They sat. A nation stood. Celebrating Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin
“Mother Superior of the Civil Rights movement”
Today we celebrate Rosa Parks Day. And for good reason. It was Rosa who drew nation wide attention to Montgomery Alabama, where transportation segregation was rampant. And legal. What I didn’t realize– and you may not have known either– is that Rosa was sitting in “her” section of the bus. So, she was actually following the law. But when all the seats filled up and a white man was left standing, the bus driver demanded that Rosa give up her seat for him. She refused. And the rest is HERtory.
It is a very special thing to learn what happened from the woman herself, in her own words. Take it away Tom Brokaw…
(I grabbed this video from YouTube, but it is also available on NBC Learn. It originally aired in 1995)
But before Rosa, there was Claudette…
Civil Rights activist, Medical professional (1939-)
I first heard Claudette’s story on an episode of Drunk History. I was in awe. Here was this fierce little 15 year old girl, who refused to give up her seat on the bus NINE MONTHS BEFORE Rosa Parks did it. According to the episode (and this article by NPR), Rosa Parks was a sectary for the NAACP who had a natural gravitas. Parks was an adult, with the right look and the right hair. She would be the face of the boycott. Colvin was young, had darker skin, and got pregnant soon after her arrest– not the poster child the NAACP was looking for.
Recalling that day, Claudette says she remembers it was Negro history month at her (segregated) school. Her head was swimming with the stories of leaders like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Her class had talked about the injustices they faced every day under the Jim Crow laws. Injustices like not being able to eat at a lunch counter, or try on clothes. She remembers, “We couldn’t try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot…and take it to the store.” With all of these images fresh in her mind, she had finally had enough. That day she would not be moved. She would not get off that bus– she says she felt like she had Sojourner Truth on one side of her and Harriet Tubman on the other, holding her down in that seat.
When Claudette refused to give up her seat, the bus driver notified police. I will let Claudette tell the rest of the story herself:
CLAUDETTE: One of them (the police officers) said to the driver in a very angry tone, “Who is it?” The motorman pointed at me. I heard him say, “That’s nothing new . . . I’ve had trouble with that ‘thing’ before.” He called me a “thing.” They came to me and stood over me and one said, “Aren’t you going to get up?” I said, “No, sir.” He shouted “Get up” again. I started crying, but I felt even more defiant. I kept saying over and over, in my high-pitched voice, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!” I knew I was talking back to a white policeman, but I had had enough.
One cop grabbed one of my hands and his partner grabbed the other and they pulled me straight up out of my seat. My books went flying everywhere. I went limp as a baby—I was too smart to fight back. They started dragging me backwards off the bus. One of them kicked me. I might have scratched one of them because I had long nails, but I sure didn’t fight back. I kept screaming over and over, “It’s my constitutional right!” I wasn’t shouting anything profane—I never swore, not then, not ever. I was shouting out my rights.
It just killed me to leave the bus. I hated to give that white woman my seat when so many black people were standing. I was crying hard. The cops put me in the back of a police car and shut the door. They stood outside and talked to each other for a minute, and then one came back and told me to stick my hands out the open window. He handcuffed me and then pulled the door open and jumped in the backseat with me. I put my knees together and crossed my hands over my lap and started praying.
All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me “nigger bitch” and cracked jokes about parts of my body. I recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm over and over in my head, trying to push back the fear. I assumed they were taking me to juvenile court because I was only fifteen. I was thinking, ‘Now I’m gonna be picking cotton, since that’s how they punished juveniles’—they put you in a school out in the country where they made you do field work during the day.
But we were going in the wrong direction. They kept telling me I was going to Atmore, the women’s penitentiary. Instead, we pulled up to the police station and they led me inside. More cops looked up when we came in and started calling me “Thing” and “Whore.” They booked me and took my fingerprints.
Then they put me back in the car and drove me to the city jail—the adult jail. Someone led me straight to a cell without giving me any chance to make a phone call. He opened the door and told me to get inside. He shut it hard behind me and turned the key. The lock fell into place with a heavy sound. It was the worst sound I ever heard. It sounded final. It said I was trapped.
When he went away, I looked around me: three bare walls, a toilet, and a cot. Then I feel down on my knees in the middle of the cell and started crying again. I didn’t know if anyone knew where I was or what had happened to me. I had no idea how long I would be there. I cried and I put my hands together and prayed like I had never prayed before.
• • •
MEANWHILE, schoolmates who had been on the bus had run home and telephoned Claudette’s mother at the house where she worked as a maid. Girls went over and took care of the lady’s three small children so that Claudette’s mother could leave. Mary Ann Colvin called Claudette’s pastor, the Reverend H.H. Johnson. He had a car, and together they sped to the police station.
• • •
CLAUDETTE: When they led Mom back, there I was in a cell. I was cryin’ hard, and then Mom got upset, too. When she saw me, she didn’t bawl me out, she just asked, “Are you all right, Claudette?”
Reverend Johnson bailed me out and we drove home. By the time we got to King Hill, word had spread everywhere. All our neighbors came around, and they were just squeezing me to death. I felt happy and proud. I had been talking about getting our rights ever since Jeremiah Reeves was arrested, and now they knew I was serious. Velma, Q.P. and Mary Ann’s daughter, who was living with us at the time, kept saying it was my squeaky little voice that had saved me from getting beat up or raped by the cops.
But I was afraid that night, too. I had stood up to a white bus driver and two white cops. I had challenged the bus law. There had been lynchings and cross burnings for that kind of thing. Wetumpka Highway that led out of Montgomery ran right past our house. It would have been easy for the Klan to come up the hill in the night. Dad sat up all night long with his shotgun. We all stayed up. The neighbors facing the highway kept watch. Probably nobody on King Hill slept that night.
But worried or not, I felt proud. I had stood up for our rights. I had done something a lot of adults hadn’t done. On the ride home from jail, coming over the viaduct, Reverend Johnson had said something to me I’ll never forget. He was an adult who everyone respected and his opinion meant a lot to me. “Claudette,” he said, “I’m so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We’ve all been praying and praying. But you’re different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.”
Excerpt from Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose (via NPR)
Both of these ladies deserve to be honored today. As do the hundreds of civil rights advocates that made the Montgomery bus boycott a success. And the thousands of African Americans that demanded to be heard by peacefully boycotting. If they had given in and taken the bus, we might still be years behind.
These ladies, and so many others like them, were on the right side of history.
And that is beautiful.