“As a teenager I kept thinking, ‘Why don’t the adults around here just say something? Say it, so they know we don’t accept segregation?’ I knew then and I know now that when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugar coat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right!’ And I did.” — Claudette Colvin
Claudette Colvin was a very young teenager, only 15 years old, when she refused to relinquish her seat in March 1955 to a White woman. Yes, she heard the bus conductor tell her to get up. “Move,” he said, but she knew her rights, the right to sit wherever she desired.
She had had enough of injustices. Steadfast she sat. She and her classmates had just left school learning about Black history. “Felt like Harriet Tubman holding me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth holding me down on the other shoulder. I just could not move.” she said. “I could hear them saying ‘Sit down girl!’”
Police were called. Handcuffed, she was dragged off the bus, her textbooks scattered, and put into the police car and sent to jail, left in the hands of the police to be dehumanized. Her parents were not notified by the police, only by students who were her classmates.
Upon her release, she was rejected by her community and the NAACP. It didn’t matter that she was studious with goals to become a lawyer. She was from the wrong side of the tracks, nappy hair, too dark skinned. Her parents were not well educated and had menial jobs. Along the way she became pregnant and dropped out of school.
Claudette remained focused in spite of obstacles, fighting for her constitutional rights. She filed her case in local and state courts, then all the way to the Supreme Court. She was the star witness in the Browder v. Gayle suit that ruled segregation to be unconstitutional on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. She was a fearless young lady.
Very little and not nearly enough is known about Claudette Colvin. A book for young people, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, written by Phillip Hoose, won the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Storyteller Awele Makeda, who has made it her life’s work to tell history through the words of the forgotten witnesses, wrote, directed and starred in a one-woman drama, Rage is Not a 1-Day Thing,” in which she tells the story of the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott through the eyes of Claudette Colvin following her arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a White person.
Poet laureate Rita Dove included “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work” in her poetry. Folk singer John McCutcheon set the poem to music and recorded “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work” on his CD, Mightier than a Sword (2006). She is featured in Americans Who Tell the Truth, by Robert Shetterly, and the New York Times story “From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History,” by Brooks Barnes in 2009.
I suggest we read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose. I feel all of our youth, especially our girls, need to know about Claudette Colvin, and the fact that she was a very young girl who fearlessly stood up for the rights for not just herself, but for all oppressed people.
Naima Richmond lives in Minneapolis and welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.