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Too Dark and Not Respectable Enough: Why Civil Rights Leaders Supported Rosa Parks Over Claudette Colvin

Avatar • Jan 12, 2016

Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same.  Few know the story of this young pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement.

claudette colvin

The young Claudette Colvin.

The day Claudette refused to give up her seat

Claudette Colvin relied on the Montgomery buses to get to and from Booker T. Washington High School.  March 2, 1955 was to be just another day riding the bus home until the following events occurred.  A white woman boarded, and since there was nowhere for her to sit in the white section, the bus driver ordered three black women, including Colvin, to give up their row of seats.  Colvin refused while the other two moved to stand up.  However, a pregnant black woman boarded the bus and sat next to Colvin.  The bus driver ordered them to move for the white woman to sit but they both refused.

He asked us both to get up. [Mrs. Hamilton, the pregnant woman] said she was not going to get up and that she had paid her fare and that she didn’t feel like standing,” recalls Colvin. “So I told him I was not going to get up, either. So he said, ‘If you are not going to get up, I will get a policeman.’ ”

The policeman arrived, displaying two of the characteristics for which white Southern men had become renowned: gentility and racism. He could not bring himself to chide Mrs. Hamilton in her condition, but he could not allow her to stay where she was and flout the law as he understood it, either. So he turned on the black men sitting behind her. “If any of you are not gentlemen enough to give a lady a seat, you should be put in jail yourself,” he said.

A black man, who was sitting behind them, gave up his seat for Mrs. Hamilton leaving the young Colvin the only black remaining in that row.

Aren’t you going to get up?” asked the policeman.

No,” said Colvin.

He asked again.

No, sir,” she said.

Oh God,” wailed one black woman at the back. One white woman defended Colvin to the police; another said that, if she got away with this, “they will take over”.

I will take you off,” said the policeman, then he kicked her. Two more kicks soon followed.

The fifteen-year-old Colvin was “yanked by both wrists and dragged off” the bus while yelling, “It’s my constitutional right”.  She was ultimately booked as an adult.

It took on the form of harassment. I was very hurt, because I didn’t know that white people would act like that and I … I was crying,” she says. The policeman grabbed her and took her to a patrolman’s car in which his colleagues were waiting. “What’s going on with these n$#*(%@?” asked one. Another cracked a joke about her bra size.

I was really afraid, because you just didn’t know what white people might do at that time,” says Colvin.

Why Colvin was not chosen as the face of the civil rights movement

Colvin’s dramatic arrest garnered attention by blacks in Montgomery, including leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who was 26 at the time.  They went on to hire her a defense attorney and raise money for her trial, but to no avail.  The teenager was convicted of violating the segregation law, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.

Talk had been stirring for some time amongst black leaders about a “standard-bearer of the movement”.  Some, including civil rights attorney Fred Gray, viewed Colvin and her arrest as what they needed.  However, many others thought otherwise; they felt that she was not a good fit.

E. D. Nixon, an influential black leader heavily involved with the case, said, ‘I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with’.

The potential reasons vary for why they could not “win with” Colvin:

Some in Montgomery, particularly in King Hill, think the decision was informed by snobbery. “It was partly because of her colour and because she was from the working poor,” says Gwen Patton, who has been involved in civil rights work in Montgomery since the early 60s. “She lived in a little shack. It was a case of ‘bourgey’ blacks looking down on the working-class blacks.”

Others felt she was just too young

Some felt she was too young to be the trigger that precipitated the movement,’ wrote Jo Anne Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College.

However, most people believe she wasn’t chosen because of her teenage pregnancy (which was the result of rape by an unnamed adult male):

In his Pulitzer prize-winning account of the civil rights years, Parting The Waters, Taylor Branch wrote: “Even if Montgomery Negroes were willing to rally behind an unwed, pregnant teenager — which they were not — her circumstances would make her an extremely vulnerable standard bearer.”

Colvin herself believes this (pregnancy) was the ultimate reason as well.  However, she also feels that the leaders viewed her as “too militant” for the movement; “they wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa,” she said.  Colvin also thinks color had a role.  She states in the following interview:

Even if I was not pregnant … The only difference between me and Rosa was that she was an adult and a lighter tone.  Black people, at that particular time, liked the lighter feature of women … and men.  [Because of television] Rosa would make a good representative for both the poor and the middle class people.

Nonetheless, she is not bitter; she does not mind being unnamed “as long as we have someone out there to tell our story.”

Though Colvin did not become the figure for the movement to desegregate public transportation, her contributions cannot go unnoticed.  She went on to testify with three other women in the landmark 1956 federal suit Browder v. Gayle, which ultimately ended segregation on Alabama buses. This case was brought forth months after Rosa’s action. Fred Gray, the attorney for Colvin and then Parks stated:

Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks.”

claudette colvin 2

Claudette Colvin, who is still alive today. {Image Source}

SOURCES:
1. Gary Young, THE GUARDIAN, “She would not be moved,” December 15, 2000.
2. Eliza Gray, NEWSWEEK, “A Forgotten Contribution,” March 2, 2009.
3. Kramer, Sara Kate, NPR: RADIO DIARIES, “Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus,” March 3, 2015.
4. Interview of Claudette Colvin, MontgomeryBoycott.com

Have you heard about Claudette Colvin?

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folamix
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folamix

Yes I had always known about Claudette Colvin.

OXxo
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OXxo

So have I probably as I’m not in the US.

joy karen
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joy karen

i, too, have always known about ms. colvin BECAUSE I READ A LOT. and i say this not to brag but just to point out that, unfortunately, WE do not read as much as we should and are therefore sadly lacking in information. however, i had ALSO read that ms. colvin was a high school student and was pregnant at the time. That was the main reason MLK and his SCLC could not take ms. colvin’s case. as for her being “too dark”, this is the first time that i am hearing this part of the case. Why did BGLH… Read more »

Staci Elle
Guest

Thank you for this story. She was a badass.

