As a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, Claudette Colvin has cemented herself in the American history books warranting her enshrinement through a statue. Her most infamous altercation with the law was in 1952 when she refused to give up her bus seat leading to her arrest in the widely segregated Montgomery region in Alabama (Hoose, 23). Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs that originally had their inclusion in the federal court case filed by Fred Gray, a civil rights attorney. Hoose explains that she was able to testify steadily before a three-judge panel, which heard and ruled on the case at a district court in the United States (25). Consequently, the judges concluded that the bus segregation laws in Alabama had no basis in law and were unconstitutional.
On September 5 the summer of 1938, Colvin was born to Q. P. Colvin and Mary Anne Colvin. Both her parents worked odd jobs where her father mowed lawns and her mother was a mere house cleaner. Claudette Colvin was brought up in the poverty-stricken and predominantly black neighborhood of Montgomery in Alabama (Greer, 29). Claudette often recalls that at the young age of four she was the subject of segregation. She had accompanied her mother at a retail store when a group of white boys walked into the store as well. The boys displaying their ignominious epithet asked to touch the young’s Colvin hands in order to compare them with theirs. Greer explains that she innocently reached out to touch the hands of one of the boys before her mother slapped her on the face and gave her a stern warning that she did not have the permission to interact or even touch the white boys (30).
The bus incident involving Colvin occurred in 1955 when she was a 13-year-old student at one of the local segregated district high schools. At the time, she used to rely on the city buses to get to and from school given the fact that her parents never had a car of their own (Manheimer, 67). Colvin at the time said that her aspirations were to become the president in the future. Moreover, she was an avid member of the NAACP council of youth and had been actively familiarizing herself about the civil rights movements in various schools across the country (Manheimer, 70). On that fateful day, March 2, 1955, Colvin was returning home from school and was seated about two seats away from the emergency exit in a Capital Height bus in the colored section.
It was during the time when racism was at its peak in America. The convection then was that should a bus be so crowded to the extent that the “white seats” at the front were all occupied and there was a white person standing, any person of color had the obligation of getting up from their seat, move at the back and stand if there were no seats available (Manheimer, 77). When a white woman who just entered the bus was left standing because there were no seats, Robert Cleere, the bus driver, demanded that Colvin and other three African American women move to the back. The other three obliged and moved to the back, but there was a pregnant African American woman who got in and sat next to Colvin (Manheimer, 77). Colvin explained that she was not at all fazed when the driver commanded that she move to the back of the bus.
Colvin often talks about how history made her glued to the seat. She recalls the ordeal feeling like the hands of Harriet Tubman pushing her down on one shoulder while Sojourner Truth’s hand pushed her on the other shoulder (Clinton and Alexandra, 55). She talks about the feeling paralyzed between the two women and could not move at all. Meanwhile, the driver was observing what was happening from his rear view mirror and asked Mrs. Hamilton and Colvin to get up. The pregnant Mrs. Hamilton retorted and said that she did not feel like standing up since she had paid her fare in full. Colvin talks about how it was during that time that she felt compelled not to stand up as well (Clinton and Alexandra, 56). The driver threatened the two that he was going to get a police officer to deal with the two of them. Sticking to his word, the driver called in two police officers to try to rectify the situation.
No sooner had the driver driven to the next bus stop than two police officers, Paul Headly and Thomas J. Ward arrived at the scene. The two officers convinced an African American man seated behind the two women to move so that Colvin and Mrs. Hamilton could move back as well. While Mrs. Hamilton gave in to the demands of the police officers and moved to the back seat, Colvin stood her ground and refused to move from her seat (Clinton and Alexandra, 60). Having no other alternative, Paul and Thomas had to move the adamant and defiant Colvin out of the bus forcefully who then arrested her. The ordeal occurred nine months prior to the arrest of Rosa Parks, the secretary of NAACP was arrested for the same offense.
During the time of her arrest, Colvin recalls thinking about a term paper that he had written about how the local customs prevented people of color especially the blacks from trying out clothes and using the changing rooms in the store’s departments (Montaigne, 35). Consequently, she was forcefully put into the police car all the while shouting about the violation of her constitutional right in handcuffs. Her arrest drew the attention of the black community leaders. It came at a time when the NAACP had been diligently searching for a test case that would help them to argue against the draconian segregation law, Fred Gray, Colvin’s attorney thought that this might be just the right case (Montaigne, 35). The two police officers apprehended Colvin at the juvenile court and were convicted of assault, disturbing peace, and violating segregation laws. Soon afterward, her reverend bailed her out of jail.
Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs charged in the Browder v. Gayle case. The case, which was organized and filed by Fred Gray, a civil right attorney, went a long way in determining that the bus segregation laws in the state of Alabama, specifically Montgomery, were unconstitutional (Duggan, 65). Partly thanks to the extent of the support given to the plaintiff by the larger African American community, the country found itself in a position but with little or no alternative but to throw away the segregation policies. Consequently, there was the implementation of new fairer laws that treated every American citizen equally. On June 5, 1956, the district court of the United States for the Alabama district issued a ruling, which declared the bus segregation laws unconstitutional (Duggan, 67).
Historical accounts have not often recognized Colvin for taking a stand. Despite the fact that she was the one who acted first against the bus segregation laws, it was Rosa Parks who became an iconic figure of the civil rights movement for not taking a stand. In a 2013 interview, Colvin acknowledged the fact that there cannot be enough room for many icons (Duggan, 71). However, Colvin with the help of her family has been fighting for her recognition. It was not until recently that the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of African American History and Culture voiced their opinions on Colvin to be given a more pronounced and prominent mention and role in the history of the civil rights movements. There is a section in the museum that has a section entirely dedicated to Rosa Park (Henry, 72). Colvin does not want the section done away with but the intent of her and her family is for the museum to get the record straight and for her inclusion into historical accounts.
The Colvin statue will go a long way in recognizing her contribution to the civil rights movements. She will forever be enshrined in the hearts and thoughts of many of the people in the African American community who would recognize her from the statue. However, Colvin has received many recognitions in the past for her contributions to the civil rights movements such when there was a Larkin streetcar named after her. Overall, the statue will go a long way in helping recognize her efforts.
- Clinton, Chelsea, and Alexandra Boiger. She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World. , 2017. Print.
- Duggan, William R. Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement. New York: Columbia Business School Pub, 2007. Print.
- Greer, Brenna W. “our Leaders Is Just We Ourself”: Black Women’s Resistance in the Making of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. , 2004. Print.
- Henry, Mike. Black History: More Than Just a Month. , 2013. Print.
- Hoose, Phillip M. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. New York: Square Fish, 2011. Print.
- Hoose, Phillip M. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. New York: Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009. Print.
- Lusane, Clarence. The Black History of the White House. S.I.: City Lights Publishers, 2013. Print.
- Manheimer, Ann S. Martin Luther King Jr: Dreaming of Equality. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2005. Print.
- Montaigne, Tania . Noire: La Vie Méconnue De Claudette Colvin. , 2015. Print.