Know Your History
Did You Know that before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin?
In celebration of Black History Month, we’re sharing stories throughout February of lesser-known African-American historical heroes. We’re doing this because we, at SEIU Local 1000, believe that before we can address our legacy as a people and a nation, we must first tell the truth about our history of racial injustice.
For many Americans, their awareness of racial injustice was kindled by the story of Rosa Parks’ brave act of defiance in refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. However, very few of us realize there were actually several women who preceded her, one of whom was Claudette Colvin.
On March 2, 1955, Ms. Colvin, then a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl—that’s right, 15!—also refused to move to the back of the bus, nine months before Ms. Parks’ stand launched the Montgomery bus boycott. What would prompt a 15-year-old black woman in the 1950s—in the deep south— to find such reservoirs of courage? At the time, Claudette was studying Black leaders like Harriet Tubman in her segregated school, and those classroom conversations led to discussions concerning the Jim Crow laws they were all experiencing. So, as she later said, when the bus driver ordered Claudette to get up, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down and Harriet Tubman was on the other. I couldn’t get up.”
Even more amazing is that Colvin’s stand—or refusal to do so—didn’t stop there. After being arrested and thrown in jail, she joined with three other women to challenge the segregation law in court, and in 1956, Browder v. Gayle became the court case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery and the state of Alabama.
At the time, the NAACP and other Black organizations felt the adult Rosa Parks would serve as a better icon for the movement than a teenager. It’s also worth noting that Ms. Parks was then an NAACP secretary and was both well-known and respected, and it was felt that people would associate her with the middle class, which would attract additional support for the cause. However, just as it is today within the Black Lives Matter movement, the fight to end segregation was often fought by young people, more than half of which were women.
The struggle is real. The struggle continues.