Claudette Colvin: An Unsung Hero in Black History

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By Mikala McCurry
Associate Journalist

Claudette Colvin, a civil rights activist in Montgomery, Alabama, took a stand against injustice. At a young age, she knew that inequality was wrong and chose to make a stand against it. She paved the way for many civil rights movements including the actions of Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the overturning of the public bus segregation law. Although Colvin had a tremendous impact on civil rights, many people have never heard of her.

Claudette Colvin, born on September 5, 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama, was a feisty and determined young black woman that refused to let her circumstances define her. Although she grew up in a poor neighborhood, Claudette Colvin had big dreams to make it out and become a lawyer. She studied hard at Booker T. Washington High School and received mostly A’s. The subject that interested her the most was history, specifically black history. Colvin listened intently during the month of February to the lessons about some of her icons, including Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. She dreamed of having an opportunity to make a difference in society like these women.

Soon enough, her day to make a difference came. On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin boarded the public city bus with three of her friends. She knew that the first ten rows were reserved for whites only, so she and her friends found a long seat in the back of the bus that all four of them could sit on. As the bus began to fill, black people gave up their seats. The bus driver saw that Claudette and her three friends were still seated, so he asked them to get up. All of Claudette’s friends moved, but she remained seated. She knew that today would be the day that she stood up for herself by keeping her seat. Claudette Colvin said that the history of oppression towards black people is what kept her glued to her seat. When asked to move again by the bus driver, Claudette exclaimed “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady!”

At age 15, Claudette Colvin was dragged from a city bus and arrested on numerous charges, including assault and battery, disorderly conduct, and defying segregation laws. Instead of being taken to a juvenile detention center, Colvin was booked into an adult jail. Although she was not given the opportunity to make a phone call, Claudette’s classmates notified her mother of the incident; she, along with the minister from church, came to the county jail and bailed Colvin out.

Claudette Colvin was found guilty on all three charges but was able to get two of the charges dropped; she still received probation for assaulting an officer, even though the officers had no proof of her alleged attack. Many people believed that Colvin got off easy and should have kept quiet about the incident, but Claudette wanted to fight back. She hired Fred Gray, one of the two black lawyers in Montgomery, to aide her in her conquest.

After deliberating with members of the NAACP, Fred Gray decided that Claudette Colvin should wait to fight the justice system. The NAACP did not believe that Colvin’s case would make an impact as the headline of the civil rights campaign for many reasons.

The leaders of the black community knew that using Colvin as the subject of the movement for justice would not be effective because of her circumstances. Claudette Colvin was a poor, dark-skinned, highly opinionated fifteen year old child whose mother was a maid and father was a lawn mower. She was also impregnated by an older, married man shortly after the bus incident occurred. The NAACP feared that using Claudette Colvin as an example would make a mockery of the movement.

Although Claudette Colvin’s arrest occurred nine months prior to the arrest of Rosa Parks, the leaders of the NAACP chose to use Rosa Parks as the main symbol for the civil rights movement and the Montgomery Bus Boycott because she fit the profile of a respectable icon in the movement. She was a light-skinned, gentle, adult woman that held a position of honor in the NAACP and was part of the middle class.

Even though Claudette Colvin was not widely recognized for her courageous deed, her actions were not in vain. A year after her arrest, Claudette Colvin was called as a key witness in the Browder v. Gayle case, which ruled the segregation of public transportation as unconstitutional.

Today at age 78, Claudette Colvin resides in New York City as a retired nurse. When asked about her feelings on the situation, Colvin agrees that Rosa Parks was a better face for the civil rights movement than she. Although she is highly underrated, Claudette Colvin prides herself on the fact that she was able to not only spark a movement, but partake in the trial that changed society by overturning the law of segregation on public city buses.

All rights reserved, Gumptown Magazine. Copyright 2017. 

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