My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. Let Rosa be the one: white people aren’t going to bother Rosa, they like her Claudette Colvin said.
Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, is one of the most memorialized parts of the Civil Rights Movement — but what few people know is that Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse.
That honor belongs to Claudette Colvin, then a 15-year-old girl who was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white woman. It happened nine months before Rosa Parks, secretary of the local NAACP, did it, which sparked the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
We have been reading a non-fiction book about Claudette Colvin titled Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice in my eighth-grade class. Today was our last day of school, and our unit in the curriculum was called “Teens as Change Agents”, suggesting that teenagers as young as 15-year-olds can change the world through their actions and activism.
However, the staff at The Guardian asked a crucial question: why is Claudette Colvin denied her place in history? Why was it that Rosa Parks and her arrest would spark the boycott and launch the civil rights movement? Why was it that Rosa Parks and her courage would enter the realm of mythology, and her action would turn Martin Luther King into a household name while Colvin would still remain unknown?
I will examine why Rosa Parks replicated the original act of Claudette Colvin, and why Parks would get all the credit for her activism while Colvin’s act is still relatively unknown.
The NAACP had good reason to “let Rosa be the one”.
Fred Gray, the lawyer who represented Rosa Parks after she got arrested, said of Parks that “she gave me the feeling I was the Moses that God had sent to Pharoah.” Martin Luther King would call her “a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny.”
Gary Younge of The Guardian quickly dispels the notion — Rosa Parks was not a victim or saint of mythology, but rather a long-standing political activist and feminist. Claudette Colvin kept her seat and challenged the system nine months before Parks did.
But unlike Parks, Colvin never made it into the civil rights hall of fame, Younge said.
But it wasn’t a case of opportunism by Parks, but complex historical and political factors at play. As Colvin’s case began to gain traction, she became pregnant, which made her broken parts to the middle-class, church-dominated, and local Black leadership in Montgomery, Alabama. Colvin also lived in the King Hill area of Montgomery —an impoverished part of town that the middle class local Black leadership looked down on — where there were unpaved streets and outside toilets that gave the city a bad reputation. Colvin grew up in King Hill with her great aunt and great uncle, who were parents to her.
The NAACP and other Black organizations felt Rosa Parks would be the better icon because she was an adult, she had the right hair and the right look. She was a middle-class Black woman, a person who had “natural gravitas” according to historian David Garrow, and was well-known and respected. Phillip Hoose, the author of Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice, says that pragmatism pushed Rosa Parks to the fore since they Parks and Martin Luther King were in their 30s and 40s while Colvin was 15, so they felt like Rosa Parks could be the center of controversy and handle it well.
Colorism within the civil rights movement
In addition, Colvin was very dark-skinned, especially compared to Rosa Parks, which gave her low status in the local Black community. According to Younge, while whites discriminated against Blacks in terms of skin color, Blacks discriminated against Blacks in terms of skin shade — and the colorism within minority communities is still very present today. I see the same trends in my Chinese family.
But Colvin herself rejected the notion that lighter was better, and her strong political convictions made her want to be President. One incident, in particular, preoccupied her. She had a friend named Jeremiah Reeves who was a teenage grocery delivery boy who had sex with a white woman. When the woman alleged rape, the South’s deeply ingrained taboo against interracial sex made the courts put him on death row and execute him.
The Reeves incident led Colvin to not give up her seat on the bus on March 2, 1955. Colvin and three other Black girls took their seats on the bus, and more white people got on the bus, the driver asked them to give up their seats. A pregnant Black woman, Mrs. Hamilton, sat next to Colvin, and Hamilton refused to give up her seat — she said she paid for the bus fare, and Colvin joined in with Hamilton and also refused.
The driver said he would get a policeman — he stopped the bus and got a policeman. But white students on the bus shouted to her that “you got to get up!” The policeman arrived, and he could not bring himself to chide Mrs. Hamilton as a pregnant woman, but he also couldn’t allow her to stay on her seat as per the law. He turned to the Black men sitting behind her and said that if they don’t give her their seats, they would be put in jail themselves.
One man, Mr. Harris, would give Mrs. Hamilton her seat, but Colvin would still not give up her seat at the urging of the officer. A white woman defended the officer and said that if Colvin would get away with it, then “they will take over.” The officer then said he would take Colvin off the bus, and kicked her. He kicked her two more times.
Colvin was shocked at the fact that the officers would act in that fashion. When he bought her back to his patrol car, his fellow officers made racial slurs and cracked jokes about Colvin’s bra size. 1955, in general, would be a time of very rationalized fear of what white people could do at the time — in August, Emmett Till was infamously brutally murdered after allegedly menacing and being sexually crude to a white woman (which has now been revealed to have been a lie). Colvin feared that she would be raped.
The officers took her to City Hall where she was charged with misconduct, resisting arrest, and violating city segregation laws. Everyone knew what happened that night — her family, her pastor, and the whole community. The news would travel very fast and everyone was talking about Colvin’s decision, and mothers expressed a lot of concern about permitting their children on the bus. Men told their wives not to take the bus anymore.
