Claudette Colvin, Respectability Politics and Human Dignity

Manushka Gracia-Desgage is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh graduate with a degree in English Writing. She has a passion for writing, law, God, and social justice. She spends her time tutoring 1st and 2nd graders.

March 2, 1955 was a monumental day in Montgomery, Alabama. When they hear this, most people will assume that I’m referring either to the stand that Rosa Parks took or the introduction of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But both will be wrong. March 2, 1955 was the day a 15-year-old Black girl stood up for justice. Before there was Rosa Parks, before there was a Montgomery Bus Boycott, there was Claudette Colvin.

        Claudette Colvin’s place in history is generally denied or passively mentioned. From elementary school on to the rest of our lives, it is cemented in our historical schema that Rosa Parks’ arrest was the spark that ignited the bus boycott which served as the springboard for the Civil Rights Movement. However, nine months before Rosa Parks took her stand, Claudette Colvin found herself in the same situation and did the same thing. And that’s about where the comparisons end. When Colvin was arrested, she was grabbed by the wrists and jerked up from her seat. Her books went flying everywhere. She was dragged and kicked. Parks, on the other hand, was relatively peacefully escorted off the bus with two officers carrying her belongings for her. Her hands were not cuffed. When she got to city hall, her fingerprints were taken and she was given permission to phone her family.

        Rosa Parks was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP; Claudette Colvin was a teenager who came from a family that wasn’t part of the prominent sect of Black Montgomery. Parks was deemed as a composed, acquiescent, and levelheaded person; Colvin was seen as feisty, emotional, and demonstrative. Parks was light-skinned; Colvin was not. In short, Claudette Colvin did not embody the politics of respectability that the religious leadership of the Civil Right Movement wanted to project.

        Once Colvin was charged and convicted of “assaulting” an officer, the support she reaped from leading Black officials dwindled. People had hoped to use Colvin’s case as the means to challenge the system of segregated bus seating. However, she was regarded as an uncontrollable teen and too young to be the face of such a powerful and transcendental movement. She was from King Hill, the place seen as the bottom-feeder of Montgomery, Alabama. The leader of the Montgomery NAACP, E.D. Nixon, put it this way: “I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with.” Claudette Colvin wasn’t seen as that ‘somebody’.

The bus boycott ensued not too long after Rosa Parks made her stand. In the meantime, NAACP lawyers were mounting a case to attack the constitutionality of segregated bus seating. When the case was formulated and prepped to go to court, Claudette Colvin was one of the four witnesses chosen to testify in the case that came to be known as Browder v Gayle, a case that changed the course of history but is widely forgotten. The testimonies of Colvin and the three other women (not including Rosa Parks) had helped the federal court abolish segregated bus seating in Montgomery, AL.

        After the case was over, Colvin was once again ignored and undermined. There were no congratulatory phone calls, no visits, no letters, no anything. She was pregnant. Yes, she was pregnant. And so she wasn’t exactly someone to be heralded in their eyes. It didn’t help that she didn’t reveal who the father was, a man that had taken advantage of her sexual naïveté, and the fact that her child was light-skinned, prompting most to assume that the father was white (even though he wasn’t).  Colorism (read: internalized White Supremacy) was part of the reason why the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ostracized Claudette Colvin.

        There’s a famous picture of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a key figure of the Civil Rights Movement, and Inez Baskin of the Montgomery Adviser. It is a portrait of the three on a bus on the first day of integrated bus seating. Claudette Colvin is nowhere to be found in that photograph. It’s a glaring absence every time I look at that portrait. A 15-year-old girl from the shunned town of King Hill who was raised by a great-aunt and great-uncle who were maids made a stance that adults of higher status didn’t have the gall to make. She sparked a fire that grown men and women didn’t dare risk to spark before her. Yet, the most mind-numbing part of her story is not the back seat the laws expected her to take, but the one the people that shared her skin color (and, of course, those who don’t) forced her story to take. They didn’t want her to be the face of the boycott movement because she was viewed as a feisty teen who didn’t respect authority. The same authority they were tirelessly fighting against. The irony. Nine months later, Rosa Parks was catapulted to iconic status for doing the same thing. The difference was that Parks was, number one, not a teenage. Number two, Park’s hair was silky and shiny as well as her skin was much lighter. Lastly, Park’s family wasn’t lower-lower class like Colvin. Did I mention Parks wasn’t a teenaged mother either?

        The aspect of self-hate that permeates throughout her story is interesting to note. Black leaders who dedicated their lives to fighting for racial equality were still victims of some level of self-hate. Rosa Parks, to them, was a more politically respectable figure to make the poster-person of the Montgomery Bus Boycott because of what she presented: lighter skin, smoother hair, more privileged background, and an appeased spirit, akin to W.E.B. DuBois’ Talented Tenth. White people wouldn’t feel challenged by someone so docile and who resembled them more than Claudette Colvin. It showed that, despite the fact that the black community had garnered enough audacity to contest the racism laced in segregated bus seating, they were still colonized intellectually. Their mindset was still, “We need THEM to accept US,” a mindset that still plagues our people today, when our mindset should be, “We ARE just as good and just as worthy. We don’t need acceptance.” Using Claudette Colvin as the face of the bus boycott movement would have shown that our people were aware that we are so valiant that even a 15-year-old girl with poor parents, coarse hair, and dark skin could change the course of history. But instead, the all-too-familiar rhetoric prevailed.

In spite of it all, the truth doesn’t change because of how one feels about it.  Courage doesn’t have a preconceived mold. When you stand up for what is right in the face of hostile forces, you could be two years old or 222 years old. History can be made by ordinary people who come from meager circumstances. Claudette Colvin changed history regardless of who people decide to put on the historical poster. Colvin’s courage was the bank from which Rosa Parks withdrew her courage. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to fame from what Colvin had the courage to do.

        Historians have often dismissed Colvin’s story, citing her as a passing notion, a mere detail that helps provide color to a bigger story. But historians don’t make history, history makes history. History is still history even if no one talks about it. Biblical history shows a God who takes persons like Gideon, the youngest child from the least respectable family, and transforms a deliverer, yes the poster child of divine liberation. God is not a respecter of persons because God has created us with infinite worth, the imago Dei. The liberation movements of human beings should be committed to human dignity, which is a matter of the heart, and not the superficiality of respectability politics. While Rose Parks will always be seen as the face of the Montgomery Boycott, nevertheless, Claudette Colvin was THE catalyst. She is not forgotten. Just like Rosa Parks is not forgotten. As Colvin herself said, “I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’ And I did.” And that’s all that matters. 

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