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A stand that continues to make a difference

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Ageing gracefully: Claudette Colvin, now 83, took a stand as a brave 15-year-old that helped to advance the rights of Blacks in America

On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old student from Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama, was riding a bus when she decided not to co-operate with a law that she felt was unconstitutional. Colvin’s stand arguably made her something of a “Jane the Baptist” to her mentor, Rosa Parks, who made history nine months later.

This act of going against the grain should be seen in the context of the status quo of Montgomery, the former capital of the confederacy in that era. That culture across the southern US states involved centuries of slavery and subsequent segregation, which was reinforced by the terrorism of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

In the footsteps of Claudette Colvin: Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, speaks at the United Nations' Annual Climate Change Conference in 2020

Claudette subsequently reported that her bravery had been inspired by the stories recounted in her history class of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and others. These nurtured in the teen an appreciation of a legacy that subsequently sparked her own agency — her sense that she was the captain of her ship. Colvin’s example was paralleled decades later when another 15-year-old, Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, who manifested agency to take steps towards addressing catastrophic climate change.

Claudette Colvin in 1955

Claudette had been travelling on a city bus with three school friends when the driver ordered the students to vacate a row to clear the way for one White woman. Her friends reluctantly complied, but Colvin remained seated. The driver cited the law of segregation while ordering her to comply. He subsequently got the police involved.

Two officers entered the bus and insisted that Claudette move and stand near the back with her friends. She refused, pointing out that she had a constitutional right to remain seated.

Years later, Claudette pointed out that she would have moved for any elderly passenger.

The police officers forcibly marched Colvin to a car and took her handcuffed to the station to be charged. The teen was placed in the adult lock-up, rather than a juvenile facility, where she remained fearful for three hours. Her mother came with her pastor and bailed her out for $300.

Given the reality, her family did not get much sleep that night. Neighbours served as lookouts and her father remained outside with a shotgun on guard for the possibility of a Ku Klux Klan attack.

Colvin was tried in Juvenile Court and defended by the young lawyer Fred Grey. While she was convicted in city court, Grey was successful on appeal in having two of three charges dropped, and the high-schooler was placed on probation.

The activist community of Montgomery considered making Claudette’s case a cause célèbre, but given her youth and overall circumstances, the decision was that the time was not yet ripe. A later rumour of Colvin being pregnant would affect decisions.

That said, within six weeks of Claudette’s considerable bravery, on April 19, 1955, a 35-year-old woman, Aurelia Browder, repeated Colvin’s display of non-cooperation with segregation on a Montgomery bus and was subsequently arrested. The seeds planted by the 15-year-old had sprouted. By the end of October 1955, four more women had carried that baton.

Those dominoes established a launch pad, providing lift-off on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks took her stand. Parks was in her early forties and a seasoned activist for social justice who was able to negotiate the slings and arrows that came her way during the Montgomery Bus Boycott campaign that was sustained for more than a year. That icon faced her firing and that of her husband from their long-held jobs, along with doors being shut in the search for alternative employment. Added to that was the unrelenting telephone terror that plagued her home.

Parks’s experiences came against the backdrop of sustained general terrorism. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s home was bombed two months into the boycott and other buildings, including churches, were also attacked.

The fear engendered took its toll. When lawyer Fred Grey took the initiative to challenge segregation in the courts, he was able to find only a very few willing to be witnesses in the hearings. However, Claudette Colvin, the teen, and three of the other women who had followed her example summoned the courage to take the stand. It was the eventual victory of this case in the US Supreme Court that ended segregation on the buses of Montgomery and had implications across the country.

At a time when Blacks had minimal rights and women’s capacities were blatantly undermined, this young woman demonstrated extraordinary courage in the heart of Dixie. Hers is an inspiring example of agency, which no doubt came at some personal cost. Claudette’s contribution played a key part of the foundation upon which we all stand today.

Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda. He is writing here as part of a series on Young Exemplars in Agency

• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda. He is writing here as part of a series on Young Exemplars in Agency

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Published March 09, 2023 at 7:58 am (Updated March 09, 2023 at 10:12 am)

A stand that continues to make a difference

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