Everyone knows Rosa Parks as the woman who refused to give up her seat to a White man and was arrested for her act of defiance. Rosa Parks is lauded as the ”Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”. However, not many people know that there was a young, Black woman by the name of Claudette Colvin who refused to give up her seat to a White man before Rosa Parks did. The lack of widespread knowledge about her arrest and the circumstances that lead to it will be discussed.
Claudette Colvin was born on September 5th, 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama. She was adopted by C.P Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin due to her biological parents’ untimely death. Claudette Colvin grew up in poverty stricken, segregated Black areas where she attended segregated schools, patronized all Black stores and other venues. Despite growing up in poverty and being denied the opportunities, Claudette Colvin was a studious student who enjoyed her childhood.
On March 2nd, 1955, fifteen year old Claudette Colvin and three classmates of hers were taking a bus ride from school back home. She was told by a White bus driver to give up her seat to a White passenger. She refused. She told the bus driver this: ” “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.” ” The bus driver, then, pulled her off of the bus because she refused to get off of the bus. Then she was handcuffed and put in jail. She was charged with assault and battery, disorderly conduct and violations against the segregation law.
Her parents got her out of the jail and she received mixed reviews for her courage to stand up against Jim Crow laws in public transportation. Some of her peers praised her for standing up for herself while others distanced themselves from her because they felt that she was making things ”harder” for them. Eventually, the news of the arrest spread across the segregated Black sections of Montgomery. However, Claudette Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat to a White passenger was overshadowed by another Black woman’s refusal to give up her seat to a White passenger.
Nine months later, Rosa Parks made headline news for receiving to give up her seat to a White man. Her bail and release from jail was also documented along with her trial over the incident. Rosa Parks’ reasoning for refusing to give up her seat to a White man was similar to Claudette Colvin’s reasoning: both women believe that their human rights was being violated. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat overshadowed Claudette Colvin’s and lead to a Montgomery bus boycott that lasted over a year.
Why is Claudette Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat to a White passenger forgotten?
There were various reasons why Claudette Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat to a White passenger has been overlooked by historians. Like many historical events regarding Black women’s history, the incident surrounding Claudette Colvin has been suppressed and not as widespread as it should be.
One of the reasons why Claudette Colvin’s arrest was overlooked was due to her age. Since she was a teenager when she refused to give up her seat, many people felt that she was too young and too ”militant” to lead and represent the Civil Rights Movement. Many people felt that her age also meant that she wasn’t old enough to comprehend the depth of her actions. Or even realize the purpose of what the Civil Rights Movement was to accomplish in this country. Rosa Parks’ age of forty two and participation in Civil Rights activities and organizations made her a better fit for her to represent the Civil Rights Movement as opposed to fifteen year old, Claudette Colvin.
Another reason why Claudette Colvin’s arrest was overlooked by historians was due to the fact that Claudette Colvin became pregnant. She became pregnant by an older man. Her unwed pregnancy would also put a damper on the progression of the movement because her pregnancy wouldn’t be fitting for such a movement. Having an unwed mother lead the movement would have made the Civil Rights Movement look futile and faulty.
Claudette Colvin’s lower income background also played a role in her refusal to give up her seat to a White passenger was overlooked. She came from a poor background. Her family didn’t have a car so she had to take the bus to and from school back home. Her family didn’t have much money and resources to better themselves but they did the best that they could. The bourgeois of the Black Community was ran by middle class and upper class Black people who had access to money and resources. The bourgeois were the ones who maintained and managed the condition of the Black Community. The bourgeois felt that since Claudette Colvin came from a lower class background that she wouldn’t be able to relate to the middle class and project a ”good image” for the Civil Rights Movement.
Last but not least, Colorism played a role in Claudette Colvin’s arrest being overlooked. Claudette Colvin’s dark brown skin made many people in the Black Community think her actions were too ”militant”. Often times, darker skin individuals especially darker skin women are viewed as rough, angry and too aggressive. In her case, the perception that her actions were too aggressive and ”militant” arose from the fact that she was a young, dark brown woman of lowly stature. Light skin women such as Rosa Parks were seen as more feminine, docile and more intelligent. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a White man on the bus was applauded and lauded as a step in the progression of the Civil Rights Movement partially due to her light brown skin. Nonetheless Colorism played a role in how many people perceived the actions of both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin despite being two very different people.
Here is a NPR recording of Claudette Colvin telling her side of the story:
Browder vs. Gayle
In 1956, Claudette Colvin brought her case to the state court and eventually the Supreme Court. Claudette and her three classmates served as plantiffs in Browder v. Gayle lawsuit to testify against the discrimination and segregation on Montgomery buses. The boycott of buses in Montgomery was active and in full force as well. The ruling of this case banned segregation on public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. This victory helped break down barriers and other injustices that negatively affected African Americans across the nation.
What has become of Claudette Colvin?
She was apart of the NAACP chapter in Montgomery for a while. Claudette Colvin gave birth to her son, Raymond Colvin in March 1956, months before the Browder v. Gayle trial. She moved out of Montgomery due to notoriety of her involvement with the court case that overturned the segregation on Montgomery buses. She moved to New York and lived with her sister, Velma. Claudette Colvin took a job as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home and worked there until she retired in 2004. Claudette Colvin, now, lives in the Bronx.
In 2005, Colvin 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,” Colvin said. “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.”
Claudette Colvin isn’t angry that her efforts has been overlooked however she feels a sense of sadness that her efforts aren’t as recognized as Rosa Parks was. She said she felt as if she was “getting her Christmas in January rather than the 25th.”
Most of all, Claudette Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat to a White passenger was what really sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and eventual desegregation of the public transportation system. Rosa Parks’ efforts in helping to dismantle segregation on public transportation shouldn’t go overlooked nor should Claudette Colvin’s efforts. Claudette Colvin’s efforts shouldn’t have been overlooked or suppressed however she wouldn’t truly be forgotten. Hence it is important Black women to pass on whatever knowledge of their history that they known to the younger generations of Black women.
Links to where I received my information from: