On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was sitting on a totally full bus in Montgomery, Ala., when the driver asked her and three black schoolmates give up the whole row so that a white woman could sit.
According to her biographer Phillip Hoose’s account of the events, her classmates got up and moved to the back, but Colvin did not — and the white woman remained standing, refusing to sit in the same row as the black teenager. Under the city’s Jim Crow-era segregation laws, black passengers didn’t technically have to get up for white passengers if there were no other free seats, though many did so to avoid the potentially dangerous consequences.
But, though Colvin knew the expectations, she was also thinking of the lessons on constitutional rights she had just learned at school.
“I wanted the young African-American girls also on the bus to know that they had a right to be there, because they had paid their fare just like the white passengers,” she tells TIME. “This is not slavery. We shouldn’t be asked to get up for the white people just because they are white. I just wanted them to know the Constitution didn’t say that.”
Two police officers boarded, yanked Colvin out of her seat and dragged her off the bus. Colvin says she didn’t think about how dangerous her decision could have been until after she had already made her stand. Once off the bus, though, the fear set in. “I feared they [the policemen] might hit me with their clubs,” she says. “They were trying to guess my bra size and teasing me about my breasts. I could have been raped.”
During the brief jail stay that followed, she remembers sitting on a cot without a mattress. “I can still vividly hear the keys lock me in,” she says.
In recent decades, when this anniversary comes along, she has usually been in New York City — her home for the last six decades. But she recently moved back to Alabama, to Birmingham, and now marvels at how things have changed — thanks in part to her own actions, as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that successfully challenged the bus segregation. In rare interviews with TIME, Colvin and her co-plaintiff Mary Louise Smith-Ware reflected on how their peaceful acts of defiance six decades ago helped bring about a new stage of the civil rights movement.
A Continuum of Resistance
There had already been talk in Montgomery’s black community of boycotting the buses over segregation, but the idea started to be taken more seriously after the arrest of someone so young. Martin Luther King Jr., a minister who had recently moved to town, was brought into these discussions.
By the time local NAACP Secretary Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat, on Dec. 1, 1955, boycotting the buses had come to be seen by some as the only option remaining: “If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue,” the flier announcing the boycott proclaimed. “The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother.”
And though the flier was issued after Parks’ arrest, Colvin’s was still front of mind. “Another” woman has been “arrested for the same thing” read the notice, produced by Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson. “Don’t ride the buses.”
Colvin’s stand was part of a long history of African-American resistance, as acts of resistance on segregated transportation had been going on for more than century. Frederick Douglass was kicked out of a whites-only train car in 1841. The 1854 arrest of schoolteacher Elizabeth Jennings — who was defended in court by future U.S. President Chester A. Arthur — led to the desegregation of NYC streetcar service. And, when he was in the Army before his groundbreaking baseball career, Jackie Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus. The bus system in Montgomery, where about 75% of people who used the system were black, was already a target of particular protest.
“I’m hard-pressed to find what’s different between Elizabeth Jennings being arrested and Rosa Parks being arrested, except for the 100 year gap,” says Blair L.M. Kelley, author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy V. Ferguson. “There’s no one moment to cite as a pivotal moment. There is a continuum of people who did not believe that second-class treatment was fair or right or just and who were brave enough to fight against it.”
By 1955, however, “the world was in a different place,” Kelley adds. The Cold War was putting pressure on the U.S. to prove that its system was better — and more just — than the Soviet way of life. Montgomery was also home to a desegregated Air Force base with integrated trolleys, so black troops and veterans were irked by having to ride segregated city buses.
Laws had changed in key ways too. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education “opens the door for potentially successful legal challenges against other forms of segregation,” says Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Colvin was charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law and assaulting a police officer — but she was only convicted of assaulting a police officer, seeming to close the door on a potential appeal that would have challenged segregation.
The continuum of resistance went on after Colvin’s arrest, most notably with bus riders Aurelia S. Browder, 37, arrested on April 29, and Mary Louise Smith, 18, arrested on Oct. 21.
Smith’s case was not widely publicized at the time. A housekeeper, she refused to give her seat to a white passenger because she was already at her wits’ end after trekking across town to retrieve money that a client owed her, only to find the family wasn’t at home.
“A lady got on the bus and a man got up for her and wanted me to get up and give up my seat, and that’s what really popped it off, because I was not going to stand for almost a mile or more to get down to my next destination,” Smith tells TIME. “I was upset. I might have said a bad word at that time because I was angry. I just didn’t feel like it was right.”
