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Schoolgirl’s bus defiance set stage for Rosa Parks

Associated Press | 2/11/2009, 4:24 a.m.
Claudette Colvin talks to reporters at Booker T. Washington Magnet School in Montgomery, Ala. in this Feb. 3,...
Claudette Colvin talks to reporters at Booker T. Washington Magnet School in Montgomery, Ala. in this Feb. 3, 2005 photo. As a 15-year-old high school student, Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman in Montgomery, nine months before Rosa Parks took her more famous stand. AP

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Claudette Colvin talks to reporters at Booker T. Washington Magnet School in Montgomery, Ala. in this Feb. 3, 2005 photo. As a 15-year-old high school student, Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman in Montgomery, nine months before Rosa Parks took her more famous stand.

PORTLAND, Maine — More than 50 years after her refusal to surrender her bus seat to a white woman set the stage for a similar act of defiance by Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin is finally getting her due as a civil rights pioneer.

On March 2, 1955, the 15-year-old Montgomery, Ala., schoolgirl was dragged off the bus by police, handcuffed and jailed. But her bold act drew little support from classmates, many of whom shunned her, or from the city’s black leadership.

She went to court the following year as a plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit that both struck down the legal underpinnings for segregated buses in the Jim Crow South and ended the bus boycott that kick-started the civil rights movement. But even then she won scant recognition, and has remained a footnote to history.

When author Phillip Hoose stumbled upon Colvin’s story during research for a book on the role of young people in U.S. history, he thought it unjust that a brave girl who made such a contribution should be denied her place in history.

It took Hoose more than six years to track down Colvin, who was living in Bronx, N.Y., and get her to talk to him. But they finally met for a series of interviews that led to his new book, “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.”

To mark its publication, Colvin and Hoose visited Montgomery and Birmingham last Tuesday and Wednesday for appearances that included stops at her old high school and the Rosa Parks Museum. The two will also be in Portland, Maine, the author’s hometown, Feb. 23-25.

The book, told in part in Colvin’s own voice, relates how the humiliations she endured on a daily basis while riding the bus to and from Booker T. Washington High School fueled her refusal to heed the driver’s order to vacate her seat.

Even now, however, she’s not sure what prompted that defiance.

“I really don’t know,” said Colvin, now 69. “It was a very impulsive act.”

She noted, however, that the incident came on the heels of her school’s Negro History Month, when accounts of the slave trade and lynchings were fresh in her mind alongside the injustices she faced on buses and in other aspects of her life.

“It was Sojourner Truth pushing me back down on the seat, saying, ‘Girl, you can’t get up,’ and Harriet Tubman, too. All of those people were in the back of my mind,” she said.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch, whose three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr. is regarded by many as the definitive history of the civil rights movement, says Colvin’s action represented a missed opportunity.

“People were waiting and hoping and praying for some way to challenge segregation, and they decided she wasn’t it,” Branch said in an interview. Instead, he said, it took an extraordinary person like Rosa Parks to galvanize the downtrodden black community to the point where 50,000 riders would boycott the buses for more than a year.

After Colvin was arrested and charged with violating segregation laws, disorderly conduct and assault, black leaders met with police to try to resolve the case. Among those present was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then 26, who had just arrived from Atlanta to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.