began attending NAACP youth meetings run by Rosa Parks, who was the only leader in the civil rights movement that had kept in touch with her.
On December 1st, 1955, nine months after Claudette’s arrest, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. The letter that is sent out to tens of thousands of black Montgomery residents asks them to stay off the buses the following day, the day of Rosa Parks’ hearing, as a form of protest. Fred Gray, who acted as legal representation for both women, later said “I don’t mean to take anything away from Mrs. Parks, but Claudette gave us all the moral courage to do what we did”. Claudette had sparked a fire in her community, preparing them for action.
Two months into the boycott Fred Gray filed a class-action lawsuit, Browder v. Gale, on behalf of all black riders, not solely as a defense of those who had been arrested for protesting the segregation laws. This case would be heard in a federal court, since it was challenging the constitutionality of a state law. Claudette Colvin was to be the star witness. 381 days after the start of the bus boycott and 7 months after the federal trial, the boycott ended. Browder v. Gale had made racial segregation on buses illegal.
What continues to draw me to the story of Claudette Colvin is the determination and strength she demonstrated on the other days, the days when no one was rallying around her, supporting her or encouraging her. The immense courage and sense of self she showed when she continued to speak out, with her words and actions, against the daily injustices she experienced. Her humanness and perseverance are evident in the fact that she never gave up, despite the fear caused by threats to her and her family, despite the loneliness of being shunned by her peers and despite the hurt of being excluded from positions of power within the civil rights movement.
In a conversation from 2005 with students in Montgomery, Claudette reflects on the role she played in ending legal segregation on Montgomery buses: “I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’ And I did.”
I hope to live my life with the same fierce resolve, authenticity and integrity that Claudette Colvin did as a 15-year-old girl in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.
Rachel lives in South Seattle, spending much of her time at the Hillman City Collaboratory. She runs a mobile farm stand in the summer and fall months, happily spending time outdoors with beautiful vegetables and neighbors.
Featured image by Hanako O’Leary