On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.
Here in her court testimony she describes what happened:
[The bus driver] asked us to get up. [A middle-aged, pregnant, African-American woman, Mrs.
Hamilton, was also still seated.] So, he directly asked me to get up first. So, I told him I was not
going to get up. He said, “If you’re not going to get up I will get a policeman.” So, he went
somewhere and got a policeman. He [the policeman] said, “Why are you not going to get up?”
He said, “It’s against the law here.” So I told him that I didn’t know that it was a law that a
colored person had to get up and give a white person a seat when there were not any more vacant
seats and colored people were standing up. I said I was just as good as any white person and I
wasn’t going to get up. So he got off. And then two more policemen came in. He [one] said,
“Who is it?” and was very angry about it. He said, “That is not new, I had trouble out of that
thing before.” So he said, “Aren’t you going to get up? He didn’t say anything to Mrs. Hamilton
then. He just said it to me. He said, “Aren’t you going to get up?” I said, “No.” He saw Mrs.
Hamilton but he was afraid to ask her to get up. He said, “If any of you are not gentleman
enough to give a lady a seat you should be put in jail yourself.” So Mr. Harris, he got up and
gave her a seat, and immediately got off of the bus. He said, “You can have that seat, I am
getting off.” And so she took his seat. So he [the police officer] asked me if I was not going to
get up. I said, “No sir.” I was crying then. I was very hurt because I didn’t know that white
people could act like that and I was crying. And he said, “I will have to take you off.” So I didn’t
move. I didn’t move at all. I just acted like a big baby. So he kicked me and one [policeman] goon one side of me and one [another policeman] got the other arm and they just drug me out. And
I was so very pitiful. It really hurt me to see that I have to give a person a seat, when all those
colored people were standing and there were not any more vacant seats. I have never seen
nothing like that. Well, they take me down, they put me in a car and one of the motorcycle men,
he says, “I am sorry to have to take you down like this.” So they put handcuffs on me through the
As she explained in an interview in The Guardian (December 16, 2000), “I was really afraid,
because you just didn’t know what white people might do at that time.” In August that year, 14-
year-old Emmett Till had said, “Bye, baby” to a woman at a store in Mississippi, and was fished
out of the Tallahatchie River a few days later, dead, with a bullet in his skull, his eye gouged out,
and one side of his forehead crushed. “I didn’t know if they were crazy, if they were going to
take me to a Klan meeting. I started protecting my crotch. I was afraid they might rape me.”
They took her to City Hall, where she was charged with misconduct, resisting arrest, and
violating the city segregation laws. The full enormity of what she had done was only just
beginning to dawn on her. “I went bipolar. I knew what was happening, but I just kept trying to
shut it out.”
She concentrated her mind on things she had been learning at school. “I recited Edgar Allan Poe,
Annabel Lee, the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Twenty-
third Psalm.” Anything to detach herself from the horror of reality.
At the trial, Colvin pleaded innocent but was found guilty and released on indefinite probation in
her parents’ care. “She had remained calm all during the days of her waiting period and during
the trial,” wrote Jo Ann Robinson, “but when she was found guilty, her agonized sobs penetrated
the atmosphere of the courthouse.”
Claudette Colvin was a “student, quiet, well-mannered, neat, clean, intelligent, pretty, and deeply
religious,” noted Robinson. She had dark black skin and lived in King Hill, a very poor part of
December 1, 1955
Rosa Parks ignites bus boycot
In Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks is jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man, a violation of the city’s racial segregation laws. The successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, organized by a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., followed Park’s historic act of civil disobedience.
“The mother of the civil rights movement,” as Rosa Parks is known, was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1913. She worked as a seamstress and in 1943 joined the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
According to a Montgomery city law in 1955, African Americans were required to sit at the back of public buses and were also had to give up those seats to white riders if the front of the bus filled up. Parks was in the first row of the black section when the white driver demanded that she give up her seat to a white man. Parks’ refusal was spontaneous but was not merely brought on by her tired feet, as is the popular legend. In fact, local civil rights leaders had been planning a challenge to Montgomery’s racist bus laws for several months, and Parks had been privy to this discussion.
Learning of Parks’ arrest, the NAACP and other African American activists immediately called for a bus boycott to be held by black citizens on Monday, December 5. Word was spread by fliers, and activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize the protest. The first day of the bus boycott was a great success, and that night the 26-year-old Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., told a large crowd gathered at a church, “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” King emerged as the leader of the bus boycott and received numerous death threats from opponents of integration. At one point, his home was bombed, but he and his family escaped bodily harm.
The boycott stretched on for more than a year, and participants carpooled or walked miles to work and school when no other means were possible. As African Americans previously constituted 70 percent of the Montgomery bus ridership, the municipal transit system suffered gravely during the boycott. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama state and Montgomery city bus segregation laws as being in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. On December 20, King issued the following statement: “The year old protest against city buses is officially called off, and the Negro citizens of Montgomery are urged to return to the buses tomorrow morning on a non-segregated basis.” The boycott ended the next day. Rosa Parks was among the first to ride the newly desegregated buses.
Martin Luther King, Jr., and his nonviolent civil rights movement had won its first great victory. There would be many more to come.
Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005. Three days later the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to honor Parks by allowing her body to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.