MyFluffyPuffs
Guest

This is such a great write up I never knew about this woman’s struggle. I mean she was assaulted in public and given a criminal record as a teen! That’s insane but despite her stand, it was her own that denied her story to be heard because she was poor and darker skinned? ?

NIRA
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NIRA

Nobody denied her story. What’s sad is the lack of black history that teachers teach or the schools you go to. I have heard of the story back in college when I took black history. Im sorry you had to find put this way and not in school like some others

MyFluffyPuffs
Guest

Black history is not taught in-depth as it should be — and I’m speaking as a Boston, MA native. So you already know…

Guest
Guest
Guest

So glad to see her story being told. Sometimes the person that laid the 1st brick to build the house doesn’t get any recognition for their work.

Skeewee
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Skeewee

What a wonderfully brave girl! Now THIS is bravery!!! I’d heard of her story a few years ago. So remarkable and courageous at the tender age of 15.

Alwina Oyewoleturner
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Alwina Oyewoleturner

The first time I’m hearing about this young pioneer in the civil rights movement. Kudos for her standing up or in this case, sitting down and refusing to move to accommodate someone else. But it’s sad that much has not changed since this case regarding dark skinned vs. light skinned blacks. No matter where you go, people will judge on the color of skin, whether you are too dark or too light. Maybe one day things will change…

Kaila Smith
Guest

Thank you for sharing her story BGLH!

Lolalao
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Lolalao

Very true..thank you!

Milos Mom
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Milos Mom

Each one teach one… I’ve never heard of this woman before. Now I know.

TeaJae
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TeaJae

never knew her story amazing thank you sharing this with us

mibtp
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mibtp

Wow, what a story. Sickening that we have not hear of her before.

NIRA
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NIRA

Thank You BGLH for sharing this with the black men and women who were unaware of Claudette Colvin. For the one’s that never knew of her I apologize that your local colleges or high school didnt teach you the proper black history that you should have been taught and deserved. For the other comments saying there was no recognition, that is not true she received plenty of recognition and the movement put money behind her and supported her, it’s just sad that they choose a different face. But what you dont understand is that back then she was young and… Read more »

Medusa
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Medusa

Why does skin color always have to play a role… even in the black community…

OXxo
Guest
OXxo

I too was informed she was unsuitable because of her personal background nothing was mentioned about the shade of her skin.

Dr.Rue
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Dr.Rue

This is old news. Who didn’t know this? Even the White folks know this info

silvia2015
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silvia2015

wtf, had anyone told me C.Colvine was still alive i wood’s argued with them..i had no idea she was around but then again i never checked though i did hear of her story
Emma huge fan of this site! thank 4 the story Chinwe!
the lady looks flawless! wonder whats her diet or beauty resume !

Genia W-m
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Genia W-m

Natalie Cole talked about ‘colorism’ and how her mother refused to allow them to play with dark skinned children. She said many Blacks acted that way back then.

Claudette UK
Guest
Claudette UK

And yet what colour was her father?

anw160
Guest
anw160

I was just looking at a documentary on the Civil Rights movement and the Montgomery Bus Boycott yesterday. Mrs. Till (Emmitt Till’s mother) was talking to the press, and asking her why she wanted to have an open casket funeral. As I was looking at it, I thought we as Black people had to be out of our damn minds to want to integrate with people who hate us. We were being lynched across the U.S and being treated worst than animals in many cases. I feel that slavery caused some mental illness in us as collective. Intergration was one… Read more »

Erica Patton
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Erica Patton

I knew about Colvin, as a history major from ASU, we had to learn about her and the man before her. We were taught that she wasn’t used because she was a pregnant unwed teenager. Further Mrs. Parks was the best person because she was middle-aged and when she did it she had just left work. I don’t think skin tone had anything to do with why she wasn’t chosen. Rosa Parks was just more suitable and would definitely be taken more serious than a child for something that pivotal. Not to say that Ms. Colvin should be excluded but… Read more »

Claudette UK
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Claudette UK

Remember it was black people that started measuring/judging other blacks against that brown paper bag.

Jacquiemdc
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Jacquiemdc

So, despite the fact that Colvin herself thought her skin tone was part of the reason she wasn’t chosen, you know better than she does, huh.

Andy Pandy
Guest
Andy Pandy

just goes to show how people change narratives even when a person who was there and witnessed it shares their truth.

Andy Pandy
Guest
Andy Pandy

but Black people didnt create that standard, whites did. that?s why you have Chinese, Japanese, South and East Asian/Indian people who also measure beauty by lightness. Black people used that standard because it was acceptable to whites who saw light skinned Blacks as more acceptable.

Andy Pandy
Guest
Andy Pandy

because Whites made it play a role. Again, if you look at the value of lighter skin, that is not just in the US Black community. Chinese, Indian, African, Mexican, South American people all see lighter skin as most favorable. That is European influence. We all need to take back our culture and value the diversity of our racial ethnic groups outside of the context of whiteness and Europeanism.

Cali Vixen
Guest
Cali Vixen

it had everything to do with it…

Hunglikejesus
Guest
Hunglikejesus

My grandmother being a tall light skinned Black woman told me that she knew for sure Ms. Parks was chosen because of her looks. Even on the battlefield for civil rights self-hate is still first and foremost at the front of our minds. Methinks this colorism will be with just as long as antiBlack racism will be with us. And we still don’t won’t to talk about it as a whole or seriously.

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