On March 2, 1955 a young black resident of Montgomery, Alabama got on a bus and refused to move to allow a white woman to sit down when no more ‘white seats’ were free. She was spending a lot of time learning about the civil rights movement and it must have been from there that she summoned the strength to say out loud on that bus with enough white people to take up all the ‘white seats’ that “it’s my constitutional right” to stay seated. She continued to shout the same thing as she was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus.
Three other women had the same experience that year. The fourth one, on December 1st, was Rosa Parks. And yet the name Rosa Parks is probably more familiar to most people than that of the first person from March, Claudette Colvin. In fact, another bus incident isn’t even something people usually know about, much less the four other incidents before Ms. Parks’. Why don’t we talk about Claudette Colvin? Rosa Parks was a woman in her 40s, a seamstress, and had the appearance of a middle-class person. Claudette Colvin was 15, unmarried and pregnant. In the end, while building a case against bus segregation, the NAACP and other organisations they were working with felt Parks was a better face for the cause ignoring entirely Colvin’s heroic first act.
For her bold and daring actions standing for the rights her country claimed to empower her with, Ms. Colvin, clearly a remarkable child, was convicted in juvenile court for disturbing the peace on the bus where she defended those rights. There is nothing unheroic about Ms. Parks’ actions. She, along with several others, helped hold a microphone up to the muffled whispers of people suffering in silence. But in a world where we often champion the pioneer and the ground breaker, Ms. Colvin’s omission from our collective consciousness seems an unjust and insulting tribute.
Miss Colvin lives in New York today, more than 50 years on from her historic albeit forgotten moment. In an interview when describing having been nudged to the side at the time and only having gotten a little credit several years later, she simply said, “I feel like I am getting my Christmas in January rather than the 25th…”