A forgotten figure of the Civil Rights Movement

The story of Claudette Colvin

We all know and are inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and he has been immortalized as the civil rights leader of the era. In addition to MLK, there are many figures who also contributed just as much to the movement and are often forgotten.

As we celebrate MLK’s life and legacy, I also want to look at some of the other historical figures of the movement even after his murder.

Many fail to realize that his death is also a part of his legacy, and while we pay homage to his accomplishments, we also need to tell the stories of those who are forgotten and overlooked. 

One of my favorite stories is that of Claudette Colvin.

Claudette Colvin 

Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, there was Claudette Colvin. At 15 years old, she paid her bus fare and sat down in a chair only to have a white woman demand she and her friends give it up. She refused and was arrested. 

In multiple accounts of her story, she reports that history was holding her down. In school, she learned about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and she felt them hold her to the seat. When her three classmates got up, Claudette remained seated. 

Three charges were made against her, one for disturbing the police, another for breaking the segregation law and finally, assaulting a police officer. While the first two charges were dropped, the third stuck and was only expunged from her record 67 years later. 

The likelihood of her assaulting a grown man is incredibly unlikely, so I think we can safely conclude that the legitimacy of the charges is doubtful. In fact, according to womenshitory.org, “The police officers each grabbed one of her arms, kicked her, threw her books from her lap and ‘manhandled’ her off the bus.” 

What we learn from her story

Colvin cites several reasons why Parks was the face of the movement while she had been excluded. First, Parks was an adult. Second, Parks was lighter-skinned. Third, Colvin was poor and Parks was middle class. Forth, Parks was well known and respected in political circles. And five, Colvin became pregnant shortly after her arrest. 

Even though these things happened 60 years ago, these are issues that still affect modern America. Colorism is defined as, “Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.”

Essentially, even among the Black community, and among most minorities, the lighter your skin, the more opportunities get thrown your way. Light-skinned people have more options than dark-skinned people. 

We see that on the big screen in who gets roles. We see that in whose music is based on whose music gets popular first. That doesn’t mean that the lighter-skinned artists are not talented. It means that other talented dark-skinned artists aren’t getting the hype and the attention they deserve. 

Another theme in her story that speaks to modern America is classism. There is this persistent belief in America that if you are poor, you’re lazy, you don’t deserve any help and if you wanted, you could stop being poor at any time. 

However, this mindset fails to recognize that poverty is cyclical and often is not fixed by a simple lifestyle change. Many issues surrounding low-income families are generational and historical. Continuing to live in neighborhoods with poor schools because the houses cost less, the schools have less disposable income due being funded by the neighborhood’s taxes. 

And there is also the belief that poor people are less intelligent and less valuable in society. In reality, many poor or low-income jobs are essential to humanity. Grocery store employees, fast food workers, factory workers, teachers and many other positions are undervalued, especially considering how much they do to keep the world turning.  

Finally, there is Colvin’s pregnancy. It’s hard being a young, unwed mother today. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be a young, unwed, pregnant black girl in the South in the 1960’s. 

It is another demonstration of how we currently need more comprehensive sex education in our country. We also need to be doing more to protect young women from men who could take advantage of them and their lack of experience. 

The father of the baby was 10 years older than Claudette. And the way men still talk to young women is despicable. The way men creep on minors’ Tik Tok accounts or flirt with women who are the same age as their granddaughter is disgusting and something that we, as a society, didn’t do enough to prevent it. I work at a grocery store and still have had men old enough to be my dad try to touch my hands.

But this behavior is rarely condemned.

Final thoughts

While Claudette was not a figurehead of the movement, she was the spark that lit the fire. Even in her youth, she held on to what she believed was right even when it was not popular. She stood by her history with pride and lived by her morals. 

I strive to look trouble in the face and stand firm, like Claudette. I hope to have half of Claudette Colvin’s conviction. And that’s why she is one of my favorite figures and unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. It is my hope that, in hearing her story, we can inspire others to stand up for what they believe in.

It’s also worth noting that while we have come so far and still have so far to go in achieving equality.

We still have more we need to accomplish and address in 2022. We need to think critically about how Black people are policed. We need to start addressing some of the systemic injustices that affect people of color in the justice system. We need to be doing more to make sure schools have the resources they need. We need to make sure that everyone is able to vote for politicans that represent them.

We have come so far in America, but the work is not finished.

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