Black Historical past Month Profile: Claudette Colvin, civil rights activist | Bhm

Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin

Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in December 1955, but months earlier a younger woman, whose name is less common in history books, did the same. Claudette Colvin was 15 when she refused to hand over her bus seat to a white passenger.

She was arrested and became one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, a case in which Montgomery’s segregated bus system was found to be unconstitutional.

Colvin grew up in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Montgomery. She was a dedicated student, and at her separate school, students had learned about black characters like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman that month, she said in a 2009 interview on NPR.

She said she and her classmates also spoke about forms of racism and discrimination they faced under segregation in the south.

Keep your place

On March 2, 1955, Colvin was driving home from school on a city bus when the driver requested that she hand over her seat to a white passenger. Although she later shared with NPR how fearful she was, she held her own.

“It’s just that they picked me at the wrong time – it was Negro History Month and I was like a computer,” Colvin said in a 2009 interview with Newsweek.

“I got a feeling Sojourner was holding Truth on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman holding the other and saying, ‘Sit down, girl! ‘I was taped to my seat. “

Police handcuffed Colvin and arrested her on several charges, including violating Montgomery’s segregation laws. They took the teenager to jail, where she stayed until the pastor at the church her family was attending paid her bail. In Phillip Hoose’s 2009 Colvin biography, “Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice,” Colvin tells how the officers harassed them and called their names.

She also described the fear she and her community felt after the incident, and said her family and neighbors stayed up all night to protect themselves from retaliation.

“I stood up against a white bus driver and two white police officers,” she said in the biography. “I had challenged the bus law. There have been lynchings and cross-burns for such things. “

Colvin’s church may have been on her side that night, but her story didn’t resonate as much as it could have. A number of women had done the same thing as Colvin and Parks but were usually only fined and made no headlines.

The NAACP, however, considered using Colvin’s story to challenge segregation laws.

The organization ultimately did not do this because of her youth and because she became pregnant shortly after she was arrested. They believed an unmarried teenage mother would attract too much public criticism.

Parks was more acceptable

Nine months later, Rosa Parks became the face of the battle against bus segregation in Montgomery. According to Colvin, the image and age of parks were tastier and easier to bolster for black organizations.

“Their skin texture was the kind people associate with the middle class,” Colvin told NPR. “She fits this profile.”

Legally, Colvin continued to challenge her charges. The court ruled against her and put her on parole, which, along with her unplanned pregnancy, left her open to public ridicule. She later dropped out of college and struggled to find a job.

She became one of four plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case in 1956. Other plaintiffs included Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith – all black women who had been discriminated against on city buses.

Lawyers Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed the case on behalf of the women. The defendants included the Mayor of Montgomery, William A. Gayle, the city police chief, representatives of the Montgomery Board of Commissioners, Montgomery City Lines, Inc., two bus drivers and representatives of the Alabama Public Service Commission.

The case ruled that Montgomery’s separate bus system was unconstitutional.

Colvin later moved to New York City with her son, had a second son, and worked as a nurse.

Colvin’s legacy may have been left out of mainstream civil rights discourse, but it still left an impact. In addition to Hoose’s biography of her, Colvin was also the subject of Rita Dove’s poem “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work,” which later became a song by folk musician John McCutcheon

“Claudette Colvin goes to work”

By Rita Dove

Menial Twilight pervades the storefronts along Lexington

When the shadows arrive to take their places

under the scourge of the earth. Here and there

a capricious brilliance – lightbulbs go on

the golden achievement in every narrow residence

of bleak interiors that announce someone home?

or I’m beaten, bring me a beer.

Most of the time I still tell myself here. Lay

My keys on the table put away the perishable goods

before you flip the switch. I like the sugar

Look at things in a bad light – a drop of sweat

is all it takes to dissolve an armchair cushion

in brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until

It’s dark enough for my body to go away.

then I know it’s time to start work.

Taxis head along the avenue towards

Towards Midtown; Neon stutters in ecstasy

as the masculine integers light their smoke and let go

a stream of courageous conversations: “Hey Mama” get mad quickly

“Your mom” when there is no answer – as if

Most of the harm they can do is insulting the cause

You’re even here and walking in your whites

until it stops so you can make a living.

So ugly, so fat, so stupid, so greasy –

What do we have to do to make God love us?

Mama was a maid, my father mowed lawn like a boy,

and I’m the crazy girl from the bus, the one

Who wrote in class that she was going to be president.

I take the number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train

and then I’ll be there all night adjusting the sheets

empty the pans. And I don’t curse or spit

or kick and scratch, as they said back then

I help those who cannot help themselves

do what needs to be done. . . and i sleep

Whenever sleep falls on me.

Born: September 5, 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama

Best Known For: She refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nine months before Rosa Park’s famous act of civil disobedience.

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