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A Forgotten Civil Rights Hero: Claudette Colvin

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In 1956, a 15-year-old girl refused to stand on a bus and helped blaze the path for others.

Claudette Colvin at 15. Photo Credit: NPR

On Dec. 20, 1956, after a crushing year long boycott, numerous court cases and national attention, the Montgomery Alabama bus system was finally integrated.

The very next day, Martin Luther King Jr. became one of the first passengers to ride on the newly integrated bus system, sitting in the previously prohibited "white section" near the front of the bus. This well known segregation and ensuing boycott are closely associated with one name from the civil rights movement - Rosa Parks. While her contribution to the civil rights fight is rightly recognized and celebrated, I would like to introduce you to the original person who refused to give up her seat and was arrested for it - Claudette Colvin.

On March 2, 1955, a full nine months before Rosa Parks' famous arrest, Claudette Colvin was dragged off of a Montgomery bus by two police officers, arrested and taken to an adult jail to be booked. She was only 15 years old and was the first person to be arrested for defying the bus segregation in Montgomery.

[sharequote align="center"]If a skinny 15-year-old girl with glasses can make ripples that big, then why can't you?[/sharequote]

Her arrest and her story has long since been forgotten, but it provided a spark to the black community in Montgomery which ultimately led to Rosa Parks, the bus boycott, and a Supreme Court ruling which ended the segregation on buses.

Throughout the month of February, the students at the segregated Booker T. Washington high school, where Claudette was a junior, had been learning black history. Giants like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were held up as courageous leaders who had effected change and fought for the civil rights of blacks. Inspired by that history and empowered by those courageous women, Claudette Colvin found herself refusing to do what so many other blacks had been forced to do before - give up her seat.

"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."

Claudette Colvin at 15. Photo Credit: NPR Claudette Colvin at 15. Photo Credit: NPR

After spending several hours in jail, her minister bailed her out and she returned to her family, scared about possible retribution for her defiance. Black church leaders and the NAACP, of which she was a member, saw this as the possible flash point for change, for protest and for a movement to end the segregation.

But after considering whether to use her case to be the one to challenge the segregation laws in court, those leaders ultimately decided against it.

Why? Claudette was too young, too feisty, too dark skinned and had recently become pregnant by an older married man. Considering the social norms of that time, there was no way this young, unmarried and newly pregnant girl could be the face of the movement to end segregation.

Life after the arrest was not easy for Claudette. She returned to her high school, pregnant, and was often mocked by her own classmates for what she had done and the attention it drew to her. She went from a fairly quiet and studious girl to a rebellious trouble-maker who was losing a lot of friends and often felt like she had done something wrong, a regrettable but common consequence of standing up for what is right. But it was that determination and conviction about the righteousness of equality that would make the real difference.

Civil Rights leaders meet with President Lyndon Johnson. Civil Rights leaders meet with President Lyndon Johnson.

While Rosa Parks and the NAACP began the fight against segregation in the public view, the civil fight in the courts had also begun. On Feb. 1, 1956, a mere two months after Rosa Parks was arrested, Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed suit in a federal district court, challenging the laws that required segregation on the Montgomery buses. Plaintiffs for this lawsuit, however, were hard to come by as it would put that person in real danger and could possibly get them killed.

But as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman had told young Claudette to stay seated on that bus, they now told her to stand up. Claudette, at only 16 years old, served as one of only four plaintiffs that agreed to be a part of the lawsuit.

After rulings against Montgomery in the lower courts, the case made its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. On Nov. 13, 1956, the Supreme Court sided with a lower court's decision that segregation on Alabama's bus system was unconstitutional. One month later they rejected the city and state's appeals to reconsider their decision.

Claudette moved to New York City not long after that trial and worked in anonymity for the next 50 years. Her role in the desegregation of the buses in Alabama could only be described as pivotal and courageous, yet she told no one about it. She understood that it was the older, respected and quieter Rosa Parks who would be the face of the movement, and would still be proud of her immense contribution even if she was the only one.

Two things really stand out to me from her amazing story.

US civil rights leader Martin Lu...(FILES) US civil rights leader Martin Luther KIng waves to supporters 28 August 1963 from the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington DC during the "March on Washington". On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, which is credited with mobilizing supporters of desegregation and prompted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 28 August, 2003 marks the 40th anniversay of the speech. King was assassinated on 04 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray, who confessed to the shooting and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images) US civil rights leader Martin Luther KIng waves to supporters 28 August 1963 from the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington DC during the "March on Washington". (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)

First, we so often want to make a difference and just as often get discouraged when we don't see the effect of our efforts right away. Standing up for what is right will always be good, but rarely easy, and never is that more true when you find yourself standing alone. But that's what Claudette Colvin did - not because history would remember her forever and not because she would become the center of a movement. She sat there on that bus because it was right, and look at what came because of it, even though history has never paid her much due. Don't forget that when you find yourself alone on the bluff of truth.

Second, what ultimately inspired her to act was a very simple yet powerful thing - knowledge. It was the teaching of black history and the exploration of leaders and heroes that convinced Claudette to stand for what was right, or in this case sit. Knowing our history and learning about courageous leaders can inspire us all to make a difference ourselves. Not only is it a wonderful thing to know and recognize these amazing people, but it serves as an example for every single one of us that we can indeed make a difference, young or old, male or female, black or white.

Claudette Colvin is just one of so many extraordinary people that litter our rich history, and I hope her example will inspire people for years to come because honestly, if a skinny 15-year-old girl with glasses can make ripples that big, then why can't you?

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