Teen who inspired global icons
On March 2, 1955 — 65 years ago to the day — 15 year-old Claudette Colvin, an honour student at Booker T Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama was travelling on a bus when she and group of other blacks were ordered by the bus driver to move from their seats to accommodate a group of whites who had entered the bus.
While four folks reluctantly followed the order, only Colvin refused to comply with the segregation laws and was arrested. This happened nine months before Colvin’s mentor, Rosa Parks, made her iconic stand on December 1, 1955 — an act that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Colvin, while not the first person arrested under the segregation laws, was one of the first to refuse to pay the requisite fines. She intended to challenge the unjust laws, after she and her family consulted with a small ad hoc group.
This included community activist E.D. Nixon; novice lawyer Fred Grey and his mentor John Doar; as well as a new, young pastor in town, Martin Luther King.
The ad hoc committee, like many in Montgomery, had been greatly inspired by Colvin’s courageous stand. There was an initial consensus that her case could be the basis for a class action challenge to the laws of segregation.
However, over a period of several weeks, it was decided that the circumstances of the situation were not the best to generate the required mass action needed to sustain a legal challenge.
Over the following few months, at least three other women, including an 18-year-old, repeated Colvin’s stand on Montgomery’s buses; to no avail.
However, on December 1, 1955, Parks, who was the leader of a youth group which included Colvin, was arrested in that well-documented incident.
The same ad hoc group that had consulted with Colvin subsequently met with Parks’s family, and the rest is history.
It should be noted that a critical part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott’s success was the legal action, led by Grey with the support of Doar and others, which required personal complaints for the civil action.
Because of fear, generated by the threat of terrorism, Grey was only able to recruit a few. Colvin was among four women who bravely volunteered as plaintiffs, and the teenager’s assistance was integral in the legal process.
This drawn-out effort concluded in an historic US Supreme Court ruling, resulting in a victory for the Bus Boycott, in December 1956.
The story of Colvin, although not well known, offers a trove of lessons for young and old alike. The fact that a 15-year-old provided this key spark that inspired adults — Parks and King, renowned global icons — confirms that age is not a limit.
Some years after her courageous stand, Colvin explained that when she was ordered to move on March 2, 1955, she had a sense of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman encouraging her to ignore the unjust order.
It’s worth noting that Colvin reported that she had a great history teacher who helped the students appreciate that they were “standing on the shoulders” of others.
Following her conscience, Colvin offered us all the vital lesson of distinguishing between law and justice, an awareness that is vital for global citizenship, navigating the challenges of this new millennium, lest we revert to the tragic chapters of the past.
Colvin’s example not only has implications for addressing the big picture, but also speaks to the personal.
Her story exemplifies how young and old have the potential to overcome negative peer pressure, which has been leveraged in the age of social media, benefiting ourselves individually and communally.
As we observe the 65th anniversary of Colvin’s courageous stand, we might reflect on this legacy’s implications for current generations.
Her story resonates with that of Greta Thunberg and other teens taking a stand regarding the climate crisis. All of us are reminded that everyone can make a difference.
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