When she was 15, she refused to move to the back of the bus.

By Melissa Locker
February 16, 2020
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Claudette Colvin of Montgomery, AL
Credit: Dudley M. Brooks/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin boarded a bus on her way home from high school in Montgomery, Alabama, right across the road from Dr Martin Luther King's church. She saw an empty seat and grabbed it. When another passenger boarded, the bus driver asked Colvin to move. She refused, saying it was her constitutional right to stay put. The driver called the police who arrested her for her refusal. You see, Colvin was black and the driver and the passenger who wanted her seat were white.

If Colvin’s story sounds familiar, that’s because her brave actions came nine months before Rosa Parks went through a similar experience. When she refused to give up her seat, though, Parks was the secretary of the local Alabama NAACP chapter making a statement about Civil Rights, Colvin was a teenager whose bravery got her thrown into jail. While Parks went on to become one of the heroes of the Civil Rights movement, Colvin’s name went largely unknown.

Colvin’s courageous act wasn’t planned, according to an interview with NPR. Instead, it was a spontaneous moment of civil disobedience inspired by her course work at school. Her segregated high school had been studying black history, including stories about the former slave-turned-abolitionist Sojourner Truth as well as Harriet Tubman’s fearless work guiding slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

When the bus driver ordered her to get up so that a white passenger could have her seat, Colvin remembered the brave women who had come before her to fight for what was right and decided to act. "Whenever people ask me: 'Why didn't you get up when the bus driver asked you?' I say it felt as though Harriet Tubman's hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth's hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women because my teacher taught us about them in so much detail," she told the BBC in 2018.

WATCH: Must-See National Civil Rights Monuments in Birmingham, Alabama

According to a book that documents Colvin’s legacy, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Colvin held fast, refusing to move, even as the driver screamed at her. She burst into tears, but stayed where she was, telling the driver over and over that she had paid her fare and it was her right to stay. Eventually, the bus driver called the police and two officers put the undoubtedly terrified teenager in handcuffs. She cried and prayed, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm as she rode in the back of the police car on the way to jail.

As Colvin sat locked in a bleak, cement-lined jail cell, her schoolmates, who had witnessed the scene, ran home to tell her mother. Colvin’s mother found someone to watch her little children, called her pastor, and raced to the police station to find her daughter. Her pastor paid her bail and she was free.

Nine months later, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and helped launch the Birmingham bus boycott, which ultimately started the Civil Rights Movement. As for why Colvin’s name and bravery were pushed aside, Colvin believes that it was because of her age. Per NPR, the NAACP and black leaders reportedly thought Parks would be a better icon, because “she was an adult. They didn't think teenagers would be reliable.” It just goes to show that adults can be wrong sometimes, and Colvin’s bold act proves it.