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Kathy of History: Claudette Colvin

The 1950s were a trying time for Americans. The world had just been through a war and life was changing, life was advancing. The 1950s are often seen through a filter and the decade is idealized for its “all American-ness,” it’s the era of mom’s homemade apple pie, color TV and the automobile. Everyone was happy, or at least that’s what some people want us to believe (hello MAGA). This was a decade of radical progress and the clashing of a nation, it was the decade of human civility being brought to the highest court in the land.

The most famous person from the civil rights movement in the 1950s is easily Martin Luther King Jr. when he led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott which began in 1955. Claudette Colvin was a young woman of 15 and a good student and lived in Montgomery, Alabama in this pivotal year. On March 2, 1955 Claudette was riding the city bus home from school when she was told by the driver to give up her seat for a white passenger. She refused stating "It's my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it's my constitutional right." She later told Newsweek "I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, 'Sit down girl!' I was glued to my seat," Claudette was arrested for this incident on several charges including violating segregation laws. She was held in jail for several hours and had no idea what was going to happen to her "I was really afraid, because you just didn't know what white people might do at that time”. Once she was released her family stayed up all night terrified there might be a retaliation.

The courts ruled against her for her violation of city segregation laws and placed her on probation which was considered a rather light sentence, but the deed had been done and things would never be the same for Claudette. She was now considered a troublemaker by people in her community forcing her to drop out of college and making it near impossible to find a job. She was later listed as a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, this case went in favor of the 4 African American women and ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional – a ruling that helped support the civil rights movement.

People remember Martin Luther King Jr. and people remember Rosa Parks, but it's time people start remembering Claudette Colvin, a young woman who refused to give up her seat, who refused to let the constitution be for “whites only”.

Written by Alicia Whitcome

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