Sunday, February 14, 2016

Black History Month: Claudette Colvin

In Montgomery, Alabama, a bus driver ordered a black passenger to give up her seat to a white rider.

She said, "No."

The bus driver had her arrested and taken off the bus.

You know the rest of the story.

No, you don't.

Not in this case.

The date was March 2, 1955, and the rider who refused to move was Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl.  She was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 5, 1939.

When Colvin was ordered to move, she told the bus driver, "It's my constitutional right to sit here.  I paid my fare."

For that, she was handcuffed, dragged off the bus, and taken to an adult jail, where she spent several hours until her parents came.  She was terrified.  She didn't know what white people would do to her. She was charged with disorderly conduct, defying the segregation law, and assault and battery.

Her minister came and paid her bail, and after Claudette came home, her father sat up all night with a shotgun, fearful of reprisals from the KKK.  One can only imagine the level of tension and fear in the house; jumping at every creak, every rustle of a leaf in the yard.  In 1955, in the South, the Colvins had good reason to be afraid.

When Colvin went back to school, some students applauded her for her courage.  Others thought she'd made it harder for them.  She lost most of her friends, because their parents said that Colvin was "crazy" and "an extremist".

Rather than just sit by quietly, Colvin wanted to fight.  She talked to Fred Gray, who was one of two African-American lawyers in Montgomery.  When Gray talked with Colvin, he was ready to file a lawsuit.  But after discussing her case with other community leaders, they decided to wait.  Colvin was young, she didn't have civil rights training, and the community wasn't quite ready for her situation.

Right about that time, Colvin became pregnant out of wedlock.  The community felt that Colvin's image as a young, unwed mother would attract too much negative attention.

But African-Americans didn't have to wait very long for the event that would challenge Montgomery's segregationist laws.  Nine months later, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for the same "crime" that Claudette Colvin had committed.

Colvin said that she understood why the NACCP chose Rosa Parks to challenge the law.  "They thought I would be too militant for them.  They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa."

Colvin paid a legal and personal price for her actions on that Montgomery bus.  While she pled not guilty to the charges against her, the court found her guilty and gave her probation.  She was labeled as a troublemaker, and she eventually dropped out of college.  And her reputation made it impossible for her to find work.

She ended up moving to New York City, where she worked in Manhattan as a nurse's aide in a nursing home.  In 2004, she retired.

Recently, she said, "It's good to see some of the fruit of my labor . . . I don't mind being named, as long as we have someone out there to tell our story."

Fred Gray, her attorney, also credited Colvin with giving everyone "moral courage.  If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks," he said in an interview with Newsweek.

Fred Gray, along with Charles D. Langford, became the lawyers that filed Browder v. Gayle, the federal lawsuit that would eventually end segregation on city buses in Montgomery, Alabama.  Four plaintiffs were involved in that case.

Fred Gray's star witness?

Claudette Colvin.

Rosa Parks sat down for the civil rights movement.  But Claudette Colvin opened the way for her to do it.

Sources used:

"Claudette Colvin," Biography.com website
"Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus," NPR.org

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