The world took notice in December of 1955 when a black woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman.
Yet, while Ms. Parks went on to come a civil rights icon, she was not the first person to make such a protest. That singular honor belonged to a brave 15-year-old from Montgomery who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat named Claudette Colvin. Arguably this woman, ignored by history, is responsible for sparking the Civil Rights movement.
Colvin and three other black women were riding the bus home from school on March 2, 1955. The bus was so crowded that the black passengers had to ride in the “white only” seats. As other passengers boarded, black riders were supposed to move to the back and stand so whites could sit down. A white woman boarded the bus and the driver ordered the black women, one of them pregnant, to move.
Both Colvin and Ruth Hamilton, the pregnant woman, refused. The driver got the police who convinced a black man in the back to stand so Mrs. Hamilton could sit. Colvin, however, refused and was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested. According to Colvin, the entire way to the police station, the white officers harassed the 15-year-old about the size of her breasts.
Colvin was convicted in court later for disturbing the peace, violating segregation law, and assault.
The Montgomery NAACP was looking for a test case to challenge the city’s laws, but ultimately decided Colvin was not the ideal subject.
“Some black leaders believed she was too young, and too dark-skinned to be an effective symbol of injustice for the rest of the nation. Then, as local civil rights leaders continued to debate whether her case was worth contesting, that summer came the news that Colvin was pregnant — by a married man,”according to CORE. She was also seen as too “feisty” to be an adequate symbol of the bus boycott.
Colvin was a member of the NAACP’s youth council and was longtime friends with the NAACP’s secretary, Rosa Parks. Parks was inspired by her bravery and Colvin would often spend the night at Parks’s home. Later, after Parks became a civil rights icon, she tried to share the spotlight with the woman who inspired her. Colvin would have none of it.
“You have to realize that our family never talked much about what happened to Claudette,” Colvin’s sisterGloria Laster said, “Part of it was fear. But part of it was Rosa. Our mother always felt that as long as Rosa Parks was breathing, she’s the mother of the civil rights movement, and we shouldn’t say anything to take away from that.”
Yet, if Parks is the mother of the movement, there’s no question that Martin Luther King, Jr. is its father. Only without Claudette Colvin, Martin Luther King, Jr. would be some southern preacher you’d never have heard about.
Everyone can recall when Dr. King announced that the Montgomery Bus Boycott had ended because of the Supreme Court ruling that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Only what brought him to Alabama in the first place was a commission convened to look into Colvin’s case.
Also, while Colvin was not chosen to the be the face of the movement, she and five other people arrested for not giving up their seats on the bus (not one of whom was Rosa Parks) were the plaintiffs in the court case that led to the Supreme Court ruling.
What do you think? Had you heard of Claudette Colvin before?