Shelton Powe is a Music Maker artist who currently lives in Georgia. When we asked Shelton Powe to tell us his thoughts on Black History Month, he directed us to learn more about Claudette Colvin, who was actually the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, AL. Though Rosa Parks would be the famous face of civil disobedience for not giving up her seat to a white person in Montgomery, Claudette was the first to be arrested. Mainstream history does not talk very much about Colvin, and largely seems to have forgotten her. We can’t help but compare Colvin’s unremembered greatness to many of our Music Maker artists. History, it seems, has passed them by as it declares their music dead and gone even as they play on.
In 1955, Claudette Colvin was a student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, AL. Colvin’s family didn’t own a car, so she relied on the city’s gold-and-green buses to get to school. One day, she boarded a public bus and, shortly thereafter, refused to give up her seat to a white man.
Colvin was coming home from school that day when she got on a Capital Heights bus downtown at the same place Rosa Parks would board another bus months later. Colvin was sitting about two seats from the emergency exit when four white people boarded and the driver ordered her, along with three other black passengers, to get up. She refused and was removed from the bus by two police officers, who took her to jail.
“The bus was getting crowded and I remember him (the bus driver) looking through the rear view mirror asking her to get up out of her seat, which she didn’t,” said a classmate at the time, Annie Larkins Price. “She didn’t say anything. She just continued looking out the window. She decided on that day that she wasn’t going to move.” Other black passengers complied; Colvin ignored the driver. The driver walked back and asked her again.
“I’d moved for white people before,” Colvin says. But this time, she was thinking of the slavery fighters she had read about recently during Negro History Week that February. “The spirit of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth was in me. I didn’t get up.”
Police were summoned. Two officers approached Colvin, who started crying as she tried to explain herself. One of them kicked the thin teenager and knocked the textbooks from her arms.”They dragged her off that bus,” says Price, who was sitting behind her classmate. “The rest of us stayed quiet. People were too scared to say anything.”
Colvin was handcuffed and taken to the city jail, where she was charged with disorderly conduct, violating the segregation ordinance and assault and battery, presumably because she clawed the officers with her long fingernails.
She was thrown in a cell by herself until her mother and minister came to get her out.
Colvin went on to be one of four plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, which ultimately determined bus segregation in Alabama was unconstitutional.