By: Dani Kessel
In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to write posts recognizing noteworthy, inspirational girls and women from both the past and present. These folks deserve attention/name recognition any time of the year, but Women’s History Month allows me to spotlight them in a time where more people will listen.
If there are any requests for me to write about specific individuals, let me know in the comments below. I will try my best to get to them all!
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, there was Claudette Colvin. After an exhausting day at school, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin and three of her friends hopped on the bus to go home. When a white person got on, the bus driver demanded the four girls move from their seats. The others stood up, but Colvin stayed where she was. She’d been studying Black history in school and felt moved by previous women’s gumption. The bus driver started screaming; she stuck to her conviction though. So far as she was concerned, she paid her fare and had every right to sit there.
Later, she expressed that, in the moment, “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder, and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other–saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.”
Police aggressively arrested her, taking her to an adult facility instead of a juvenile center. She cried and prayed in the back of the cop car as they drove her off to jail. Soon after being bailed out, she and her mother approached the NAACP for legal defense. While fighting back, the community had to take turns as a community watch. Her father even stayed on the porch all night with his gun to stave off any KKK who’d dare come around
The outcome of this action?
Claudette Colvin became the first person to fight through the courts against the Montgomery bus segregation.
Joining in on a class-action lawsuit, she went down in history as one of the four (originally five before one dropped out due to societal pressure) plaintiffs in the Browder vs. Gayle Supreme Court case. They won the case on the precedent of Brown vs. the Board of Education. After the victory, the Black American community of Montogomery vacated their 381-day boycott in order to integrate the buses.
With all of that in mind, why do most of us not know Claudette Colvin’s name? Rosa Parks became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott instead, but why?
Though Claudette Colvin was initially considered, the boycott organizers decided that she was not the ideal candidate for a few different reasons. Firstly, she was 15-years-old and still in school. Secondly, because she was outspoken and resisted arrest, she was marked by many as being too militant, aggressive, out of control. Lastly, a couple of months after being released from jail, she became pregnant out of wedlock. The organizers at the NAACP did not think they could get the conservative, mostly-religious Black community in Montgomery to rally around a young, loud, unwed, uneducated, pregnant girl as the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks actually knew each other though. Parks was the secretary of the NAACP and helped run the NAACP Youth Council that Colvin was involved in. As Colvin was going through her legal battle, Parks followed along with the case. It’s strongly believed that Colvin was the inspiration for Parks’ refusal to give up her seat.
Parks was well-read, soft-spoken, older, married, and already heavily involved in the NAACP, so she became the right face of the Mongomery Bus Boycott when she peacefully resisted the unjust request for her to move.
Unfortunately, this meant that Colvin’s actions were largely overlooked and forgotten.
We can change that though!
We can take a moment to recognize Claudette Colvin as the brave, steadfast, inspirational girl she was. She showed conviction even in the face of adversity. I believe every young girl can look at her and see a teenage girl who put what was right ahead of what was easy. And I believe adults can learn from her story that adolescents and teens are capable of making a bigger impact than we realize. We don’t give them enough credit. We need to listen to their voices.