Before Rosa Parks, The First Cry for Freedom
Some information gathered from the BBC
Claudette Austin Colvin was born on September 5, 1939. She was the daughter of Mary Jane Gadson and C.P. Austin. Her parents were poor and they were unable to care or support her so she was adopted by Mary Ann and Q.P. Colvin who were great aunt and uncle to her mother, Jane. She grew up in a very poor, black neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama.
In 1943, when Claudette was four years old, she was in a retail store with her adopted mother, when a couple of white boys entered. They asked her to touch hand in order to compare their “colors.” When her mother noticed this going on, she slapped Claudette hard across the face and told her she was never allowed to touch white boys!
"There was segregation everywhere. The churches, buses and schools were all segregated and you couldn't even go into the same restaurants," Claudette Colvin says. "I remember during Easter one year, I was to get a pair of black patent shoes but you could only get them from the white stores, so my mother drew the outline of my feet on a brown paper bag in order to get the closest size, because we weren't allowed to go in the store to try them on."
She attended Booker T. Washington high school where she was a member of the NAACP Youth Council. She said she wanted to be president one day. As a member of the Youth Council she was learning about the civil rights movement. Going to a segregated school had one advantage, she found - her teachers gave her a good grounding in black history. "We learned about negro spirituals and recited poems but my social studies teachers went into more detail," she says. "They lectured us about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and we were taught about an opera singer called Marian Anderson who wasn't allowed to sing at Constitutional Hall just because she was black, so she sang at Lincoln Memorial instead."
The school was in the city and she relied on buses to take her to and from school as her adopted parents did now own a car. The majority of customers on the city bus were African-Americans, but they were viciously discriminated against by the custom of segregating seats. It was at this time she met and formed a close friendship with Rosa Parks. "I became very active in her youth group and we use to meet every Sunday afternoon at the Luther church," she says. "Ms Parks was quiet and very gentle and very soft-spoken, but she would always say we should fight for our freedom."
Colvin says Parks had the right image to become the face of resistance to segregation because of her previous work with the NAACP. The organisation didn't want a teenager in the role, she says. Furthermore, Claudette was an unmarried, pregnant, teenager. "They said they didn't want to use a pregnant teenager because it would be controversial and the people would talk about the pregnancy more than the boycott," Colvin says.
On March 2, 1955, nine months before the widely publicized incident when Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, by refusing fused to move her seat on the bus. Claudette was returning home from school. Claudette was in a seat in the colored section, two seats away from an emergency exit, on the Capital Heights bus. It was rush hour and the bus became so crowded that all the “white seats” in the front of the bus were filled. When white people were forced to stand the African Americans were supposed to get up from nearby seats to make room for those whites. They were to move further to the back or stand in the aisle in that section if there were no seats. When a white woman who got on the bus was left standing in the front, the bus driver, Robert W. Cleere, commanded Colvin and three other black women in her row to move to the back. "He wanted me to give up my seat for a white person and I would have done it for an elderly person but this was a young white woman.” Three of the students had got up reluctantly and I remained sitting next to the window," she says. Colvin was a pregnant, unwed black teen. Another pregnant black woman, Ruth Hamilton, got on and sat next to Colvin.
But Colvin told the driver she had paid her fare and that it was her constitutional right to remain where she was. "Whenever people ask me: 'Why didn't you get up when the bus driver asked you?' I say 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," she says. "I wasn't frightened but disappointed and angry because I knew I was sitting in the right seat.”
The driver kept on going but stopped when he reached a junction where a police squad car was waiting. Two policemen boarded the bus and asked Colvin why she wouldn't give up her seat. "I was more defiant and then they knocked my books out of my lap and one of them grabbed my arm. I don't know how I got off that bus but the other students said they manhandled me off the bus and put me in the squad car. But what I do remember is when they asked me to stick my arms out the window and that's when they handcuffed me," Colvin says.
Instead of being taken to a juvenile detention centre, Colvin was taken to an adult jail and put in a small cell with nothing in it but a broken sink and a cot without a mattress. "I was scared and it was really, really frightening, it was like those Western movies where they put the bandit in the jail cell and you could hear the keys. I can still vividly hear the click of those keys.
"I waited for about three hours until my mother arrived with my pastor to bail me out. My mother knew I was disappointed with the system and all the injustice we were receiving and she said to me: “Well, Claudette, you finally did it.” My mother was proud but she was afraid something would happen to me. Claudette said.
After Colvin was released from prison, there were fears that her home would be attacked. Members of the community acted as lookouts, while Colvin's father sat up all night with a shotgun, in case the Ku Klux Klan turned up.
A year later, on 20 December 1956, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation on the buses must end. The legal case turned on the testimony of four plaintiffs, one of whom was Claudette Colvin.
"The NAACP had come back to me and my mother said: 'Claudette, they must really need you, because they rejected you because you had a child out of wedlock,'" Colvin says. "So I went and I testified about the system and I was saying that the system treated us unfairly and I used some of the language that they used when we got taken off the bus.” Colvin says that after Supreme Court made its decision, things slowly began to change. However, some white passengers still refused to sit near a black person.
When Colvin moved to New York many years later to become a nurse, she didn't tell many people about the part she played in the civil rights movement.
"New York is a completely different culture to Montgomery, Alabama. Most of the people didn't have problems with us sitting on the bus, most New Yorkers cared about economic problems. I didn't want to discuss it with them," she says.
In 2009, the writer Phillip Hoose published a book that told her story in detail for the first time. ”He said he wanted the people to know about the 15-year-old, because really, if I had not made the first cry for freedom, there wouldn't have been a Rosa Parks, and after Rosa Parks, there wouldn't have been a Dr King. "And I lived to see that change."
Listen to an interview with Claudette by the BBC here.
or a shorter one below. I tried to link them but cyberspace would not cooperate. Just copy and paste if you are interested.