The Woman Civil Rights Leaders Threw Under a Bus

Remembering Claudette Colvin: Black History Month is the perfect time to get our history right.

Democracy Now screenshot

Every year during Black History Month, Rosa Parks’ name rolls off the tongues of schoolchildren and educators around the nation as they discuss the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Yet the lesser-known Claudette Colvin, whom media outlets have referred to as “The Other Rosa Parks,” still remains absent from any teachings. The historical amnesia that surrounds Colvin is indicting for its revelation of how much the white gaze did and still controls how we remember history and select our icons.

At age 15 Colvin was a bookish, bespectacled young woman who was fascinated by lessons about Africa and Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth during Negro History Week at her school. On March 2, 1955, Colvin says, she channeled the spirit of Sojourner and Harriet when she refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery, Ala., bus nine months before Rosa committed the same defiant act. Colvin points out in interviews that the white woman was young and had an available seat opposite her in the same row, but given the Jim Crow custom, there couldn’t be any suggestion that the races were equal, so Colvin was asked to get up. But she did not.

Not only was her refusal met with an arrest, but the male officers were particularly rough with the 15-year-old. Colvin recalled what happened on the progressive radio program Democracy Now:

… One kicked at me, and when one—and he knocked the books out of my hand—out of my lap. And then one grabbed one arm, and one grabbed the other, and they manhandled me off the bus. And after I got into the squad car, they handcuffed me through the window …

With her act of defiance, Colvin gained significant attention. Civil rights activists had been looking for a standard-bearer for their cause. Colvin’s case seemed perfect. But Colvin says she didn’t fit the bill. For one thing, she was dark-skinned in a movement that had been lighter and middle class.

Decades later, when asked by National Public Radio why she thought Parks was remembered instead of her, she responded, “She fit the profile. Parks had the right hair and the right look. Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class.”

There were other factors as well: Parks was 42 years old at the time, married and a seasoned activist and seamstress who worked for the NAACP. Colvin was just 15 years old, with few connections to the black professional class in Montgomery. She was also soon to engage in an affair with a married man and become pregnant. Not exactly the symbol the movement was looking for to take on the white establishment.

And the rest is history.

Colvin’s name was erased from the movement, and for about 50 years, no one heard about her. She lived in virtual obscurity until a few diligent journalists and historians began writing about the almost forgotten civil rights pioneer.

Phillip Hoose, while working on the book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, tried to speak with Colvin for four years before she agreed to sit down with him. The condition of her participation was that he would write a book both to teach young people about the civil rights movement and to let them know that she was the first.