We all know Rosa Parks’ story and how on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to obey bus driver James Blake’s order to give up her seat to a white passenger. School children will be talking about her tremendous contribution to the civil rights movement in schools all across the country today, and deservedly so, but who was Claudette Colvin?
Claudette Colvin attended Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery in 1955. Her family didn’t own a car, and she had to ride the city’s gold-and-green buses to school. On March 2, 1955, nine months before the widely publicized arrest of Rosa Parks’, Claudette Colvin, age 15, boarded a bus on the way home from school. When four whites boarded the bus and the driver ordered her, along with three other black passengers, to get up, she refused.
It was at the same location Rosa Parks would board a similar bus a few months later. This is only the first of a number of ironies in Colvin’s story.
Police were summoned. One of them kicked Colvin, causing her to drop her school books. She was removed from the bus, screaming that her constitutional rights were being violated. She was taken to jail and later convicted of assault and violating the segregation law.
Can you imagine how she must have felt when the two police officers took her away? She had no idea what was going to happen to her.
So, why do we know the name Rosa Parks, and why have many of us never heard of Claudette Colvin?
“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 in February. “The spirit of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth was in me. I didn’t get up.”
Some black leaders believed she was too young, and too dark-skinned to be an effective symbol of injustice for the rest of the nation. Then, as local civil rights leaders continued to debate whether her case was worth contesting, that summer came the news that Colvin was pregnant — by a married man.
Again, irony came into play in Colvin’s story. When African American leaders concluded who would be the best test case for the Supreme Court, it was decided that Colvin would not make an “effective symbol of injustice” because she was “too young, too dark-skinned” and an unwed mother. But for a few bends in history, the name Claudette Colvin could have become a household word. She could have been the one with the easily recognizable face, but nine months later, Rosa Parks boarded a bus in the same location and history was made. It’s the birthday of Rosa Parks that we celebrate, and the name Rosa Parks became the household word.
Colvin’s case never made it to the Supreme Court, but as we tip our hats to the very deserving Rosa Parks today, let’s keep Claudette Colvin’s story in mind, and the stories of countless and nameless others. As in most movements, there were many unsung heroes in the civil rights movement.
Colvin later told the Montgomery Advertiser that she would not have changed her decision to remain seated. “I feel very, very proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on. I’m not disappointed. Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott, but also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation.”
Other women played similar roles in the civil rights movement. While Colvin’s story was highlighted here, you may wish to research the contributions of Irene Morgan, Sarah Louise Keys, and Lizzie Jennings .
On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks, age 42, refused to obey bus driver James Blake’s order that she give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. Her action was not the first of its kind. Irene Morgan in 1946, and Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, had won rulings before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Interstate Commerce Commission, respectively, in the area of interstate bus travel. Nine months before Parks refused to give up her seat, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to move from her seat on the same bus system. In New York City, in 1854, Lizzie Jennings engaged in similar activity, leading to the desegregation of the horsecars and horse-drawn omnibuses of that city. But unlike these previous individual actions of civil disobedience, Parks’ action sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Source: The New Civil Rights Movement