I bet you have heard of Rosa Parks. Did you know that nine months before the world got to know Rosa Parks, there was a 15-year-old African American student who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded bus in Montgomery? That young woman was Claudette Colvin.
On March 2, 1955, she was sitting in the front part of the then-designated “colored” section of a public bus. As the bus got more crowded, the bus driver demanded that Claudette and three other Black women move to the back. The other three moved, but Colvin stayed in her seat. Police were called, and Claudette was forcibly arrested. She later recalled, “History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other.” She did not submit to arrest quietly. She shouted that it was her “constitutional right.” Later, she noted, “Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one.”
February is Black History Month, and I will note that no group should only have one month to celebrate its history. The history of Black Americans, along with other racial and ethnic groups, is composed of important stories that students at Colorado Academy and ALL American citizens should know and recognize year-round. Our history as Americans is interconnected, and if we don’t recognize that, we will fail as a nation. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “The fundamental rule in our national life—the rule which underlies all others—is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.” As America becomes more multicultural, understanding the effect white supremacy has had on society and what civil rights heroes have done, and continue to do, to dismantle racism is fundamental in education. So, let’s dig into this history by learning more about Claudette Colvin and the extraordinary and courageous action made when she was only in high school.
What motivated Claudette Colvin?
After her arrest, the police drove Claudette to a juvenile facility. On the ride, the police sexually harassed her and physically intimidated her. She recalled, “I was thinking…now I’m gonna be picking cotton, since that’s how they punished juveniles—they put you in a school out in the country, where they made you do field work during the day.” She also repeatedly said the Lord’s Prayer. Claudette was charged with disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws, and assaulting a police offer. Witnesses denied she assaulted the arresting officers. Nevertheless, she was convicted on all three charges. Claudette was represented by Civil Rights attorney Fred Gray of the Montgomery Improvement Association. When he appealed the conviction, the segregation and disturbing the peace charges were dropped, but not the assault charge.
What motivated Claudette? She was part of the NAACP Youth Council and had been learning about key figures in Black history at Booker T. Washington High School. But, it was witnessing what happened to an older schoolmate, Jeremiah Reeves, that drove her to take a stand. When he was 16, Reeves had been caught having sex with a white woman. Despite his insistence that it was consensual, he was convicted and eventually executed for rape. Reeves claimed that he was forced to sit on Alabama’s electric chair until he confessed. Despite appeal efforts and national attention, Reeves was executed when he was 22.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said after his death: “It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence. But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.”
Parks, Colvin, and the women who created change
So why are more Americans more familiar with Rosa Parks’s name than Claudette Colvin’s? Fred Gray worked with Colvin and four other Black women to challenge Alabama’s segregation laws as unconstitutional. The case, Browder vs. Gayle, eventually went to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ordered Alabama to end segregation on public buses. During the first trial, Colvin was still defiant. She recalled, “I kept saying, ‘He has no civil right…this is my constitutional right…you have no right to do this.’ And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person.”
Rosa Parks also was defiant in her brave action. After her arrest, Civil Rights leaders, who had been looking for months to mount broader action against segregation, felt that Parks, as a middle-aged woman, would project a better image, as they challenged Alabama’s segregation laws in court. Claudette has noted: “[S]he was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.” Parks was also secretary for the NAACP, and, as historian David Garrow observes, had a “natural gravitas.” While Parks’s case languished in state courts, Browder vs. Gayle was decided more quickly and was directly responsible for ending segregation on buses.
Garrow also notes, “The real reality of the movement was often young people and often more than 50 percent women.” There tends to be a focus in the popular history on the men of the Civil Rights movement, who were often giving speeches and leading marches. However, we could point to the Little Rock Nine, Ruby Bridges, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker to see the impact that young people and, in particular, African American women, had on the Civil Rights movement. When her minister bailed her out of jail, he said to Claudette, “I’m so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We’ve all been praying and praying. But you’re different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.”