We have all heard of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, but did you know that nine months prior to this incident a teenager refused to give up her seat for a white woman on a bus?

Associated Press; restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by policeofficer

The teenager, Claudette Colvin, born 1939, said the high school she attended in Montgomery, Alabama had observed Negro History Week in 1955, and she learned a lot about the Black freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. That day when she and her three friends were told to give up their seats for a white woman, Colvin, her history lessons still fresh in her brain, refused. In an interview with NPR, she stated, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”

For this act of defiance, Colvin was arrested and placed on indefinite probation. Although Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat came nine months before Rosa Park’s did, the NAACP did not acknowledge her as the one who started the Montgomery bus boycott. The reason? Colvin became pregnant at the age of 16, and the NAACP believed the face of an unwed mother was not appropriate to represent the movement, and so they chose to use Rosa Parks instead.

However, this did not stop Colvin from becoming an activist. She later joined three other women —Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald—as the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which legally put an end to racial segregation on public transportation in the state of Alabama.

Two things struck me as I read this story: 1) Colvin’s determination to defy the law came about as a result of her school having observed Negro History Week. At a time when pressure is being put on schools to ban certain books and to refrain from teaching African American history, I think this is significant. Browder v Gayle may never have come about had these young girls not been taught their history.

2) You may not always receive the recognition you deserve, but that should not stop you from joining with others who are fighting for the same cause you believe in. Most of us have only heard of Rosa Parks, and so we never stop to think of the thousands of unnamed persons who rallied behind the organizers of the boycott to elicit social change. Let us follow the example of Colvin and those who “believe[d] that a way will be made out of no way.” — MLK

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