On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin was just another high school junior riding the city bus home from school. When she got on, she and her friends took open seats near the front. As the bus rumbled on its route, filling with passengers, the black riders were expected to give up those seats at the front of the bus to white passengers—as the Jim Crow segregation laws of the South dictated. Claudette's friends moved, but she refused, even as the bus driver ordered her to move.
When he pulled into a terminal, the driver called for transit police. These officers boarded the bus and forcibly removed Colvin while she called out, "It's my Constitutional right!" She was arrested and, though she was a minor, held overnight in the city's adult jail.
In Twice Toward Justice, Colvin explains that she had big things on her mind the day she refused to give up her seat. "I might have considered getting up if the woman had been elderly, but she wasn't. She looked about 40. … Rebellion was on my mind that day. All during February, we'd been talking about people who had taken stands. We had been studying the Constitution in Miss Nesbitt's class. I knew I had rights. I had paid my fare the same as white passengers. I knew the rule—that you didn't have to get up for a white person if there were no empty seats left on the bus—and there weren't. … Right then I decided I wasn't gonna take it anymore. I hadn't planned it out, but my decision was built on a lifetime of nasty experiences."
In an interview, Colvin says she drew strength from history on that day. "My favorite heroes from the earlier civil rights movement were Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman," she says. "I thought about them when I was on the bus."
After her arrest, the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and civil rights attorney E.D. Nixon thought Claudette's case would be the perfect opportunity to challenge Jim Crow laws. However, during the legal proceedings before the trial, Claudette became pregnant and Nixon decided to abandon her case. They feared the press and prosecution would seize on Claudette's pregnancy to ruin her credibility as a witness.
When Rosa Parks—who worked as a seamstress and secretary for the NAACP and raised money for Claudette's defense—later challenged the same laws by refusing to give up her seat, she became the cause célèbre that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and drew the support of Atlanta minister Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Hoose says Parks benefited greatly from Claudette Colvin's courage. "Rosa Parks nine months later had an awful lot of information that came from Claudette's experience—her court experience, her experience in the community, all those churches raised money for her and there had been all those meetings with the city to discuss the Colvin case," he says. "But Claudette did it cold one day."
This wasn't the end of Claudette's role in history, however. Another civil rights attorney, Fred Gray, filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Montgomery, seeking to invalidate segregation on buses. Risking very real dangers of violence, Claudette joined the case, along with three other women—Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith.
At the hearing, Claudette deftly fended off the aggressive questioning of a white city attorney—a practically unheard of act in a culture that expected all blacks to remain deferential to whites. "To put your name on the lawsuit and get in the paper, to testify in court against the entire Jim Crow system, was risking her life," Hoose says. "She was avoided by some her neighbors, some people were afraid of her because they were afraid there'd be violence against her."
When the decision in Browder v. Gayle arrived (and was later upheld by the Supreme Court), bus segregation and the boycott were invalidated.