Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus at age 15.
American kids all grow up learning the name Rosa Parks. She’s an iconic activist in the Black Freedom Movement (AKA the Civil Rights Movement), and her arrest for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white patron is considered the spark that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks has even earned a spot in Washington, D.C.’s Statuary Hall, where she is the only woman of color to have a statue erected in her honor.
Yet, there are a multitude of forgotten women who have made valiant sacrifices in the ongoing struggle for equal access to political and social freedom. One name few people learn in school is Claudette Colvin. Claudette Colvin, like Parks, was a warrior for justice during the Black Freedom Movement. On March 2, 1955, the then 15-year-old Colvin paid her fare and sat down in a designated “whites only” seat on a Montgomery bus. More white passengers boarded the bus, so Colvin knew the bus driver would soon ask her to move to the “colored” section of the bus where she’d be forced to stand if there were no seats available.
Colvin decided that she would not voluntarily leave her seat, or the bus. She’d just spent the majority of her school day learning about other justice warriors, like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and she felt their presence as she prepared for an inevitable battle with the bus driver and police officers. She was tired of living in a segregated South that regarded people of color as subservient. Colvin explained the indignities of everyday life in the South in an interview with National Public Radio:
“We couldn't try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot … and take it to the store. Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of Black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn't get up.”
Colvin was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws, and assaulting a police officer. Her unjust arrest garnered the attention of activists throughout the South, including Parks, who was a secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Montgomery. Local leaders rallied around Colvin, and began strategizing ways to use her arrest to galvanize their forthcoming bus boycott. Their plan was to use Colvin’s arrest as the foundation for a Supreme Court case that could be used to upend segregation laws. She, alongside Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith, were the plaintiffs in the landmark Browder v. Gayle case. Browder v. Gayle was the U.S. Supreme Court, case that upturned bus segregation laws across the United States. Yet, Colvin doesn’t have a statue on the National Mall, and her contributions to the Black Freedom Movement are vastly unknown. Several factors—including colorism—prevented Colvin from being touted as a martyr for the Black Freedom Movement, as Parks would later be.
The bus Rosa Parks was riding before she was arrested is now on display in the Henry Ford museum.
Soon after Colvin was arrested and released, local leaders discovered that she was pregnant, and the father of her unborn child was married to another woman. Immediately, local leaders began questioning if Colvin could be the face of the bus boycott because her “moral transgression would not only scandalize the deeply religious black community, but also make Colvin suspect in the eyes of sympathetic whites,” according to the Congress of Racial Equality. During this time, victims of injustice had to appear unimpeachable.
Perceived chinks in their moral compass would be lambasted in mainstream media, and would undermine their credibility as victims. Mary Louise Smith was also a teenager in Montgomery, Ala. who was arrested for refusing to move to another bus seat. She, like Colvin, was considered as a potential martyr, but was also discarded when local leaders discovered that her father was an alcoholic.
Rosa Parks fit the mold. She was respectable. She was a seamstress who appeared meek, quiet and frail. She was married, and considered the pinnacle of good Blackness. Parks also had a lighter-complexion, which came with benefits, such as appearing less threatening to whites.
“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” Colvin explained in an interview with NPR. “She fit that profile.”
Sexism also contributed to Colvin’s erasure from the Black Freedom Movement. Few women from the movement are celebrated, or even recognized, for their sacrifices. I am a Black feminist media scholar and writer, and even I wasn’t introduced to Colvin or her immense sacrifices until I read At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance, historian Danielle L. McGuire’s exploration into how the rapes of Black women was the true catalyst for the Black Freedom Movement. Even in the case of Parks, who has been celebrated and commemorated, erasure is still omnipresent. Outside of inclusive historians, most disregard Parks’ extensive service as an activist both before and after her arrest.
Claudette Colvin isn’t bitter that she’s unsung because there are other Black Americans who’ve also experienced historical shunning. Instead, she is concerned with broadening the perception of what the historical Black Freedom Movement was, and why it wasn’t just the efforts of Rosa Parks that led to the passing of legislation.
“Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Colvin said to the New York Times. “Maybe by telling my story—something I was afraid to do for a long time—kids will have a better understanding about what the Civil Rights Movement was about.”
And that is the reason we must continue shouting Claudette Colvin’s name whenever possible.
Evette Dionne is a race and culture writer whose work has been published at the New York Times, The Root, and a multitude of other digital and print publications.