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Black History Unsung Heroes: Claudette Colvin

As a teenager, she made history, but it took decades for her to become recognized for her courage and achievements.

Can you name the first woman who wouldn’t give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama? The answer isn’t Rosa Parks. In fact, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to stand up for a white passenger on March 2, 1955, nine months earlier than Parks.

Though Colvin acted first, it was Parks who became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Here’s a look at why everyone knows the name Rosa Parks but not Claudette Colvin—and how Colvin feels about what happened to her story.

Turned down as a test case

Colvin’s March 1955 arrest quickly drew the attention of leaders in the black community. The NAACP had been searching for a test case to argue against segregation, and Colvin’s attorney, Fred Gray, thought this might be it.

But after some consideration, the NAACP opted to wait for a different case. There were several reasons for this decision: Colvin’s conviction for violating segregation laws had been overturned on appeal (though a conviction for assault on a police officer stood). Colvin’s age was another issue—as Colvin told NPR in 2009, the NAACP and other groups “didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.” The 15 year old also became pregnant a few months after her arrest.

Claudette Colvin Photo

A young Claudette Colvin.

However, Colvin felt that her being working class and having darker skin also played a large part in the NAACP’s distancing itself. As she told The Guardian in 2000, “It would have been different if I hadn’t been pregnant, but if I had lived in a different place or been light-skinned, it would have made a difference, too. They would have come and seen my parents and found me someone to marry.”

Rosa Parks sparks a boycott

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing a bus driver’s order to give up her seat, just as Colvin had been. But the direction the two cases took soon diverged: The Monday after Parks’s arrest, the black community began to boycott Montgomery buses.

Timing played a role in this boycott. Between Colvin’s arrest and that of Parks, talks among African-American leaders and city officials about altering segregation rules had gone nowhere. And there were additional differences: While Colvin was unwed and pregnant, Parks was “morally clean” (according to NAACP leader E.D. Nixon).

Civil Rights Activists: A key figure of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks sits near the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, just one year after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in the city, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Rosa Parks sits near the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, just one year after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in the city, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

However, in the end Colvin—who’d been mentored by Parks after her March arrest— was happy that Parks became a catalyst for the boycott. In a 2013 interview with CBS News, she said, “I’m glad that they picked Mrs. Parks because I wanted that bus boycott to be 100 percent successful.”

The lawsuit against segregation

Most people view what took place in Montgomery in 1955-56 as straightforward: Rosa Parks’s arrest led to a 381-day bus boycott, which in turn resulted in desegregation. But the court case that officially ended segregation on Montgomery buses had nothing to do with Rosa Parks and everything to do with Claudette Colvin.

Colvin was one of four women who became a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, which challenged the city and state laws that segregated buses (since her arrest was more recent and in litigation, Parks stayed away from the lawsuit). Anyone who joined the suit could easily become a target, but Colvin wasn’t shaken and bravely testified in court. In June 1956 a panel of judges ruled two to one that such segregation violated the Constitution. The case then proceeded to the Supreme Court, which upheld the decision. On December 20, 1956, the court order to desegregate Montgomery buses was served.

Though she was delighted by the outcome, Colvin still felt abandoned by civil rights leaders. She described her situation to USA Today: “Rosa got the recognition. I didn’t even get any recognition. I was disappointed by that because maybe that would have opened a few doors. After the 381 days, I was not a part of things anymore. When I heard about stuff, it was like everybody else, on TV.”

Colvin leaves Montgomery behind

With her arrest, the bus boycott and a lawsuit behind her, Colvin had other matters to focus on: As a single mother (her son Raymond was born in March 1956; a second son, Randy, arrived in 1960), she needed to provide for her family.

Colvin moved north in 1958. And in order to make sure her past didn’t affect her ability to hold a job, she kept quiet about all she’d done in Montgomery. She also didn’t stay in touch with anyone from the Movement.

“I just dropped out of sight,” she told Newsweek in 2009. “The people in Montgomery, they didn’t try to find me. I didn’t look for them and they didn’t look for me.”

Given how she’d been treated, Colvin’s choices were understandable. However, her actions were in danger of being forgotten.

Recognition years later

As the years passed, Colvin knew what she wanted: “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.”

Fortunately for Colvin—and for historical accuracy—this has started to happen. Colvin has given multiple interviews about her actions, and was also the subject of the biography Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (2009).

In 2013, Colvin was honored by the New Jersey Transit Authority for her part in the fight for civil rights. At the event she declared, “That was one of the first successful stories of how African Americans stood together united and got this law changed, so I’m so proud to be here to tell everyone my story. I can say—like James Brown—‘It feels good!’ to get recognition.”