On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin was arrested at the age of 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus. This occurred nine months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
Colvin was one of five plaintiffs in the first federal court case filed by civil rights attorney Fred Gray on February 1, 1956, as Browder v. Gayle, to challenge bus segregation in the city. In a United States district court, she testified before the three-judge panel that heard the case. On June 13, 1956, the judges determined that the state and local laws requiring bus segregation in Alabama were unconstitutional. The case went to the United States Supreme Court on appeal by the state, and it upheld the district court’s ruling on November 13, 1956. One month later, the Supreme Court affirmed the order to Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation. The Montgomery bus boycott was then called off after a few months.
For many years, Montgomery’s black leaders did not publicize Colvin’s pioneering effort. Colvin has said, “Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn’t the case at all.” Colvin’s case was dropped by civil rights campaigners because Colvin was pregnant with a child out of wedlock during the proceedings. It is now widely accepted that Colvin was not accredited by civil rights campaigners at the time due to that notion, with even Rosa Parks saying “If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have [had] a field day. They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance.”