Rosa Parks. You know the name… you know the story. In 1955, she sat down on a bus, and didn’t move for a white man. She was arrested, and became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which led to the black community of Montgomery, Alabama walking everywhere they went for 381 days, in order to stand up to the public transport segregation law. Hers’ is a wonderful story of the power of hope and community. Rosa Parks does, indeed, deserve to be remembered for what she did that December day, but 278 days prior, a young girl also sat on a bus and refused to move for a white passenger. Her name? Claudette Colvin.
Claudette, who also lived in Montgomery, was 15 when she hopped on the bus on her way home from school and took her seat on March 2, 1955. When asked to move, Claudette calmly replied, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.”
The civil rights movement in the United States began in the mid 1950s and continued for several decades. In fact, the fight for racial equality still continues to this day. When this period of history is mentioned, it is easy to picture the likes of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X – the faces, if you like, of equality. But there were plenty of women fighting their corner, too. In fact, there were hundreds of individuals who stood up for themselves, and for future generations; they just never get mentioned.
Whilst Colvin’s act did not amount to the coverage that Parks’ did, that doesn’t mean her story isn’t worth telling. She was arrested and put in jail, where she later admitted she was terrified: “I was really afraid, because you just didn’t know what white people might do at that time.” She was released on bail, but later pleaded not guilty, meaning she was put on probation. So why wasn’t her case important? Why is she not famous? Why is she not taught about in schools? Well, her situation was unfortunate and her circumstances difficult.
The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), a key activism group at the time, were aware of her actions. They had to decide whether to use her case to challenge the segregation laws, but Claudette became pregnant, and using an unwed, pregnant, young black girl as the face of their movement was more than likely to attract negative attention, even from supporters and sympathisers. So, just like that, Claudette and her place in history slipped through the cracks.
Despite this, her actions continued. After giving birth to her son a year after she sat down on the bus, she continued to fight for equality. She dropped out of college and fought for her own, and her son’s, rights. She became a plaintiff in the Browder v. Gayle case to end segregation on public transport in Montgomery, Alabama. Their side won, and in 1956 segregation in this case was ruled unconstitutional. And so began the fight for further racial equality.
I would say the rest is history. But it isn’t. The rest is herstory.
Claudette was a badass; she never stopped fighting for what she believed in. She once said that she was not angry that she didn’t get the recognition she deserved, but was just disappointed. Her family still fight for her recognition to this day though. What she did, at her age, was brave and strong. It should have earned her praise at the time. In many cases, she was the start of it all. She wasn’t an icon then, but she should be now.
“I knew then, and I know now, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it.” – Claudette Colvin