As part of Black History Month, many of us celebrate the contributions and achievements of those with African and Caribbean heritage. It is a time where we focus on and honour Black people that have made differences in our lives today. One of those people is Claudette Colvin. Izzy Rodney writes about the first African American woman who refused to give up her seat in 1955 and why her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement have been overshadowed by other activists.
So who is Claudette Colvin?
Many of you have probably never heard of Claudette Colvin before or may have only heard her name in passing. However, it is important that we know who she is: Claudette Colvin was the first African American to refuse to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman at the age of fifteen.
On 2nd March 1955, Colvin was boarding the after-school bus and was asked to vacate her seat by the bus driver for a white standing passenger. Colvin refused and as a result of this she was forcibly dragged off the bus by two white police officers whilst shouting that “It’s my constitutional right.” to stay where she was seated. She was then arrested for violating segregation laws, disturbing the peace and assaulting a police officer. She pleaded not guilty, but was convicted. It was only until a while later that two of the charges were dropped on appeal.
“People think it was just about a seat on a bus but it was about so much more than that […] it was about history”
In her affidavit, she outlines the struggles she faced as an young African American teenager, such as having to avoid her white schoolmates in school and on the bus simply because she feared for her life and future. Colvin highlights that “People think it was just about a seat on a bus but it was about so much more than that. It was about my constitutional rights. It was about history. It was about injustices that I personally witnessed every day.”
For Colvin, in that moment she no longer feared death. It was no longer about fighting for a seat but instead it was a fight for justice – for the justice of her neighbourhood friend Jermaine (who had been sentenced to death after being accused of raping a white woman) but also for all African Americans.
It was Rosa Parks went on to be known as ‘the First Lady of the Civil Rights movement’
What’s so interesting about this story is that nine months after Colvin’s arrest, Rosa Parks was arrested for violating Alabama’s racial segregation laws after she also refused to give up her seat to a white man on the bus. It was this which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And it was Rosa Parks went on to be known as ‘the First Lady of the Civil Rights movement’.
Whilst Rosa Parks is one of the most famous and influential activists within the Civil Rights movement, Colvin’s story was expunged. It took until nearly forty years later for her role within the movement to be properly credited. She was also one of the four women to challenge and overturn Montgomery’s segregated bus laws in Browder v. Gayle at the Supreme Court, but still isn’t widely recognized today for her courage.
So why is this?
Colvin stated that Civil Rights leaders didn’t see her as an appropriate symbol for the movement. In an interview with The Washington Post in March 2020, she argued that her story was overlooked because “Rosa Parks had the right background and the right skin colour.” She also says that she was ostracised by Martin Luther King Jr due to a number of reasons such as “her age, her gender, her darker skin tone and the fact that a few months later she would become pregnant out of wedlock.”
Her story was lost and overlooked for many years
Colvin later struggled to find a job in Alabama as she was now referred to as ‘that girl from the bus’ so many bosses refused to employ her. She resided in Alabama for five more years and then moved to New York where she lived in a community of Jamaican women. For decades, her story went untold. Colvin avoided telling her community because she feared they would not understand her struggles, having lived in a different state that had no segregation law. Her story was lost and overlooked for many years.
Claudette Colvin now acknowledges her role in the Civil Rights era and embraces her role as a “pivotal player in the struggle for racial equality.” For Colvin, it didn’t matter that she wasn’t the face of the movement but rather that they were all seeking one thing – justice. She has now had her records expunged so that not only is her name cleared but also future generations know that progress and change is possible and she will inspire the world to become a better place.
The story of Claudette Colvin is important- not only giving her the recognition and honouring that she deserves as a key person within in the Civil Rights movement, but also showing the need to fight for change. No matter what race, age, sex, gender you are, no one should be subjected to discrimination or inequality.
Featured image courtesy of Hobi industri via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.
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