Before Civil Rights Icon, Rosa Parks, There Was Teenager, Claudette Colvin

by Kim Boateng Posted on December 3rd, 2017

Washington, DC, USA: On Dec. 1, 1955, 62 years ago, Rosa Parks did exactly what a teenager, Claudette Colvin, had done nine months earlier, that is, refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery City Lines bus to a white passenger.

Rosa Parks was 42 years old, a professional and an officer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, so she became the face of the civil rights movement. It can be argued that NAACP and Rosa Parks, did a “Claudette Colvin” on Dec. 1, 1955.

Rosa Parks went on to become a symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end racial segregation but not a lot is known about the teenager, Claudette Colvin, and others who preceded her.

Before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin and others not nearly as known. Notably, nine months earlier, a teenager, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger during the segregation era in Montgomery, Alabama. Claudette Colvin is not nearly as known as Rosa Parks.

US President, Donald Trump – who has repeatedly attacked Colin Kaepernick – honored civil rights icon, Rosa Parks, in his weekly address.

62 years ago this week, a brave seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama uttered one word that changed history — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2017

President Trump on Saturday marked the 62nd anniversary of civil rights icon Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala. bus – a protest that became a key moment in the civil rights movement.

“Today our nation is better, our country more just and our people more united because of the bravery of Rosa Parks,” Trump said in a video address posted on his Twitter account and on Facebook.

“Rosa Park’s legacy continues to inspire our citizens to pursue a better tomorrow and to build a country where every American child – no matter their skin color – can live without fear, dream without limits and take their rightful place in the great story of our nation.”

Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, emerged as a crucial figure in the fight for equal rights in 1955 when she refused orders to give up her seat at the front of a city bus and move to the black section at the back of the bus.

Parks was arrested for the act of civil disobedience and was convicted days later of disorderly conduct.

Parks’ protest and subsequent conviction prompted a 13-month boycott of Montgomery city buses by African Americans organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who went on to be one of the most prominent figures of the civil rights movement.

The Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling in 1956 that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92.

Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager, Claudette Colvin, Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus

A teenage Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger during the segregation era in Montgomery, Ala.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks is well-known for her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., in December 1955. But Parks’ civil rights protest did have a precedent: Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin, a student from a black high school in Montgomery, had refused to move from her bus seat nine months earlier. However, Colvin is not nearly as well-known, and certainly not as celebrated, as Parks.

Montgomery was segregated, which meant that black people couldn’t use the dressing rooms at department stores or ride in the front of the bus. Colvin didn’t like that.

“I knew that this was a double standard,” she says. “This was unfair.”

On March 2, 1955, Colvin got on the bus with three other students who settled themselves in a middle row. The first 10 seats in the front of the bus were for whites only. That was the law and Colvin knew it.

“And so as the bus proceeded on downtown, more white people got on the bus,” she says. “Eventually the bus got full capacity, and a young white lady was standing near the four of us. She was expecting me to get up.”

“The bus driver saw the situation through the rear-view mirror and said, ‘I need those seats,’ ” says Phillip Hoose, the author of Claudette Colvin, Twice Towards Justice. “Three of the girls got up and walked to the back of the bus. Claudette didn’t.”

“I just couldn’t move,” she says. “History had me glued to the seat.”

The bus driver called a police officer, who confronted Colvin.

“And I said, ‘I paid my fare and it’s my constitutional right,’ ” she recalls. “I remember they dragged me off bus because I refused to walk. They handcuffed me and took me to an adult jail.”

She was charged with assault and battery, disorderly conduct and defying the segregation law.

“Everything changed”

“My mom and dad got me out of jail and my dad said, ‘Claudette, you put us in a lot of danger,’ ” she recalls. “He was worried about repercussions from the KKK. So that night, he didn’t sleep. He [sat] in the corner, with his shotgun fully loaded, all night.”

“I just couldn’t move. History had me glued to the seat.”

When Colvin went to school the following Monday, she got a mixed reaction. Some students were impressed by her courage, while others felt that she made things harder for them.

“Everything changed,” she says. “I lost most of my friends. Their parents had told them to stay away from me, because they said I was crazy, I was an extremist.”

She wanted to fight in court

Other African-Americans had previously refused to give their seats to white passengers, says Hoose. “What was without precedent, though, is Colvin wanted to get a lawyer and she wanted to fight,” he says.

The lawyer she chose was Fred Gray, one of two African-American lawyers in Montgomery at the time. After speaking with Colvin, Gray says, he was prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit to contest segregation on buses in Montgomery. But after discussing Colvin’s incident with other local African-American community leaders, the community decided to wait, he says.

Colvin was just 15 and did not have civil rights training. Gray says the community was not quite prepared for Colvin’s situation.

“Later I had a child born out of wedlock; I became pregnant when I was 16,” Colvin says. “And I didn’t fit the image either, of, you know, someone they would want to show off.”

Nine months later, Rosa Parks did the exact same thing as Colvin. She was 42 years old, a professional and an officer in the NAACP. Hoose says Parks was the symbol that civil rights leaders were looking for.

“I knew why they chose Rosa,” Colvin says. “They thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa.”

Gray, who went on to represent civil rights icons Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., says that Colvin is one of thousands of unnamed individuals who played a key role in civil rights history.

“Well, today, I’m-75-years old. It’s good to see some of the fruit of my labor,” says Colvin. “To me, I don’t mind being named, as long as we have someone out there to tell our story.”

In 1956, about a year after Colvin refused to give up her seat, Gray filed the landmark federal lawsuit Browder v. Gayle. This case ended segregation on public transportation in Alabama. The star witness was Claudette Colvin.

Our Cover photo has Rosa Parks (left), Teenage Claudette Colvin (top right) and Claudette Colvin (bottom right).

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Kim Boateng

Kim Boateng

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