We are all familiar with Rosa Parks, famous for refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white rider.
Chances are, you’ve never heard about another woman who disobeyed Jim Crow laws in Montgomery, Alabama. This remarkable narrative is told in the book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose. (By the way – this book is available in the Sue Crouch Library!)
On March 2, 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks took her “stand”, a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin refused to be bullied by the southern bus driver. Although there were available seats, a white woman refused to be seated next to or behind Colvin, who was black. When Claudette stubbornly remained seated, the driver pulled the bus over and two police officers manhandled her off the bus and arrested her. She was charged with violating segregation laws, disturbing the peace and assaulting an officer. In reality, the assault was perpetrated upon Miss Colvin as the officers roughly dragged her off the bus and proceeded to humiliate her with rude comments on the way to the police station. She was fingerprinted, photographed, denied a phone call and locked in a small jail cell until her parents and pastor were notified by friends who had witnessed the incident. Her church funded the bail shortly thereafter, and Claudette was released to the custody of her parents until her hearing later that month.
Colvin’s lawyer was a recent law school graduate named Fred Gray, who challenged the bus segregation laws on constitutional grounds and encouraged his client to plead “not guilty”.
Based on the weighted testimony of white witnesses, Judge Hill declared the young woman guilty of all charges, sentencing her to a year of probation. Claudette worried about the stain on her record, limiting job and school opportunities. She was also well aware that any perceived violations of the conditions of her probation, even if based on false accusations motivated by pure racist hatred, would land her in a reform school for “Negroes”, notorious for poor conditions and the hard labor of picking cotton.
Her young lawyer had not given up, however. Gray immediately filed for an appeal. In May, Judge Eugene Carter, of the Montgomery Circuit Court, dismissed the first two charges. Colvin paid a small fine for the “assault” charge and remained in her parent’s custody.
In October of 1955, eighteen-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested in Montgomery for violating the bus segregation law. Her father immediately paid the fine, admitting her guilt, and the story never made the papers.
By December of that year, the idea of a bus boycott was making the rounds in the Black community. While most African-Americans in the South at that time did not own cars, making public transportation a daily necessity, the persistent humiliation was becoming too much to bear.
When an unnamed grandmother was offered a ride by one of the car owners that participated in the informal ride-sharing program during the bus boycott, she waved him off, saying, “I’m not walking for myself. I’m walking for my children and grandchildren.”
To highlight the rebellious campaign that began on December 2, Rosa Parks managed to get herself arrested for breaking bus laws on the afternoon of December 1, 1955. She was a well-known civil rights activist, associated with the local chapter of the NAACP. The successful boycott resulted in tremendous loss of revenue for the Montgomery bus service. This campaign was not without severe consequences, however. The Ku Klux Klan and other racist entities retaliated with vandalism and violence against the Black community. A white librarian, Juliette Morgan, who had publicly supported the boycott and anti-discrimination cause, suffered such severe vandalism and persecution for her stand that she took her own life.
In spite of serious threats to their welfare, Black Americans rallied to take another important step against this injustice. Miss Colvin testified as the key witness in the federal lawsuit of Browder vs. Gayle in early February, 1956. The African-American community had organized to present a direct legal challenge to the discriminatory busing laws. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Colvin had met in preparation for the trial, played a major role in the questioning by the defense team. Witnesses for the prosecution were repeatedly accused of being manipulated by the nefarious intentions of Dr. King. This distraction was effectively squashed by the witnesses, who consistently testified that they had each reached their own conclusions about the unlawful busing discrimination.
This landmark, yet virtually forgotten, case argued on May 11, 1956, resulted in finally overturning the Jim Crow busing laws. Civil protections guaranteed under the 14th Amendment were the basis of the arguments of the prosecution, creating a vital precedent for future suits against discrimination laws of the South.
During deliberations, Judge Clyde Sellers is quoted as lamenting, “If segregation barriers are lifted, violence will be the order of the day.” In response, perhaps the most compelling argument occurred when Judge Rives, siding with Judge Lynne for the plaintiffs, asked Sellers, “Can you command one to surrender his constitutional rights…to prevent another man from committing a crime?”
Those who take a stand for justice over fear (even while sitting) will always remain on the right side of history, even when the motivation is protecting the freedoms for future generations.