During my undergraduate studies, I became deeply immersed in the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period along with Jim Crow laws, where the wrongs from both eras birthed the monumental Civil Rights Movement. The accounts from former slaves and their descendants captivated me to choose history as my minor. I craved more and more black narratives after enduring the cliff note's version of American history from the previous 12 years of my education. In high school, I felt robbed by the whitewashed history books placed in front of me.
Finally, I had professors who were invested in sharing the untold stories and the ugly truths of American history.
My parents, both Civil Rights babies as I like to call them, did their best to give me a real-life perspective through their eyes. My maternal grandmother, the daughter of a slave, shared experiences where she was reduced to a second-class citizen. In their fascinating stories, I never heard a mention of the name Claudette Colvin. Either they had forgotten her like the rest of society or didn't know her at all.
I was first introduced to Colvin in a modern Civil Rights Movement class during my junior year of undergrad. Even then, my professor seemed to gloss over the name.
Rosa Parks forever has a timestamp on our hearts as the black woman arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. We're told she was tired both physically and mentally from the mistreatment brought on by the wicked laws in the South. The back of the bus was reserved for black passengers but on this day in December 1955, Rosa wouldn't budge. This one act became a domino effect to equality followed by the bus boycott and the slow death of Jim Crow laws. But surely Mrs. Parks was not the first woman or black person tired of being pushed to the back of the bus. Of course not.
She was the perfect figure deployed by the NAACP. But again, she was not the first.
Claudette Colvin was first in line, nine months prior. At age 15, Colvin was asked to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to accommodate a white passenger. She refused and yelled in protest, "It's my constitutional right!". The teen was then yanked off the bus and jailed.
Her story is outlined in the book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. She details the long, agonizing ride in the back of the police car where she feared for her life.
"All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me "nigger bitch" and cracked jokes about parts of my body. I recited the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm over and over in my head, trying to push back the fear. I assumed they were taking me to juvenile court because I was only fifteen. 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."
Soon, she wound up in a jail cell at an adult facility for a few hours before her release. In the book, Colvin says she feared for her life more than ever that night as the Klan was notorious for lynchings. It was a restless night. She recalled her family staying up all night while her father held a shotgun in his hand.
By October 1955, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith refused her seat as did Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald in earlier months. All before Parks.
Her standalone bus protest wouldn't be Claudette Colvin's final act of bravery. The following year, Colvin and the three aforementioned women became plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle. This monumental case overturned local bus segregation laws in Montgomery and the state of Alabama. Colvin's young courage sent shockwaves throughout the city, but in December, Rosa Parks' similar act became a national phenomenon.
After her refusal to give up her seat, Colvin became pregnant. The NAACP and Civil Rights leaders felt as though an unwed teen mother was not fitting to become the face of their upcoming Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks was 42 and a member of the local NAACP chapter. The rest is black history with Colvin M.I.A. from the story.
For years, Claudette kept her story under wraps while being mistreated and shunned from much of the community, eventually leaving the South and settling in New York. At age 77, Colvin is alive and well. She is also more open these days to share her experiences.
In a 2009 interview with NPR, Colvin was asked the question that continues to riddle historians and everyday Civil Rights champions. Why is Rosa Parks the bus boycott icon and not her?
She attributed this to age and physical features to Parks' notoriety. "Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class," Colvin said. "She fit that profile."
Colvin became the focus of a Drunk History sketch on Comedy Central in 2014 pointing out colorism associated with the teen.
We're living in a time where black women are finally celebrated as heroes through modern storytelling. American history books continue to erase not just the Hidden Figures of NASA but the women who were once on the front lines for justice. They didn't receive similar fame as icons like Shirley Chisholm and Rosa Parks, however, their stories are just as credible and crucial to our advancement. The legacy of Claudette Colvin and women of her stature should never go unrecognized.
A young girl in the 1950's recognized her own strength and risked her life for a seat that was rightfully hers. Teenagers of that time like George Stinney and Emmett Till were not as fortunate to live fulfilled lives or witness progress in the South. Claudette Colvin is a national treasure. Celebrate her now and forever.