Colvin would be found guilty in her trial. She sobbed in the courtroom despite remaining calm throughout the waiting period and trial, but her defiance reverberated throughout the country.
King Hill recognizes Claudette Colvin as the first
The people of King Hill remember her as a confident, studious young girl, who was rebellious without being boisterous. She loved to read, was deeply religious and intelligent.
Elders within the Black community did not see Colvin as a standard-bearer of the movement at the time — Gray, who was the lawyer for both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin, believed that Claudette Colvin would be a great test case — but the Black leadership in Montgomery thought they should wait.
The King Hill community saw the decision as ill-informed. As reported by Young:
“It was partly because of her color and because she was from the working poor,” says Gwen Patton, who has been involved in civil rights work in Montgomery since the early 60s. “She lived in a little shack. It was a case of ‘bourgey’ Blacks looking down on the working-class Blacks.”
Gloria Hardin, who went to school with Colvin, was on the bus with her, and still lives in King Hill today, said that “They never thought much of us, so there was no way they were going to run with us.” Colvin was also seen as foul-mouth and unruly — she would curse often and have immature outbursts, according to Douglas Brinkly, a biographer of Rosa Parks. But Colvin disputes the account:
“I never swore when I was young,” she says. “Never.”
* * *
Everyone, including Colvin, agrees that the news of her pregnancy caused the local Black leadership to abandon her as its standard-bearer. For Colvin, however, the episode was an act of statutory rape, describing that the conditions were very traumatic without disclosing details of the father’s name. She thought her mother was going to have a heart attack, and her father, if he knew, would have killed the man.
For Montgomery’s civil rights leaders, not only did Colvin’s tragedy become a liability, but it made her a very vulnerable standard-bearer and feared for what would have happened if her case gained more publicity.
“If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have [had] a field day,” said Rosa Parks. “They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance.”
Colvin was not the first nor the last important pioneer for the civil rights movement to be passed over. However, she was the first in Montgomery to take a stand against segregated bussing. Colvin doesn’t fit into our narrative of the civil rights movement like Rosa Parks has, but it is folly for us to demonize the civil rights movement and its leadership too.
The lesson for today is that publicity has a price and a very heavy one like that. In the civil rights movement, there was a whole lot at stake, and it’s natural to have wanted to play it safe with Rosa Parks being the one over Claudette Colvin — and let it be known that Rosa Parks taking a stand herself garnered the hatred of the segregated South and white supremacy too.
But Parks was a victim of the airbrushed distortion too, depicted as an “upstanding, unfortunate Everywoman” in the words of Younge. Rosa Parks had a track record of militancy and feminism, and while she appreciated Martin Luther King’s nonviolent resistance, she remained, until her death in 2005, a keen supporter of Malcolm X, and was constantly at odds with the sexism behind the civil rights movement. Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the right-hand man of MLK, would refer to Rosa Parks as a “tool” of the movement. ED Nixon, another prominent local Black activist, called Parks “lovely, stupid woman.”
Colvin would express much bewilderment and sadness for how she was treated by the civil rights movement:
“They just dropped me. None of them spoke to me; they didn’t see if I was okay. They never came and discussed it with my parents. They just didn’t want to know me.”
Colvin would say that it would have been different if she wasn’t pregnant, lived in a different place, and was light-skinned. If those things were different, they would have found someone for Colvin to marry.
Colvin, then, would be left in a very vulnerable situation — not only was she a single, poor, black teenage mother, but she had challenged the white establishment and was discarded from the Black one. Her son, Raymond, would be born light-skinned and Colvin would be ostracized because people thought the father was a white man, which Colvin denies.
She would have a hard life — she would have to drop out of school. She couldn’t find work in Montgomery because when white people found out who she was, they fired her. She changed her name to work at restaurants but her identity would be revealed. She would emerge from the political storm an outcast, and Colvin would grow aware of how the white establishment plays Black people against each other.
To this day, Colvin, however, believes that the movement was right to choose Rosa Parks as the standard-bearer:
“They picked the right person. They needed someone who could bring together all the classes. They wouldn’t have followed me. They wanted someone who would shake hands and go to banquets. They wanted someone they could control, and they knew, as a teenager, they couldn’t control me.”
Gwen Patton believes that although the civil rights movement made the right decision, the fact that they neglected Colvin’s contributions could not be excused. Rosa Parks could have said: “and there were others.” Colvin would move to New York in 1958 — and see a different kind of petty racism and institutionalized indignity in the North.
* * *
Memorials and entire museums would be devoted to Rosa Parks. But what about Claudette Colvin? Where is her credit? Where is her recognition, 65 years later? In her words, “what closure can there be for me?”
With protests of institutionalized racism and police brutality against Black Americans, today now is a more important time than ever to recognize the unrecognized actions and voices of the past, like Claudette Colvin, who made substantive change as example-setters.
And the obligation and onus are on us to raise awareness— there was someone who came before Rosa Parks, and her name was Claudette Colvin.
Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.
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Photo credit: Claudette Colvin — From The Visibility Project on the Public Domain