by Abaki Beck
Claudette Colvin was fifteen in 1955 when she defied segregation laws and refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman. This is no small feat - this is a time when African Americans faced extreme, legally and socially accepted violence and discrimination. She was not simply “staying in her seat,” but risking her safety.
Though African Americans had previously refused to give up their seats to whites on buses, Colvin was the first one to ask for a lawyer and defend her rights after being arrested. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought her arrest. Yet she was virtually cast aside by Civil Rights Leaders at the time. After her lawyer discussed the event with civil rights leaders, they decided to wait on a civil rights lawsuit. As Colvin reflects, “I didn't fit the image either, of, you know, someone they would want to show off."
This was nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott.There is no doubt that Rosa Parks was an important activist during the Civil Rights Movement and is an inspiring figure. However, we must also recognize the role respectability politics played in this history. Colvin’s revolutionary power was silenced and chastised by members of her own community, working towards her same goals. Colvin was young, outspoken, and became pregnant as a teen. Rosa Parks was a professional, middle-aged, and an officer for the NAACP. “Respectability politics” is the idea that a marginalized group - in this case, the black community - self policies in order to appear as “part” of the main stream as opposed to in opposition to it. They are striving to be seen as “respectable” to white people.
Of course, this was a strategic move and we can’t completely dismiss it - would the white community have been supportive of the boycott (if not then, today) if it was Claudette as the face of the Boycott, and not Rosa? (Let’s compare white appreciation of “The Civil Rights Movement” versus “The Black Panthers” or other “non-respectable” groups, shall we). I choose to critique movements while also recognizing the incredible work and power they had. These critiques allow for inclusivity and recognition of unsung hero(ines). Respectability politics are exclusive and perpetuate white supremicist views of who and what is "acceptable" and "normal." As Colvin said, "They thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa."
She was not completely excluded from the fight - a year after she gave up her seat, she was a star witness in the lawsuit Browder v Gayle, which (legally) ended segregated public transportation in Alabama. Colvin has said that she doesn’t mind not being named, she is just proud of the work she did to impact history. This Friday however, we celebrate her bravery and audacity in the face extreme racism. We celebrate the young woman who stood up for her rights then, and the elder who lacks the recognition she deserves now.
Check out more interviews with Claudette, now 76:
From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History (New York Times)
"The Other Rosa Parks: Now 73, Claudette Colvin Was First to Refuse Giving Up Seat on Montgomery Bus" (Democracy Now; video below)