Alabama’s Unsung Heroine: Claudette Colvin

Rosa Parks. Lauded for her bravery for standing up to the segregated status quo of 1950’s America. A pioneer in African American history and a woman to boot. At a time where women were considered inferior and black people were viewed as sub-human, her solitary actions created not ripples but waves through society. She is remembered now and will be forever. Claudette Colvin, however, is not. She is instead an unknown figure of the past. Few have heard of this brave young girl who did something momentous and then was unfairly forgotten by history.

March 2 1955. Claudette Colvin was little more than a child in Montgomery, Alabama. But at 15 years old she stood up to an unjust society that was readily accepted by most adults. A society that did not even allow black people to try on clothes or enter department store dressing rooms. Where the wrong colour of your skin meant having to draw a diagram of your foot on a brown paper bag and take it into a shop rather than try on a shoe. A society, which dictated that when Claudette, at the age of 4, naively touched a white man’s hand in public she was slapped in the face for it.

Her parents did not own a car so she relied on the city busses – segregated, of course – as a means of transport to and from school – also segregated. One particular day started like any other and Claudette made her way to the back of the bus where black people were herded to their separate section. It was a busy day, at a busy time and the vehicle was full. A white woman was forced to stand. In a society where whites were considered to be supremely superior, Claudette’s skin colour dictated she get up and move. But she didn’t.

Treating her like the criminal she was now deemed to be, the driver threatened this young girl with police action. He stopped the bus. He demanded back up. People watched as the law-enforcers of Montgomery forcibly removed Claudette from the bus. She was arrested. Thrown in jail. Charged with disturbing the peace, breaking the segregation law and falsely accused of assault.

She had only sat on a bus and refused to move.

Nine months later Rosa Parks made the same statement. She was 42, an active member of NAACP and had the appearance of being middle class. By this point Claudette was pregnant at 16, unmarried and branded a troublemaker by her community. Parents of friends warned their children away from this ‘crazy extremist’ and she reluctantly left her college. She was not the spokesperson Montgomery’s black leaders wanted to publicise. She disappeared into the background of history, remembered by some as the spark that enflamed the bus boycott movement, but forgotten forever by most.

Laura Keenan

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