At 15 years old, Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama. She was charged with assault and battery and disorderly conduct- because she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Sound familiar? It’s worth noting that Claudette was arrested nine months before Mrs. Rosa Parks. So why isn’t her name mentioned among trailblazing women like Rosa Parks or Ruth Bader Ginsberg?
Claudette’s “rebellion” quickly gained the attention of leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including heavy hitters like E.D Nixon and Fred Gray. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) jumped to Ms. Colvin’s defense but her personal life overshadowed her sacrifice. She was young and she didn’t come from a group of well-known, well-to-do Black families in the city. Leaders of the movement all but turned their backs on the teenager. It added to the pain of being ostracized by a community that labeled her as a troublemaker and a shit-stirrer. Eventually she got pregnant. Some speculated her pregnancy was the result of an affair with an older, married man. Whether that’s true or not is to be debated but the rumors were loud enough to derail a young activist’s quest for justice. Could you imagine? The segregated South was already unfair to Black women- and Claudette Colvin’s act of defiance made her an easy target. Even the very people on the front lines of social justice saw her as a liability; and physically, she didn’t fit the image that they needed. For them, this young, dark skinned, pregnant, unmarried teenager might’ve been more trouble than necessary. The Movement needed a well-established woman. A woman from a good family. A woman who looked “friendlier” to the press.
Fast forward to 2006 and I’m a freshman at the very high school that Claudette Colvin attended. There was no mention of her name anywhere. Our high school is named after Booker T. Washington and it sits about two miles away from the first White House of the Confederacy. Montgomery is bursting at the seams with history, but names like Claudette Colvin have slipped through the cracks. I’ve always wondered why. Colorism? Classism? Misogynoir? For every Rosa Parks that our textbooks mention, there are 10 Claudette Colvins- people whose bravery and audacity have been lost in history. So cheers to all of the badass women who laid the bricks for movements that changed the course of history. Mrs. Colvin may not have gotten the recognition she deserved but the tides of history will never forget her!