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Claudette Colvin

Civil Rights Figure

Born: 5 September 1939
Birthplace: Alabam
Best known as:

The black teen who preceded Rosa Parks

Claudette Colvin was a black teenager who challenged Alabama's segregation laws in 1955 and was arrested, nine months before Rosa Parks made history for doing the same thing. Colvin was 15 years old at the time, riding home from school on a Montgomery city bus with two friends. Montgomery laws -- not federal laws -- prohibited blacks from sitting in the front of the bus, where whites sat. Colvin and her friends sat in the middle of the bus. Her friends moved when a white woman wanted a seat, but Colvin stayed put. The driver admonished her and called in a nearby traffic cop; he claimed he had no jurisdiction, so the driver continued up the street until he encountered Montgomery police, who boarded the bus and forcibly removed Colvin, even after she explained she had a constitutional right to stay seated. She was kicked, handcuffed, arrested and held for three hours in a adult jail, then released to her mother. She was charged and tried, and ultimately given indefinite probation in her parents' care. At the time, civil rights leaders in Montgomery were looking for a "test case" -- an act of civil disobedience that could lead to a boycott of the bus system and the end of segregation. Colvin was considered and dismissed -- some say because it turned out she was pregnant (after her arrest), some say it was because she was poor and of a lower caste in the black community (because of her darker skin). Nine months later, Rosa Parks proved a better test case. Colvin went on to be one of four plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case of Browder v. Gayle, the case that held in 1956 that bus segregation was unconstitutional. When she was 18, Corvin moved to New York, where she worked as a nurse's aide until retiring in 2004. Not one to seek attention, Corvin remained a footnote in the history of the civil rights movement until the 2000s.

Extra credit:

Claudette Colvin had learned African-American history and her constitutional rights thanks to a teacher she had in high school... Colvin's arrest, coupled with the Rosa Parks incident, helped put young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in the national spotlight.

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