I’m always astounded by how few people know about Claudette Colvin, and how her protest of Alabama’s bus segregation laws preceded Rosa Parks’ by months. It’s like she was completely erased from history, and totally overshadowed by Rosa (which I don’t think was an accident, but by design. We’ll get into that in a bit).
On March 2nd, 1955, nine months before Parks’ infamous protest of unconstitutional bus segregation laws, a 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was riding home on a city bus when she and three other Black passengers were instructed by the driver to relinquish their seats to a group of white bus riders. While the other two Black passengers complied, Claudette refused, and remained seated. This blatant act of defiance was met with force, as the police were called and two officers boarded the bus and proceeded to kick and push the teenage girl. After the attack, she was arrested and taken to the city jail, where she was charged as an adult for violating the segregation law, disorderly conduct, and battery. The irony. She was assaulted by the police but somehow ended up being charged with battery (use your imagination to insert the thinking emoji here).
Later, when she was asked why she refused to give up her seat, she mentioned that she had allowed white people to take her seat on busses before, but the month before this incident, she’d learned about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth at school during Black History Week (yes, Black History Month originated as a week, look it up. And I really wish ya’ll would stop saying that Black History Month is in February because it’s the shortest month. That’s not true. Do your googles). She said she felt these two women “standing on each of her shoulders,” and that they gave her the strength to stand her ground.
At this time, the NAACP was looking for the perfect opportunity to challenge the unjust bus laws, and this should have been a slam dunk, no? An innocent teen girl, riding the city bus home from school, was violently thrown about by the police and arrested after she stood up for her constitutional rights. Top this off with the fact that Claudette was active in the NAACP’s Youth Council and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a movement, right? WRONG. The NAACP decided not to rally around this child that represented everything they claimed to support.
You see, we loveeeee to glorify the Civil Right’s Movement of the 1950s-1970s (and I have to specify, because there have been several civil rights movements in this country. Again, do your googles), and pretend that all Black folks were unified, on the same page, and supportive of one another. But go ahead and let all the air out of that balloon, because it ain’t true. There was a chunk of Black people that felt like civil rights activists were trouble makers that were being too sensitive, there was a segment that was fine with the movement but either had no desire or were too afraid to participate, and there was a faction that really didn’t see a place for the poor Black community to participate in the movement (outside of being bodies for a protest/march). The NAACP at this time fell into the last category, with the vast majority being middle class, sprinkled with a few considered “elite”. To be frank, the NAACP was notorious for being colorist, elitist, and classist, and Claudette Colvin was too dark and too poor to be upheld as mother of their Civil Rights Movement.
Claudette’s mother was a maid, and her father mowed lawns for a living. They lived in the “poor” part of Montgomery, Alabama, what seemed like light years from the spacious houses and cars and debutante balls that the elite Blacks enjoyed. She was a mahogany brown, with no discernable European features to indicate she was of mixed heritage. No “good hair,” light skin, or keen nose. Worse yet, in the months following her act of resistance, she became pregnant—by a married man. She was everything the NAACP fought to keep out of its ranks, and there was no way they were going to grant her entry just because she got roughed up on a bus by some cops.
Instead, they waited for another opportunity…and by “waited” I mean “planted”. Yes y’all, I really do think that the NAACP planted Rosa Parks on that bus nine months later, in December of the same year. If you go back and compare Claudette and Rosa’s bus segregation protests, they are almost IDENTICAL. Not to mention the fact that they were both in Montgomery, Alabama and ROSA WAS THE ADVISOR FOR CLAUDETTE’S NAACP YOUTH COUNCIL CHAPTER (she was also the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP). Rosa even helped raise money for Claudette’s defense in her case against the state after this incident. Argue with me if you want, and we can have differing opinions…but I really do believe that the NAACP wanted to recreate this perfect opportunity, but with a better (read: lighter and visibly mixed) “representative”.
Whether my theory is true or not, the fact still remains that Rosa Parks later endured the same injustices, but was supported by the NAACP, and subsequently became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, immortalized in history forever.
But what became of Claudette Colvin?
She testified in the 1956 Browder v Gayle trial, which ultimately went to the Supreme Court and ended bus segregation in the state of Alabama. She was 17 at the time. While she had dreams of becoming a lawyer, she worked 35 years as a nursing assistant at a nursing home before retiring in 2004. Claudette, young and brave as she was, has largely faded into obscurity.
However, it’s important to lift up our historical figures. All of them. Not just the glamorous ones, or the mixed ones, or the male ones, or the ones that we learn during Black History Month. We need to ensure that these stories are remembered and recounted to our children. Remember, Claudette was given the strength to defy racist laws by the spirits of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. It was because she learned this history that she challenged the bus segregation laws and helped to overturn them for the state of Alabama. THAT reason alone is why we need to make sure that our children learn their history; Because it gives them the courage and fortitude to change the world around them.
All this to say, I’d like to dedicate this week’s #WomanCrushWednesday post to a woman who, at 15 years old, had more courage in her big toe than many of the adults I know (myself included). Thank you Claudette Colvin, for helping to pave the way.