Feminist Hero Friday: Claudette Colvin
by Abaki Beck
Claudette Colvin was fifteen in 1955 when she defied segregation laws in Alabama and refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman. She was arrested despite the fact that there were three other open seats in the row beside her. 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. She was often described as “mouthy” and “feisty” by civil rights leaders. On the other hand, 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. In an interview with the New York Times, Colvin reflected:
“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did...She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’ ”
Her parents feared repercussions by the KKK. Colvin has said that she has come to terms with not being named, but she wants to tell her story to educate others on what the Civil Rights Movement was about, beyond the few heroes we regularly celebrate. Indeed, Rosa Parks has been named one of Time’s Most Important People, has a statue in the U.S. capitol, and is regularly lauded in history books, while Colvin has lived in relative obscurity despite her important activism.
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). These critiques allow for inclusivity and recognition of “unsung” hero(ines). Respectability politics are exclusive and perpetuate white supremacy. As Colvin said in an interview with NPR, "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. This Friday for Black History Month, however, we celebrate her bravery and audacity in the face extreme racism. We celebrate the young women who stood up for her rights then, and the elder who lacks the recognition she deserves now.