On March 2, 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white woman—nine months before Rosa Parks’s similar action sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. Claudette remembers: “My head was just too full of black history…the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.” She was dragged off the bus by two cops, arrested, and charged with violating segregation law, disturbing the peace, and assaulting the officers.
Important civil rights activists came to Claudette’s aid. They included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Jo Ann Robinson, a leader in the local Women’s Political Council; E. D. Nixon, a leader in the NAACP; and Rosa Parks. Fred Gray, Claudette’s lawyer, hoped to use the case to end segregation on the buses. But Claudette was found guilty on all three charges. Later, through an appeal, all charges were dropped except the assault charge. She was put on probation under the custody of her parents.
Support for Claudette’s case soon decreased. To some she seemed too “rebellious.” Movement leaders stepped back from Claudette as well, seeing her youth as a barrier to winning changes on the buses. Claudette also became pregnant that year. At that time, people thought it was very shocking for an unmarried teenager to have a baby. Some in the movement thought that Claudette’s pregnancy would make them look bad. She felt further shunned by her community.
… In May 1956, Fred Gray filed a lawsuit, Bowder v. Gayle, against the state of Alabama, challenging segregation on buses based on the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregation in public schools. Gray called on Claudette and four other black women to be plaintiffs in the case. Their strong testimonies and the ongoing boycott pushed the Alabama court to find segregation on the Montgomery buses unconstitutional. Though Claudette is not well known, her courageous stance was one necessary spark of this victorious movement.
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