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Tue, 09.05.1939

Claudette Colvin, Activist born

Claudette Colvin

*Claudette Colvin was born on this date in 1939.  She is a retired African American nurse aide and activist who pioneered the 1950s American civil rights movement.  

The daughter of Mary Jane Gadson and C. P. Austin, she was born Claudette Austin. Her parents could not financially support her, so she was adopted by Mary Anne and Q.P. Colvin, great aunt, and uncle to Mary Jane Gadson. Colvin grew up in a poor black neighborhood of Montgomery, Alabama. In 1943, at four, Colvin was at a retail store with her mother when a couple of white boys entered. They asked her to touch their hands to compare their colors. Seeing this, her mother slapped her in the face and told her she was prohibited from touching white boys.  

She went to Booker T Washington high school. Colvin was also a local NAACP Youth Council member, where she formed a close relationship with her overseer: Rosa Parks. On March 2, 1955, she was arrested at 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus. This occurred some nine months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.  Colvin was one of five plaintiffs in the first federal court case filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray on February 1, 1956, as Browder v. Gayle, to challenge bus segregation in the city. She testified before the three-judge panel that heard the case in a United States district court.

On June 13, 1956, the judges determined that Alabama's state and local laws requiring bus segregation were unconstitutional. The case went to the United States Supreme Court on appeal by the state, which upheld the district court's ruling on December 17, 1956. Three days later, the Supreme Court affirmed the order to Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation. The Montgomery bus boycott was then called off.  

Montgomery's Black leaders did not publicize Colvin's pioneering effort for many years. She was an unmarried teenager at the time and was reportedly raped by a married man soon after the incident, from which she became pregnant.  Colvin has said, "Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn't the case at all."  It is widely accepted that Colvin was not accredited by the civil rights campaigners at the time due to her pregnancy shortly after the incident, with even Rosa Parks saying, "If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have had a field day. They'd call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn't have a chance."   

Later, Rev. Joseph Rembert said, “If nobody did anything for Claudette Colvin in the past, why don’t we do something for her right now?” He contacted Montgomery Councilmen Charles Jinright and Tracy Larkin to make it happen.  Councilman Larkin's sister was on the bus 1955 when Colvin was arrested. In the 2010s, Larkin arranged for a street named after Colvin.  In 2017, the Montgomery Council passed a resolution for a proclamation honoring Colvin. March 2 was named Claudette Colvin Day in Montgomery.

Mayor Todd Strange presented the proclamation and, when speaking of Colvin, said, “She was an early foot soldier in our civil rights, and we did not want this opportunity to go by without declaring March 2 as Claudette Colvin Day to thank her for her leadership in the modern day civil rights movement.” Rembert said, “I know people have heard her name before, but I just thought we should have a day to celebrate her.” Colvin could not attend the proclamation due to health concerns.  In 2019 a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in Montgomery, Alabama, and four granite markers were also unveiled near the statue on the same day to honor four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, including Colvin.   

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