Today: The secret story of Claudette Colvin.
The woman, tired from a long day, was asked by the driver to get up and move to the back of the bus, where the other black people sat.
Instead, she continued to sit, taking the spot of a white rider. In Alabama in the 1950s, this was a major offense, and the woman was arrested for it.
Sound familiar? Most would say this is the story of Rosa Parks, the first lady of Civil Rights and the mother of the Freedom Movement.
But most haven’t heard about Claudette Colvin—the young woman who refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks did.
Claudette was just 15 years old when she took the bus home from high school on March 2, 1955. She and her class had been studying women’s rights activists, and she was filled with pride and a sense of right and wrong. There was no way she would’ve moved on that day, she recalled in the book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, published in 2009 and written by Phil Hoose.
After she refused to move, she was handcuffed by two police officers and her school books fell to the ground.
She became one of the four women plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that overturned bus laws in Alabama.
Strange, then, that even now, few remember her name.
“She was a point person,” says Carl Westmoreland, senior historian at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. “In history, and in life, someone affects something deliberately or circumstantially, and they lock in and play a significant role. Ms. Colvin was important because she was willing to accept the role that was assigned to her.”
Westmoreland explained that the decisions to boycott the buses in Alabama—and to refuse to get up from seats—were strategic ones, handed down from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, of which Parks and Colvin were both members.
“When the time came to confront some significant problem, you had people like Ms. Colvin, and a chorus of people who walked rather than ride the bus,” he said. “It was not accidental.”
But there is a reason why she did not become the face of the Civil Rights movement. Westmoreland said there was a bit of hesitancy because there was a question of whether or not Colvin was pregnant, something that was severely frowned upon at the time.
“If you’re pregnant and unmarried, that’s strike three,” Westmoreland said. “But in fact, she was a decent student who later went on to college. But yes, she did go on to have an illegitimate child. So, the state president of the NAACP at the time, E.D. Nixon, called for another to get arrested.”
Enter Rosa Parks, who would replay the scene nine months later, and that story caught on.
“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did,” Colvin told The New York Times in 2009. “She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa—her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’ ”
But now Colvin seems to be getting a bit of her due.
“In the black community, we knew about it all the while,” Westmoreland said. “She is a fine woman, and she’s gone on to be recognized for her heroism.”
By Ryan Clark, contributor for Ripleys.com