Now an 81-years-old retired nurse, Claudette Colvin has never gotten the recognition she deserves despite her contribution to the movement against segregation of Black people in America.
Often referred to as "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement", Rosa Parks has become the postal child of the American civil rights movement after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a crowded bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955.
Interestingly, nine months before Rosa Parks' action, a 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested on March 2, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat and move to the back of a segregated passenger bus for a white lady.
A young Claudette Colvin shocked the passengers in a crowded segregated bus when she refused to give up her spot to a white lady. Although she was arrested for breaking the Jim Crow Laws and the incident was widely publicized, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) refused to use her to represent their organization because she was 15-years-old and pregnant.
Colvin was motivated by what she had been learning in school about African American history and the U.S. Constitution and took action days after Black History Month.
Critics believe the NAACP's actions not to acknowledge Colvin as the first Black person to stage a bus protest is an abuse of the ethos on which the organization was founded.
Many, including Claudette Colvin argue that the reason Rosa Parks became well known for her Montgomery bus protest was that NAACP saw her as 'the perfect model' to promote the civil rights movement.
Recalling the incident on March 2, 1955, Colvin said the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat, but she refused, saying she'd paid her fare, and it was her constitutional right; this led to her arrest.
"All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily," Colvin says.
It was Negro history month, and at her segregated school, they had been studying Black leaders like Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave who led more than 70 slaves to freedom through the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.
The class also discussed the injustices they were experiencing daily under the Jim Crow segregation laws. These include not being able to eat at a lunch counter or sit on a segregation bus. Colvin was greatly inspired and was determined to stand for her rights as a human being.
"We couldn't try on clothes," Colvin says. "You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot ... and take it to the store. Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression we experienced. It felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing me down on one side, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn't get up."
Colvin also remembers the moment the jail door closed. It was just like a Western movie, she says
"And then I got scared, and panic came over me, and I started crying. Then I started saying the Lord's Prayer," she says.
A renowned author, Phil Hoose, published a book titled 'Twice Toward Justice' to create awareness on Claudette Colvin, her contribution to the civil rights movement, and the betrayal by the NAACP.
Hoose couldn't get over the fact that there was this teenager, nine months before Rosa Parks, "in the same city, in the same bus system, with very tough consequences, hauled off the bus, handcuffed, jailed and nobody knew about it."
He also believes Colvin is crucial because she challenged the law in court, one of four women plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama.
When asked why she is not a popular civil rights icon like Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because "she was an adult. They didn't think teenagers would be reliable."
She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look.
"Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class," says Colvin. "She fit that profile."
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