It is always the case that history leaves holes in its telling. A lot is left to the fairly unreliable discretion of writers and recorders of important events and in their perception of how sensational people and happenings are. It could also be their prejudices getting in the way of fact or the fact that, being human, they simply cannot be aware of every potentially historic event and give it the attention it deserves. So what we find is that some occurrences which are naturally deserving of wide reportage slip through the cracks. This is likely the most sensible reason why you have never heard of Claudette Colvin, the first black girl to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus.
In February 2013, President Obama while unveiling a statue in honor of civil rights hero Rosa Parks made an error of history. He called her refusal to give up her seat on a bus in 1955 “a singular act of disobedience”. He was making the mistake many observers of the US civil rights movement have been making over the years – assuming that Rosa Parks did something that had as yet not been done before. This is wrong. In fact, nine months before Parks defiantly pinned her body to the seat of that Montgomery city bus, a young girl had done the same thing and was even arrested for it.
Claudette Colvin was a 15 year old girl from a poor black family who was returning home from school. Her school was the then segregated Booker T. Washington High School. On the bus, she took her seat in the colored section two seats from the bus’s emergency exit. Apart from the confining of African Americans to the back of the bus, the practice of the time was a general preference for white passengers. If the bus became too crowded that a white was left standing, the coloreds sitting closest to the white section of the bus were supposed to give up their seats and move to the back.
Colvin refused to do this. When a white woman got on the bus and was left without a seat and standing, Colvin defied the driver’s instruction to move to the back even though three other black women sitting on the same row as her had hurriedly given up their seats without question.
“I said I paid my fare, it is my constitutional right. I was manhandled off the bus”
And indeed she was, and even arrested by two policemen and charged for her behavior. The official police charge stated her offense as civil disobedience but Colvin insists she was carrying out her civil duty to her conscience and indeed her sense of dignity.
“I could not move because history had me glued to the seat. It felt like Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder.”
What Colvin did – talking back to a white man and defying instructions was deemed worse than stealing. After her arrest, other charges brought against her were ‘disturbing the peace’, ‘violating the segregation laws’ and ‘assault’. Colvin would later make up a team of five plaintiffs who sued the State of Alabama in the famous case of Browder v. Gayle which ended up overturning bus segregation in the State.
Nine months later, when Rosa Parks, then NAACP secretary was arrested for the exact same offense, it received wider attention, sparked off a 13-month boycott and bestowed upon Parks legend status in the US civil rights struggle. Each time the abolition of racist bus rules and integration of public facilities became a topic of national discourse, everyone acted like Claudette Colvin had never existed and selectively opted to see Parks as the poster girl of bus segregation defiance.
Colvin had this to say in 2009 about her experience:
“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa – her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’ ”
There is perhaps a more compelling reason why Colvin was ignored by the civil rights movement. She was part of a poor black family, pregnant at the time for a much older man who was also married and was very dark-skinned. She was also seen as something of a loud, uncouth talker and an emotional young girl. Many leaders of the civil rights struggle did not deem her perfect enough to be placed at the center of this important arm of the fight to end racism in the U.S.
In September 2016, when the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was opened, Colvin was not invited neither was any member of her family. The biggest honor she received was to have a small picture of hers attached to a bigger display of Rosa Parks.
Claudette, now 78, continues to insist that she does not want to replace Parks in the history books. Indeed she understands the importance of Rosa’s own act of defiance and the necessity of the attention it got. She only wants her own place assured in a way that does not downplay the significance of her actions.
Everyone agrees Colvin – one of the most unsung heroes in US history – deserves it.