Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Claudette Colvin

Episode Summary

Claudette Colvin (1939-present) is a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement and a living legend. By refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, she sparked the court case that found Montgomery, Alabama’s segregated buses to be unconstitutional.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s maverick is a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement and a living legend. By refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, she sparked the court case that found Montgomery, Alabama’s segregated buses to be unconstitutional. 

You may think we’re talking about Rosa Parks. We’re not! We did talk about her in a previous episode. Today, we’re talking about her lesser known predecessor -- Claudette Colvin. 

Claudette Colvin was born on September 5, 1939, in Montgomery, Alabama. It was the height of the Jim Crow era. 

Beginning in the late 1870s and continuing through to the 1960s, Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation throughout the southern United States. Schools, public transportation, even water fountains, were subject to the false equivalency of “separate but equal.” 

Claudette did well in school, often earning top grades. She wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, or, even, the president -- positions of power, where she could put an end to the legalized racism she saw throughout Montgomery.

On March 2nd, 1955, Claudette was riding home on a packed city bus after school. When a white woman got on, the driver insisted that Claudette and her friends -- four kids in total -- clear an entire row of seats. 

Claudette’s friends got up. But Claudette remained sitting. 

Black History Month had just ended at Claudette’s school, and she had spent the last few weeks learning about African-American leaders. 

Claudette later said in an interview with the BBC. , “It felt as though Harriet Tubman's hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth's hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women because my teacher taught us about them in so much detail.”

After insisting that it was her constitutional right to remain sitting, Claudette was hauled off the bus by two policemen, and arrested. 

Instead of being taken to a juvenile detention center, Claudette was brought to an adult jail. 

She was just fifteen years old. 

Claudette was charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assaulting a police officer.  She was convicted of the final charge.

Because Claudette was the first to challenge Montgomery’s bus laws, her case received little media coverage. But Rosa Parks was paying attention. 

In the months before Claudette’s arrest, the Black community in Montgomery had already been considering a public transportation boycott. Seventy-five percent of bus riders were Black, yet they faced daily indignities at the hands of unjust laws.

With Claudette’s arrest, the community saw an opportunity. 

Claudette was invited to attend NAACP youth group meetings. She met influential activists like Rosa Parks, who was the local chapter’s secretary, and E.D. Nixon. 

But Claudette soon learned she was pregnant. As an unwed, teen mother, Claudette was deemed too controversial to be the face of the bus boycott.

So in December of 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move, just like Claudette. Rosa Parks’ arrest was followed by a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. 

In the spring of 1956, Claudette, along with three other women who had faced similar arrests, were named defendants in Browder v. Gayle. A few months later, in June, a federal three-judge panel ruled that racially segregated buses were unconstitutional. The decision ended the Montgomery bus boycott, and launched Martin Luther King, Jr.’s career as an activist minister.

But life in Montgomery had become difficult for Claudette. Once a top student, Claudette was labeled a troublemaker after her arrest. Unable to get a job, she moved to New York. She became a nurse, and told few people about her past. She retired in 2004. 

On Nov. 15, 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recognized Claudette on the floor of the House of Representatives. She ended her speech by saying, “Madam Speaker, I ask our colleagues to join me in recognizing Ms. Claudette Colvin’s courage to stand in the face of injustice and demand her recognition of her inalienable rights. Because in her own courage to fight for her freedom, she paved a path for millions of others to do the same -- because it was her constitutional right.” 

When asked for her reaction, Claudette told reporters, “I finally got some recognition after all these years. I got a little bit, a little bit.” 

All month, we’re talking about Mavericks and Legends. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!