Claudette Colvin, the Girl Who Made History Before Rosa Parks
By Shinedip Kundlas
Volume 1 Issue 5
February 12, 2021
Image provided by the BBC
Most people remember Rosa Parks as the first black woman to refuse to give up her bus seat to a white man. However, many Americans are unaware of the fifteen-year-old black girl who did the same nine months prior to Rosa Parks's arrest. Her name was Claudette Colvin.
Colvin was a young black woman who grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama. It all started when Colvin was laughed at by a white boy while she was in the store with her mother. She began to put her hands up and tell him that despite having different skin tones they were really the same. She was slapped by her mother and told to never touch a white person again. After that, she became well aware of the Jim Crow laws and knew she had to be on guarded behavior in public. She attended an all-black school which taught children about black history including famous black Americans. Her teachers thought that African Americans and their legacies weren’t talked about enough in teaching American history. Colvin soon started to look up to Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to learn more about black historical figures.
On March 2nd, 1955, Colvin and her friends were going to take the city bus home from school that day. They sat behind the first five rows which were reserved for white people. A white woman proceeded to walk in after the girls and had nowhere to sit. The bus driver made Colvin and her friends get up. Claudette’s friends got up; however, she herself refused. She remained seated as she remembered her favorite famous black Americans. After she had refused multiple times, a traffic officer was called by the bus driver. Claudette was then asked again why she wouldn't get up, she said it was her constitutional right. The police were called, and they kicked her, threw her books on the floor, and dragged her into the police car. Claudette Colvin became the first black woman arrested for challenging segregation laws. She was called racist and sexist names by the police and was arrested. However, she was soon let out after her minister paid her bail. Soon Claudette started to get bullied by her classmates, and parents told their kids she was crazy. Her experience made her into the historical figure she is today. We can only thank her for her contributions and her heroic actions.
However, Colvin thinks her achievements have been greatly forgotten. Many remember Rosa Parks for what she did because she was a lighter middle-class woman while Colvin was a poor and darker colored young girl. Although Rosa Parks's arrest overshadowed Claudette Colvin's arrest, she will still be remembered for her bravery. Her arrest led to the segregation of the Montgomery buses becoming illegal just by testifying in the Browder v. Gayle case. This soon led to the end of many human rights violations of blacks in Alabama and other states.
The stories of MLK and Rosa Parks are very encouraging, but those were the stories of people in their 40s and 50s. Claudette was just 15. Her story should inspire many teens, but Colvin has been largely forgotten. This is why it is important for us to teach our students the broader truths about black history and to remember the lesser known, but still historic figures like Claudette Colvin.