Claudette Colvin, the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," was the first person to resist bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.
In March of 1955, Colvin, only 15, made her principled stand (well, her principled sit) against the unjust law that black people had to cheerfully give up their seat on a city bus if a white person got on board. Claudette's action preceded the better known Rosa Parks incident by nine months. That's something like 270 days, give or take a week.
The court case stemming from Claudette Colvin's refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery metropolitan bus was eventually decided by the United States Supeme Court, which used it, late in 1956, to end bus segregation in all American cities. Claudette's arrest also brought a young local minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., smack dab into the public arena, and inspired him to begin openly questioning America's violation of its African-American citizens' civil rights.
Rosa Parks, who planned to not give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery in maybe nine or ten months, was in a quandary.
Rosa Parks acts decisively
Parks had to do something. How dare this young whippersnapping scalliwag, this petite little hussy decked out teen-style in a high school skirt and perfume smelling hair, sauntering back-and-forth with a devil-may-care attitude and even carrying textbooks of all things, try to steal her thunder! She'd have to put a stop to this. So Rosa, "tsk tsk"ing Claudette's 15-year oldness, joined with many others who always-give-up-their-seats-on-buses in spreading the false rumor that Colvin was pregnant at the time of her arrest.
"Oh yeah, na na nanana, are you all blind? Can't ya'll see that this little girl is carryin' the baby of the bus driver!" Rosa Parks told the ministers gathering to support Colvin in the basement of Dr. King's church in Montgomery. "I even hear tell that she's pregnant by the seed of the Mayor, or by the slippery snow-covered slope of ole Ike himself! Come on, we can't support a preggo teenager in a unique and principled stand, just let it go. For about nine or ten months."
Dr. King, who'd been eyeing Colvin from afar, from up close at the grocery, and from about 50-feet when she boarded that faithful bus right across the street from his church (location, location, location) would later change his mind about teenage activism when he witnessed the 1963 Birmingham Movement, where he'd be pleasantly surprised to see teenagers take a walk and defeat segregation.
No doubt some of them pregnant teens.
But in 1955 Dr. King took the boycott organizers Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and E.D. Nixon into his office and said "Let's just wait until this Colvin girl is of legal age... I mean, ah, no, no, what am I sayin'? Let's just wait this out and give Rosa some time to get her courage up."
Rev. Abernathy agreed. "Teens and their performance art, what will they do next? Alright, so we table Colvin, and give Rosa about nine or ten months to grow a backbone. Then we can whoop it up around here."
In the meantime, as everyone stood around waiting for Rosa Parks to make up her mind and start just sitting there, two more young girls (Aurelia Browder and Mary Louise Smith) refused to give up their seats on a bus, and they too were arrested. Their combined court case eventually included Claudette Colvin's impassioned testimony - although the cases lawyers didn't want an unwed pregnant teen representing the thing she'd actually started. They took her name off the case, also taking into consideration the fact that she'd been arrested not for sitting on the bus but for "disorderly conduct" when she complained about her rights being violated. Even though she was dragged off the seat, out of the bus, along the ground, kicked like a dog, and tossed into a police car, her conduct surely was atrocious! She had the nerve to become too vocal about Alabama-'50s-style-segregation when her rights were trashed and it all got real.
Then, when the girls' case was thrown into the cesspool of the 1950s Southern legal system, where roadblocks and years of delay were as common as Junebugs in June used to be, it actually surprised the heck out of everyone and sailed through! Not only did a come-to-Jesus miracle occur when the case went smoothly, but it did handstands and girl-cartwheels on the Southerner's judicial tightrope. Elsewhere, Rosa Parks had grown tired of being called "chicken", "spineless", and a "yellow-bellied seamstress" by high school girls, and she just kept sitting on a bus one day. It was a few months later that the case of Everybody in Alabama v. Claudette Colvin in spirit and these two other courageous girls in person was heard by the appellate court, which ruled in favor of the young women. And when the United States Supreme Court upheld that ruling in December 1956, all the seats in all the city buses in the entire dog-gone nation suddenly became first-come first-sit!
During those deliberations, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat in the Supreme Court. She sat around as the Justices decided the case, twiddling her thumbs and sang "We Shall Not Be Moved" as court security tried to drag her out. And when the freedom-vindicating verdict came in everyone whooped and hollered, declared sweet victory, called off the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, and raised Rosa Parks on their shoulders and waltzed her around the room like a trophy wife. Yay Rosa Parks!!! Whoo whoo.
For the rest of her very long life, Rosa Parks was honored by banquets and hugs and pet puppies and things praising her from every which way. People made up songs about her, put up fine public statues and garden gnomes of her, and perpetually applauded the day that she did not rise from her seat, but sat there.
What about Claudette? Did the honors flow like water?
Claudette Colvin was forced out of Dodge, ah, Montgomery, in 1958 because nobody would hire her when she got out of high school. She was the mother of Ike's baby for heaven's sake, and as long as she was lugging around a heir to the presidential palace she was persona non grata in the capital of the Deep South. "We don't like Ike here," they'd tell her. Colvin was confused, having never met Mr. Eisenhower.
Claudette moved to New York City, where she layed-low and worked at a nursing home for 35 years, often looking over her shoulder in case someone tried to sneak up on her to give her a Presidential Medal of Freedom or something. During those years, the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement often read and heard about the great deed that Rosa Parks had done in 1955, and sat still for it. When a few people who knew the score would ask Colvin for her autograph, she'd ask them for theirs. When someone would thank her for what she'd done, she'd reenact the incident by sitting down. And when Rosa Parks decided to up and die, and the world honored her once again, Claudette was silent as a mummy - although still happy and proud to be a mommy. The Mommy of the Civil Rights Movement! Yay Claudette Colvin!!! Whoo whoo.
The saying of Claudette Colvin
A few times during her 35-year nursing home career Colvin was asked about her sit. The elderly residents of the home usually misunderstood the word, howled with laughter, and coughed and stomped their canes before taking another hit and focusing again.
On a rare occasion (maybe three times a decade), Claudette would talk to someone who really knew about her. Sometimes, because of these conversations, she'd end up giving a speech somewhere. And she'd say things.
Her most well-known quote was delivered at the Booker T. Washington Elementary School's Martin Luther King Day celebration, when she spoke to the kindergarten class. It happened when a girl in the class heard her grandmother talk trash about Claudette Colvin, researched her, and invited her to speak. As this was Colvin's only invitation to anything in about a year, she went, and characteristically decided to stay seated while delivering her talk. Jimmy, a reporter for the 8th grade class newspaper - who would later win a Pulitzer Prize and climb the social ladder in the Hamptons - reported that Ms. Colvin told the kindergarteners:
|When it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it, or raise it by hand and release it into the wild. You have to take a stand - or at least take a sit - and say, ‘This is not right.’
----- Claudette Colvin, on HowTo:Do stuff.
Whenever old people hear that quote they usually misunderstand one word, stomp and holler, wildly cane the floor, and laugh and cough like the dickens. When young people hear it, they want to do something too cool, just like Claudette, and tweet about it.
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