Power Dynamics of a Segregated City: Class, Gender, and Claudette Colvin’s Struggle for Equality

Samantha Gordon, Sarah Lawrence College


In the summer of 2014 I stumbled upon a comedic television program called Drunk History. On this television show, inebriated narrators recall historical events while actors interpret the scene. The program makes it very clear in the beginning that the narrators are drunk and this is for entertainment purposes only. The accuracy of the events is up for debate and the audience is compelled to do further research if interested. Drunk History’s segment on Montgomery, Alabama, struck me because it introduced a “new” character to the established narrative of the Montgomery Bus Boycott: a fifteen-­‐year-­‐old girl named Claudette Colvin. Months before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, Claudette Colvin was arrested for the very same action. According to Drunk History, Colvin was taken off the bus, arrested, tried, and later became the star witness in a case challenging the city of Montgomery’s transportation segregation ordinance. Afterwards, she left Montgomery for good. It was a ten-­‐minute short segment that left me with many questions. Who was Claudette Colvin? Why have I not heard of her before? Why is she not part of the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement? This thesis is an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the race, class, and gender politics of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and give Claudette Colvin a little bit of the recognition she deserves. While conducting research for this thesis, I spent a few days in Montgomery, immersed in the world Claudette Colvin had inhabited. The city of Montgomery is an urban landscape in change. As I explored, I noticed more abandoned or under-­‐ 4 construction storefronts than open ones in the downtown area and not many pedestrians. There was the occasional tourist group, but the majority of people were daily workers making the lunchtime pilgrimage to the many area restaurants. The only thing Montgomery had in excess was food and bars. It was not until I was leaving that I finally worked up the courage to ask someone what was going on. My friendly cab driver informed me that the city is undergoing a rebuilding effort. The hotel at which I stayed and all the restaurants I visited did not exist about fourteen years ago. He suggested that if I were to come back in the next three or four years the city would look transformed. It was hard to reconcile what I was seeing in current-­‐day Montgomery with the city I read about that was the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. How could a city whose downtown area consisted only of government buildings fourteen years ago be the focal point of such a historic movement? I visited historic sites, did research in the city archives, and visited the Rosa Parks Museum, which surprisingly featured Claudette Colvin. The museum is on the campus of Troy University and was established as a center of learning about the Civil Rights Movement and the Bus Boycott. The city archives were not as helpful as the museum as I looked for information on Claudette Colvin. Her original arrest report was just one of the many gems I found at the museum. I also found an oral history with Fred Gray, who in his own words discussed his connection to Colvin and what he had hoped would come from her case. 5 As I conducted my research, I was aware of the fact that I was alone in a new city trying to orient myself to visit the many places I had only ever seen on the Internet. The lack of knowledge of Colvin was frustrating. Creative solutions were required to make the best of what was available. As I further delved into my research in Montgomery, it did not escape me that the woman I was writing about would not have been able to freely partake in the activities I currently did. Walking into a restaurant through the front door, eating without feeling out of place amongst mostly white patrons, and walking into any public place without fear of repercussions were some of the things that, with my new perspective, I was now aware I took for granted. Colvin’s story resonated with me on many different levels. This thesis is an attempt to understand her story, and examine her importance to the Civil Rights Movement.