Rosa Parks is affectionately known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” after she refused to surrender her bus seat to a White passenger. But what some may not know is that there was another African American female who performed this same courageous act several months before Parks.
Her name is Claudette Colvin, and with thick glasses framing her small face, and roller set curls hanging on her forehead, a curious and awakened Claudette Colvin defied the law and—to many—logic. At only 15 years old, her disobedience was anything but sophomoric. In her time and geographical location, Blacks were harassed, beaten, and lynched without regard to age or sex. Despite grueling conditions of the Jim Crow South, on March 2, 1955, the young Claudette stood her ground on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and refused to give up her seat for a White passenger.
There were several reasons why Claudette’s valiant efforts were suppressed and not widely known. One of those reasons was that because of her age, Claudette was considered “unreliable” by leading civil rights groups. In addition to ageism, classism and colorism may have played a role as well: Claudette was from a working-class family, and according to her, that fact—as well as her dark complexion—made her an unpalatable choice to garner the sympathies of the masses, both Black and White. Claudette also had one other undesirable issue separating her from history books: a few months after her arrest, Claudette became pregnant. Thus, the upright Rosa Parks, who was considered “morally clean” by then NAACP leader E.D. Nixon, overshadowed the dark, poor, unwed pregnant teenager.
In 1956, Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.
Let’s talk about it. Can you think of other unsung, Black American heroes? Share their stories in the comments below.
Interested in learning more about other figures in black history? Read the courageous story of Cathay Williams here.