Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks.
–Fred Gray, Alabama civil rights attorney
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same and was arrested for violating segregation law, disorderly conduct, and assault.
Colvin found that she was fully prepared for her act of civil disobedience. At Booker T. Washington High School that month she and her classmates had been studying African American history.
Later Colvin would reminisce: “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.”
The Montgomery Women’s Political Council was responsible for initiating the successful 381-day bus boycott. David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross, reminds us that civil rights activists were “often young people and often more than 50 percent women.”
Even Rosa Parks complained about sexism in the movement and the tendency for the black men in suits to take credit for all the victories.
A bus boycott had been on the minds of black leaders for some time, but they decided that Parks, rather than Colvin, was the person who would be the best symbol of the boycott.
These are some of the reasons why civil rights leaders decided not to appeal her conviction:
·She was thought to be emotional, unstable, and therefore unreliable.
·She wore her hair in cornrows and refused to straighten it as most black women did.
·She became pregnant early in 1956 in what she said was a non-consensual relationship.
With the support of the 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black leaders, Colvin and three other women did file suit against the city of Montgomery. In May of 1956 they gave testimony and in December of the same year the Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that the Montgomery bus system violated African American constitutional rights.
Interviewed recently Colvin said: “I’m not disappointed. Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation.”
In his book “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” Phillip Hoose claims that “it would be impossible to tell the story of the civil-rights movement without Claudette. Rosa Parks has to scoot over a little bit.”
On the day of her arrest Colvin had just turned in a paper about her people not being allowed to try on clothes at Montgomery stores. This reminded me of the doctrine of untouchability, which is still, despite laws against it, followed by tens of millions of Indians.
In Hoose’s book Colvin remembers an incident in which, as a four-year-old, she allowed a white boy to touch her. With the white mother nodding her approval, Colvin’s mother slapped her in the face and shouted “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to touch them?”
As a disgraced unwed mother, rejected by blacks and whites, Colvin fled to New York to find work. Working as a domestic, she was shocked when the lady of the house piled her dirty clothes on top of hers and asked her to wash them together.
Colvin remembers her feelings: “That’s when I knew I was out of the South. That could just never have happened there.”
Let me conclude with Colvin’s most recent experience of great hope for America: “Being dragged off that bus was worth it just to see Barack Obama become president, because so many others gave their lives and didn’t get to see it, and I thank God for letting me see it.”
Nick Gier taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Listen to or read all his columns at www.NickGier.com