Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin
On March 2, 1955, a 15-year-old high school student named Claudette Colvin was arrested on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat.
This happened nine months before Rosa Parks’s famous arrest in the same circumstances.
That unprecedented event sent shock waves through that city, which had been the capital of the Confederacy, a bastion of segregation. A group of local activists led by E.D. Nixon, the local chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, rallied to assist the teenager.
The group included a 26-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King Jr, who had just settled in the Alabaman capital. This little-known chapter of the Montgomery Bus Boycott drama arguably makes Claudette Colvin the “Jane the Baptist” in the most significant story of transformation in 20th-century America.
Colvin was a keen student who had joined the NAACP Youth Council and during that period had been studying about the history of segregation at her high school. Her spontaneous action pulled that community into uncharted waters. Initially, Nixon and the community leaders were able to achieve a tentative “resolution” to the crisis that resulted, through talks with the police.
However, the lawyer of the bus company vetoed the interim agreement, which would have removed some of the “hard edges” from the segregationist practices on the city’s bus system.
In the confusion that swirled around this “First Take”, there was gossip and fake news aplenty, one allegation being that the teen was pregnant.
While many grassroots stakeholders in Montgomery were pushing for a major campaign to challenge segregation, in the circumstances the leadership decided that it was not ready to launch.
Five months later, a woman by the name of Mary Louise Smith also refused to follow the policies of segregation on a bus in Montgomery and was arrested.
Nixon and the others again determined that the circumstances were not appropriate for a challenge to the unjust law.
Of course, the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955 fully launched that movement, which has been well documented and well publicised.
It should be noted that Parks served as the mentor to the local NAACP Youth Council, of which Claudette Colvin was a member, and she no doubt would have been inspired by the action of the teenager.
Parks had spent a couple of weeks at the Highlander Retreat of Non-Violence learning about civil action through passive resistance; the “planets had aligned” to start the transformation of the most powerful country in the world.
Once the Montgomery Bus Boycott got off to a successful start, it was essential that another front be open through the courts, challenging the constitutionality of segregation.
When the young NAACP lawyer Fred Gray looked for witnesses to support the court action, he was able to find only four women willing to do so.
One of those was Colvin, and her testimony proved to be key, both at the Circuit Level and at the Supreme Court, where the case was eventually won in December 1956.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it is clear that the action of Claudette Colvin on March 2 proved to be a catalyst for what would happen in Montgomery in December 1955.
No doubt that it was a 15-year-old girl who emboldened adults to take their stand in the face of the type of violent resistance to progress that was endemic in a terror-based society.
As we see the forthright stand taken by high school students in Florida in the face of gun violence over the past few weeks, we are reminded of the story of Claudette Colvin six decades ago.
A child shall lead them.
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