Smith, now 83, tells TIME that she hadn’t heard of Colvin’s case when it happened because she was out of school already. But Rosa Parks, on the other hand, was watching.
“I took a particular interest in the girl and her case,” Parks says in her 1992 memoir My Story. She invited Colvin to NAACP youth group meetings, and thought they might be able to raise money for the cause by having the teen speak around town. However, when Colvin became pregnant, E.D. Nixon, the former head of Montgomery’s NAACP chapter who remained an influential civil rights activist, E.D. Nixon, decided she would not be an ideal plaintiff in a case against the segregation law. As for Mary Louise Smith, “because her father paid her fine and didn’t protest,” Parks wrote, “hers certainly wasn’t a good case for Mr. Nixon to appeal to a higher court.” The young ages of Smith and Colvin also gave some people pause.
Theoharis argues that Colvin’s incident informed Parks’ decision not to resist when she was ordered off the bus in December, as that meant she was charged only with violating the bus segregation law, thus setting up a legal challenge. And yet, Parks wasn’t an ideal plaintiff either: she was active with the NAACP, which was accused of being communist and would be banned in Alabama in June 1956.
Colvin and Smith started to look like suitable plaintiffs when “no man is willing to be on the case,” says Theoharis. So, exactly two months after Parks was arrested, four women — Colvin, Browder, Smith and Susie McDonald, 77 — signed on to be plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle. The lawsuit was filed directly in federal court so that it wouldn’t get stalled in the state system (as had happened to the case of Viola White, who had done what Rosa Parks did a decade earlier). Representing the women were Fred D. Gray and Charles D. Langford, who had consulted with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Robert L. Carter, who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court.
And sure enough, in June 1956, a federal three-judge panel affirmed what Colvin already knew: that the racially segregated buses were unconstitutional, violating the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Browder v. Gayle decision in November, and denied re-hearings in Dec. 17.
The Montgomery bus boycott ended three days later, after more than a year. A new chapter of Martin Luther King Jr.’s career as an activist minister — and in the civil rights movement as a whole — began.
Unable to get a job after the case, Colvin moved to New York City in 1958 and worked as a nurse until her retirement, after which the now-80-year-old moved back to Alabama to be closer to family; she has been living in Birmingham for the past four months. And she got something else out of Browder v. Gayle, too: a friend, Mary Louise Smith, now Mary Louise Smith-Ware, who still lives in Montgomery.
Both say they followed the civil rights movement as it progressed, but they weren’t active in political organizations — though Smith says she did get permission to leave work early one day to go to the 1963 March on Washington.
Colvin decided to stay out of the spotlight after the case, though she acknowledges that the downside of not often sharing her story has been that other people “tell what happened to you.” Over the years, for example, sources mixed up the facts about her pregnancy, with rumors starting that she had been pregnant at the time of her arrest; in fact, she became pregnant that summer, and her son Raymond was born the following spring.
The rumors are part of the reason Colvin agreed to interviews for Hoose’s 2009 young adult biography Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, which won a National Book Award. As for Smith, Alabama-based activist William Dickerson-Waheed interviewed her for his short 2005 documentary More Than a Bus Ride. “I’m just not the type of person to go around bragging about what I have done,” she says; both would rather brag about their grandchildren.
And in any case, the spotlight is coming to them.
On Nov. 15, 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recognized Colvin for her “courage to stand in the face of injustice and demand her recognition of her inalienable rights” on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. On Dec. 1, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in Montgomery, Ala., for the 64th anniversary of her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger, along with granite markers honoring Colvin and the other plaintiffs on the federal lawsuit that ruled segregated buses unconstitutional; Smith attended the ceremony. And over this past Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the Equal Justice Initiative opened the Legacy Pavilion, featuring local figures in the civil rights movement and even a photo of Colvin next to a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr.
When asked how that felt, Colvin told TIME, “I finally got some recognition after all these years. I’ve gotten a little bit, a little bit.”
Both say they don’t think about their arrests all the time, but Colvin says news stories about police brutality can bring back memories of that fateful day, of “how dangerous it was the day when I resisted.”
Smith-Ware also worries about the divisiveness and distance between people in society today.
“There had always been segregation, and there always has been segregation, and so much segregation is still going on,” she says. “It’s hard to bring people together. We’re just not united. We’re not together. There is not enough love between people. I love everybody. You’re supposed to love everybody. Some people’s ways I do not like — but if I can do anything for them, I will. And that’s just me.”