It’s that time of the year! Teachers will rent the “Our Friend, Martin” DVD and dust off their posters of Rosa Parks and Malcolm X for display. If individuals are lucky, they will be filled with rich history for the next 29 days….well that is if they added the African American History class as an elective (because it only has a small space in the core curriculum history book). So this month, I’m feeling like “each one, teach one.” I plan to touch base on what they don’t teach you about Black History.
This is Claudette Colvin. She was born September 5, 1939 adopted by C.P. Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin in Montgomery, Alabama. Claudette was a very ambitious girl, aspiring to one day be the President. She was also a member of the NAACP Youth Council. She attended the segregated Booker T. Washington High School, relying on city buses to get to and from school because her parents didn’t own a car. On March the 2, 1955 Claudette Colvin was returning home from school and got on Capitol Heights bus downtown. She was sitting about two seats from the emergency exit in the “colored” section. If the bus became too crowded in the “whites” seats, and a Caucasian was standing; African Americans were supposed to leave their seats and move to the back and stand. When a Caucasian woman was left standing bus driver, Robert W. Cleere commanded Colvin and three other black women to move to the back. The other three women moved but a pregnant African American woman, Ruth Hamilton sat beside Claudette Colvin. Looking through his mirror, the bus driver asked them both to get up and move to the back. Mrs. Hamilton claimed she paid her fare and didn’t feel like moving, Colvin said the same and remained seated. The bus driver then told them “If you are not going to get up, I will get a policeman.” The police arrived and convinced an African American man to get up and so he stood in the back, allowing Ruth Hamilton to sit in what was once his seat. Colvin still sat there unbothered and not moved. Since Colvin refused to get up, she was forcibly moved and arrested by policeman Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley where she was ridiculed and called racial slurs the entire ride.
These events took place 8 months before NAACP Secretary Rosa Parks was arrested for the same offense. So why wasn’t Colvin taught about? Many reasons have been offered over the years. She was too dark-skinned, too young, her family stayed in a poor area. Her bravery was completely overlooked. With the thought to take the incident to court, it was when Colvin became pregnant by an older married man months later that the decision was made. Civil Rights leaders felt that she would not be able to handle the scrutiny required for a legal case. Colvin’s mother even told her to be quiet about what she did. To “let Rosa be the one, white people aren’t going to bother Rosa, she’s lighter than you and they like her.”
When Colvin refused to give up her seat, she mentioned thinking about a paper that she had written that day about the ridiculous measures African Americans had to take to get what they needed. Like not being allowed try on shoes in stores. Instead African Americans had to do things like take a brown bag and draw a diagram of their foot, then take it to the store. They couldn’t even eat at lunch counters and Colvin was fed up.
“Ultimately, Colvin joined Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith as a plaintiff in a suit challenging Montgomery’s segregated public transportation system, a case known as Browder v. Gayle. On June 19, 1956, a three-judge panel ruled that Montgomery segregation codes “deny and deprive plaintiffs and other Negro citizens similarly situated of the equal protection of the laws and due process of law secured by the 14th Amendment.” The U.S. Supreme Court would use this case to strike down bus segregation on December 21, 1956.”
Colvin now lives in New York City, after leaving Alabama in 1958. She eventually received the recognition she rightfully deserved and is now retired. With all of that being said, the next time you see a park, school highway or road named after Rosa Parks; think about Claudette Colvin. Her own bravery and sacrifice changed this country too.