Greatness in Small Packages: Claudette Colvin

By Senequa Malone | UAB Community Health & Human Services Intern

Photo Credits: Claudette Colvin, aged 13, in 1953. Public Domain; Back of the bus. Photograph by Stan Wayman

We’ve heard sayings like, “From of the mouths of babes” or references is in revered text “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). These expressions signify that children are often capable of saying or doing wise, insightful, or mature things. These words or actions can be what is needed to start a movement. This was especially true during the perilous times of the early Civil Rights Movement when many children marched, were beaten, chased by dogs, and sent to jail. The children advocated for change…change in unjust laws and change toward justice all over the country, especially for African Americans living under Jim Crow laws in the South.

One such child was Claudette Colvin. As an eager young teen, she was inspired to make an immediate change one day after school. That day in class, at the segregated Booker T. Washington school in Montgomery, Claudette and her classmates discussed injustices experienced under Jim Crow laws. This bothered Claudette and she knew she had to stand for justice for herself and others. So, she decided that she would conduct her own sit-in. As she later recalled, “All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily.” Claudette knew she paid her bus fees just like everyone else and deserved to ride without any trouble. She was a member of the NAACP Youth Council and knew her constitutional rights. She went on to elaborate that it felt as if Harriet Tubman was pushing her down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth on the other.

We always want to teach our children and even communities to do what is right; having them see and experience it for themselves even if they must stand for someone else that’s being oppressed or mistreated. On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin became the first person arrested for not giving up her seat to a white person.  The first person to make the news for sitting down.

Colvin’s name was all over the local radio and newspaper print. A young black girl was arrested for being a troublemaker; not giving up her seat for a white person. This disturbed the black community greatly and many leaders quickly acted to get this young lady out of jail and home safely to her family, but they were also inspired. Claudette Colvin’s approach and boldness was ingenious. This young lady sparked the talk for a new boycott.

Local leaders in the Civils Rights Movement recognized the great potential in a non-violent approach had for putting their cause in the national spotlight but did not want to put that pressure upon a child. They knew the media would try anything to demonize her character, use all stereotypes or misjudgments against her and in turn the cause. Claudette was a dark-skinned, unemployed student. Later, she became pregnant and as an unwed expectant mother, the scrutiny of national attention would be intense. Leaders did not want that amount of hate and ignorance directed towards a child. So, they patiently waited and nine months later set in motion their plan with the perfect candidate for their strategy: Rosa Parks, a secretary for the local NAACP chapter. She was a married, employed, light-skinned, mature woman with good hair and the fiery spirit to stand up to national scrutiny. She grabbed the torch of “fight” lit by Claudette Colvin and brought attention to injustice. It was the perfect recipe for success.

While certain names are more recognizable than others, it is the impact and not the recognition that matters. Claudette Colvin’s fearless action is as unmatched and commendable as other greats during these turbulent times. One person’s stance for right can be the catalyst for positive change for so many lives and future generations. The movement would never have been the success it was without the children’s contribution and sacrifice. Colvin’s immediate act for justice and clever plan worked to set the stage for the bus boycotts and later, the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. A young teenage child wanted to see change in the world, and she not only succeeded but blazed a trail for many following behind her. Maybe without Claudette Colvin, we would not know of Rosa Parks’ bravery or Dr. King’s leadership and remarkable speeches. Colvin later became one of the plaintiffs for Browder v Gayle, a federal case which led to the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses. Thusly, her example of non-violent demonstration and advocacy led to victory in the U.S. District Court and integrated busing in December 1956.

As professionals in community health and human services, we stand on the shoulders of many advocates who championed the social well-being of the people adversely impacted by Jim Crow laws. Those shoulders can be adult shoulders or teenage shoulders like Claudette Colvin. Let’s encourage our youth and our young at heart to stand for justice, to champion the well-being of others, and be ready to change the world! Greatness is out there. It is not the size that matters, but the power of the impact!


Sources:

Adler, M., & Hoose, P. (2009, March 15). Before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin. NPR. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin

National Civil Rights Museum. Lorraine Motel. (n.d) Justice.  Retrieved from https://mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org/justice. Accessed 18 Jan. 2022

Photo: Claudette Colvin, aged 13, in 1953. Public Domain

Photo: Back of the bus. Photograph by Stan Wayman

Theoharis, J. (2019, February 2). Claudette Colvin. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://rosaparksbiography.org/bio/claudette-colvin/

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