The Other Rosa Parks: Now 73, Claudette Colvin Was First to Refuse Giving Up Seat on Montgomery Bus
At a ceremony unveiling a statue in her honor last month, President Obama called Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus a “singular act of disobedience.” But nine months before Parks’ historic action, a 15-year-old teenager named Claudette Colvin did the very same thing. She was arrested, and her case led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s order for the desegregation of Alabama’s bus system. Now 73, Claudette Colvin joins us for a rare interview along with Brooklyn College Professor Jeanne Theoharis, author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.” Theoharis says Parks’ act of defiance may not have happened if not for Colvin’s nine months before. Colvin says learning about African-American history in school inspired her act. “I could not move, because history had me glued to the seat,” she recalls telling the bus driver and the police officer who came to arrest her. “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.” [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Earlier this year, the nation marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a city bus in Alabama to a white man in December 1955. Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott, the Montgomery bus boycott, led by a young minister named Martin Luther King. In Washington, D.C., last month, President Obama presided over a ceremony unveiling a statue of Rosa Parks in the U.S. Capitol.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Rosa Parks’ singular act of disobedience launched a movement. The tired feet of those who walked the dusty roads of Montgomery helped a nation see that to which it had once been blind. It is because of these men and women that I stand here today. It is because of them that our children grow up in a land more free and more fair, a land truer to its founding creed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While Rosa Parks became a national civil rights icon, she was not the first woman in Montgomery to refuse to give up her seat on a city bus. On March 2nd, 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks’ arrest, a teenage schoolgirl named Claudette Colvin boarded a city bus after school to head home. As it filled up, a white woman was left standing, and the bus driver ordered the 15-year-old Colvin to get up and move to the back. She refused and was dragged off the bus in handcuffs. Three weeks later, The New York Times ran an article headlined “Negro Girl Convicted; She Is Held Guilty of Refusing to Move to Back of Bus.”
AMY GOODMAN: Claudette Colvin went on to become the star witness in a case that wound its way to the Supreme Court. The court eventually ordered an end to bus segregation in Alabama. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his political debut fighting her arrest.
Claudette Colvin joins us here in our studio, now 73 years old, living in the Bronx. And we’re joined by Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks . Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, has written extensively on the civil rights and Black Power movements, joined us in February on what would have been Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday.
Claudette Colvin, President Obama talked about Rosa Parks’ “singular act,” but it wasn’t exactly singular because you had done it before, nine months before. She was 42; you were 15 years old. What gave you the courage that day? You were coming home from school?
CLAUDETTE COLVIN: Yes. What gave me the courage? All the unfair treatment that I had experienced in my early childhood. Plus, you remember, February, we celebrated Negro History Week, but our school did it for the whole month. So I had a whole month to talk about all the injustices.
AMY GOODMAN: Back in ’55?