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Claudette Colvin: The spark before Rosa Parks

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They were headed home when the white woman expected Claudette to give up her seat even though there was an empty seat next to Claudette and vacant seats across the aisle from the girl.

Carole Norris
Greene

I've always been fascinated by the story of Claudette Colvin.

On March 2, 1955, Claudette was a 15-year-old frightened Black girl who refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was jailed nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested for the same civil disobedience, but not in the same way.

Claudette was already in the colored section of the Montgomery bus along with other students from her school. They were headed home when the white woman expected Claudette to give up her seat even though there was an empty seat next to Claudette and vacant seats across the aisle from the girl.

"That was the whole point of the segregation rules -- it was all symbolic -- Blacks had to be behind whites," Colvin said in the 2009 book on her life by Phillip Hoose, "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice."

The NAACP and other Black civic leaders were already planning a boycott of the segregated Montgomery buses. They needed a face for their mass protest and threw their weight behind Parks instead of Claudette.

Parks was a respectable adult and not a potentially uncontrollable teenager who had become pregnant by a married man.

Fast forward to the year 2020 and the battle cry against the murder of George Floyd. Consider too the multiethnic Black Lives Matter movement birthed right before then in the wake of other notable deaths.

What a relief it is for me to see that social justice activists have moved beyond the need to sanitize victims of injustice the way Colvin was before taking up their causes and demanding that their oppressors be held accountable.

Another very informative read on Colvin is a double award-winning article by Abilene Solano, a criminology major at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, class of 2024. Solano skims over nothing, sometimes editorializing as she tells Colvin's story. Her attention to even the minutest details helped answer several questions that remained with me after I read other accounts.

In "Claudette Colvin: The Woman Who Wasn't Rosa Parks," Solano gives an easy-to-follow storyline of events that unfolded the day Claudette was dragged from the bus, was physically and verbally assaulted by police, and locked behind prison bars. Three terrifying hours transpired before the teen's parents came with their pastor, who bailed her out.

But Claudette Colvin still made history one year later as one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that overturned bus segregation laws throughout Alabama. A fifth plaintiff withdrew early on due to outside pressure.

Colvin, now 81, reluctantly left Alabama for New York decades ago. She felt blacklisted back home and needed to find work. In 2004, she retired after 35 years of being a nurse's aide at a retirement home in Manhattan and moved back to Alabama in 2019. In the Bronx, a street -- Claudette Colvin Way -- is named in her honor at the intersection of Unionport Road and East Tremont Avenue.

Even today, writers and the curious never tire of hearing Colvin tell why she refused to give up her seat that day in 1955.

"History had me glued to the seat," she would recall. She and her classmates had been learning about Black pioneers who fought against segregation and the atrocities committed against their race. With her lessons uppermost in her mind, Claudette had had enough.

"I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other, saying, 'Sit down girl!'" said Colvin.

"I was glued to my seat" irresistibly emboldened to sit down as a way of standing up for her constitutional right.

CAROLE NORRIS GREENE WAS AN ASSOCIATE EDITOR IN CNS' SPECIAL PROJECTS DEPARTMENT FOR NEARLY 22 YEARS.

- Carol Norris Greene is a columnist with the Catholic News Service.



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