Who are the first people that come to mind when you think of the Montgomery bus boycotts of the 1950s? Rosa Parks played a pivotal role, to be sure. But nine months before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger, a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin did the same.
Imagine yourself at 15 and in her shoes. Two policemen, both bigger than you, pull you right out of your bus seat, sending your school books flying everywhere. One kicks you as they both drag you off the bus and arrest you. Then they ask you to stick your hands out of the police car so that they can handcuff you for all to see. On the way to the city jail – the adult jail – they call you every imaginable name and try to guess your bra size, and when you arrive at the station, they don’t even allow you to make a phone call.
This wasn’t the only brave action that Colvin took that changed the course of history. One year after her arrest, Colvin agrees to be a plaintiff, at great risk to herself and her family, in the Browder vs. Gayle case that ended segregation on the buses. Though not widely known, this case changed the relationships of blacks and whites in America and around the world. Another teenager, Mary Louise Smith, was also a plaintiff. Rosa Parks was not.
Ms. Colvin, now 70, has at last found a place in the history books. In 1999, former Poet Laureate Rita Dove wrote a poem, “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work,” that folk singer John McCutcheon set to music which can be found on his CD, Mightier Than the Sword, and on this CD, This Land is Your Land: Songs of Unity (see video below in which McCutcheon sings “Claudette Colvin,” based on Dove’s poem). Just last year, author Phillip Hoose, who first heard of Claudette Colvin in 2000 when he was writing We Were There Too! Young People in U. S. History. published this 2009 National Book Award Winner: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. When Hoose first contacted her, Ms. Colvin wasn’t ready to tell her story for reasons she talks about in the book. It took four years before she agreed to meet with him.
Claudette Colvin’s story is most definitely one to celebrate during Women’s History Month. It’s even worth shouting from a rooftop, or better yet, a bus seat.
John McCutcheon sings Rita Dove’s poem, “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work”