Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Black History Month: Claudette Colvin, Remembering the Women Who Came Before Rosa Parks

Sitting for Equality – Claudette Colvin

On December 1, 1955, a woman, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white person. This act ignited a spark in the American Civil Rights movement, leading to boycotts of the busses and demands to an end of racial segregation. But everyone knows about Rosa Parks and her famous refusal! But, do you know about the woman who came before Rosa? About the other women who refused to give up their seats?

Claudette Colvin was born on September 5, 1939. She lived in a poorer section of Montgomery, Alabama. By 1955, Claudette attended Booker T. Washington High School, where she excelled. Claudette was a dreamer – she wanted to be President someday! Coincidentally, by March 2, 1955, Claudette was learning about the civil rights movement in school. She had just written a paper about the local customs at department stores. People of color were not allowed to try on clothes or shoes. They were not allowed in the stores’ dressing rooms.

It was this paper she was thinking about on her bus ride home on March 2, 1955. It was her only way home from school, as her parents did not have a car. Claudette sat in the colored section of the bus. But the white section filled up, forcing a white woman to stand. The bus driver told Claudette, along with two other black girls to move and allow the white woman to sit. Claudette refused saying, “It’s my constitutional right to sit her as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.”

Nine months before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus, all the while proclaiming that her constitutional right was being violated. Claudette later said that she “felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down and one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other – saying ‘Sit down girl!’” Claudette also said she “was glued to [her] seat.”

Claudette, a 15-year-old girl was terrified after being arrested. She was released after her minister paid her bail. So why didn’t Claudette’s brave stand ignite the Civil Rights movement? The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People did consider using her case to challenge the segregation laws, but ultimately decided against it because of her youth. Claudette also became pregnant around the time of her arrest. As a teen, unwed mother, the Association thought that she would attract too much negative attention.

Even in the days before the internet, the court of public opinion had already ruled. The once quiet, straight A student was deemed a troublemaker. She was forced to drop out of college and it became impossible to find a job due to her reputation. She eventually moved to New York City, where she worked as a nurse’s aide in a Manhattan nursing home until 2004.

Claudette never did become President, nor did she regret her actions that day. She was proud of what she did and of her part in starting the Cilvil Rights Movement. Claudette went on to partake in the lawsuit which challenged the constitutionality of Montgomery’s segregated bus system. On December 20, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States ordered Montgomery and Alabama to end bus segregation.

During the month of February, Black History Month, we must remember to look back at incidents such as these. As uncomfortable as remembering these events may be, they are part of our history as Americans. To move forward in the present, we must remember the past, but not dwell in it, and, if possible, right the wrongs that have been made.

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