Very few people know of the story of Claudette Colvin during the time of segregation. When Claudette was 15 years old, born September 5, 1939, she reused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat for a white person, nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing.
Many people know Ms. Rosa Parks as the Civil Rights Activist for the her Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott for refusing to give up her seat and move to the back for a white person. The bus boycott that began in 1955, and as Rosa Parks became the face for this boycott, many aren’t aware that she was not the first.
Colvin was the first to really challenge the law, but unfortunately, the NAACP did not want to use Claudette Colvin as the face to represent the organization because she was a 15 year old girl and pregnant.
“On March 2, 1955, after taking the bus home from high school, the bus driver ordered Colvin to get up and she refused, saying she’d paid her fare and it was her constitutional right. Two police officers put her in handcuffs and arrested her. Her school books went flying off her lap.”
“All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily,” Colvin says.
After Colvin’s arrest, she found herself shunned by parts of her community. She experienced many difficulties and became pregnant. Civil rights leaders felt she was an inappropriate representation for a test case.
As sourced from an article in NPR. “It was Negro history month, and at her segregated school they had been studying Black leaders like Harriet Tubman, the formerly enslaved Africans who led more than 70 enslaved Africans to freedom through the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. They were also studying about Sojourner Truth, a former enslaved African who became an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.”
“The class had also been talking about the injustices they were experiencing daily under the Jim Crow segregation laws, like not being able to eat at a lunch counter.”
“We couldn’t try on clothes,” Colvin says. “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.”
When asked Claudette was asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look and that “her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” says Colvin. “She fit that profile.”
Colvin has often said she is not angry that she did not get more recognition; rather, she is disappointed. She said she felt as if she was “getting [her] Christmas in January rather than the 25th.”
I don’t think there’s room for many more icons. I think that history only has room enough for certain—you know, how many icons can you choose? So, you know, I think you compare history, like—most historians say Columbus discovered America, and it was already populated. But they don’t say that Columbus discovered America; they should say, for the European people, that is, you know, their discovery of the new world.— Claudette Colvin
Celebrating 82 Years Old, Claudette Colvin, The Woman Before Rosa Parks was originally published on classixphilly.com