|Claudette Colvin in 1954|
This isn’t the story that you think it is. You have undoubtedly heard a similar story of a related incident, but this isn’t that story, so keep reading…
In 1955, Montgomery, Alabama was about as segregated as any place in the country. The civil rights movement was just getting underway, and it was still another eight years before the governor of Alabama, George Wallace would give in to the pressure being applied by the federal government to desegregate Alabama’s schools.
In March of 1955, there was a young, fifteen-year-old black girl by the name of Claudette Colvin who attended the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery. Claudette relied on the city’s buses to travel to and from school each day.
One day, Claudette was traveling home after school. She boarded the bus, paid her fair, and took her seat in the “colored” section of the bus. You see, because of Alabama’s segregation laws, there were certain seats for the white passengers, and certain seats for the colored passengers – usually in the back of the bus. On this particular day, all of the seats for the white passengers were filled up when a white woman boarded the bus. In these circumstances, it was the rule that the bus driver could make one of the colored passengers give up their seat to the white passenger, even if it meant that the colored passenger had to stand in the aisle. So the bus driver looked into his rearview mirror and ordered Claudette to give up her seat and move further back in the bus.
Claudette was an “A” student and a member of the NAACP Youth Council at her school. She had been learning about the civil rights movement and had just that day written a paper for one of her classes about how blacks were not allowed to try on clothes in department stores. Feeling frustrated over the laws that unfairly treated blacks as inferior to whites, and indignant over the bus driver’s demand, she refused to give up her seat, stating that it was her constitutional right to stay where she was. She had paid her fair, the same as the white woman had, and she was not going to give up her seat.
The bus driver got hold of a Policeman and Claudette was handcuffed and forcibly removed from the bus. She was charged with violating Alabama’s segregation laws, and spent four hours in a jail cell before being bailed out by her minister, who, rather prophetically, told her, “You have brought the revolution to Montgomery, young lady.”
The local chapter of the NAACP heard about Claudette’s arrest and decided it was time to challenge Montgomery’s bus segregation as unconstitutional. They organized a bus boycott and strategized for several months about the best way to challenge the law. They considered using Claudette’s case as the basis for their lawsuit, but nine months had elapsed since Claudette’s bus incident, and during that time, Claudette had become pregnant. The leadership within the NAACP did not think that an unwed, black, teenage girl was going to present the image that would garner the needed positive response from the white community. What they needed was someone that was mature, intelligent, and articulate; someone who knew a lot of whites and was liked by them; someone who could gain their sympathy. So they devised a plan to have someone deliberately violate the segregation laws and get arrested so that they could challenge the law in the courts.
The NAACP had the perfect young woman working as a secretary right in their office; a woman named Rosa Parks.
You all know her story. You have all heard how on December 1st, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the colored section of the bus for a white woman; Rosa Parks, whom the United States Congress called the “first lady of civil rights” and the “mother of the freedom movement.” What you may not have known is that it was all a set-up. Rosa Parks was just repeating what had already been done by a fifteen-year-old girl nine months earlier, in order to get the case into the courts.
Rosa Parks went on to become an icon of the civil rights movement. She received numerous honors and awards, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. She was awarded two dozen honorary doctorates from universities around the world. She has schools, libraries, and highways named in her honor and in 2014, Asteroid #284996 was named the Rosa Parks asteroid.
Claudette, on the other hand, was branded a troublemaker by many in the community after her bus incident, and she wound up having to drop out of school. She had difficulty finding work, and in 1958 she moved to New York. She found a job as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home, where she remained for 35 years, in obscurity and anonymity, never getting the recognition that she deserved.