Before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin
How Repectability politics overshadowed a Civil Rights Pioneer
Rosa Parks is eternally enshrined in history as an American hero. Her historic 1955 Montgomery Bus protest against the deeply entrenched system of segregation in the deep south catalyzed the Civil Rights movement. Her actions have shaped the world we live in today by advancing the cause of equality. However, what if someone had staged the exact same protest several months before Rosa Parks and received little to no credit for it? Enter Claudette Colvin.
Claudette Colvin was born on September 5, 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama. When she was 15 years old, Colvin rode the bus in Montgomery on March 2nd, 1955 and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and was arrested. At the time it was negro history week (the predecessor to black history month) and had been studying black leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Colvin said what was going through her mind during her protest “My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. 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.’ “She protested saying, “I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!” This happened nine months before Rosa Parks better known protest of the same nature. After her arrest, Colvin was one of five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder V Gayle. That case would eventually rule that the Montgomery bus segregation was unconstitutional.
Her protest helped catalyze the movement. However, it is a curiosity why Rosa Parks same protest was so well known while Colvin is still relatively obscure. There are several reasons. One is that Colvin was a teenager, while Parks was an adult. Colvin came from a poor family while Parks was solidly middle class. Colvin had darker skin, while Parks was relatively fair-skinned, Rosa Parks was secretary of the NAACP and was well known in black political and activist circles, also Colvin became pregnant at 16 shortly after her protest by a married man 10 years her senior. The Civil rights establishment thought Rosa Parks would make a more effective face for the civil rights movement. A few years later, Colvin moved to New York City where she worked as a nurse’s aide for decades. She is still alive today and is 78 years old.
Although both women made important strides for civil rights, sadly this is just another example of respectability politics. Respectability politics is the idea that marginalized groups of people should try to “put their best face forward” and try to conform to mainstream values in order to be accepted as equals. The problem is that it suggests that people are only worth dignity and human rights if they meet certain criteria. It shouldn’t matter if one is a high school dropout that has been in and out of jail;or an Ivy league educated Professional; If your rights are being violated, your rights are being violated. This line of thinking still plagues social movements today from Black Lives Matter, to feminism, to LGBT rights and other causes. Claudette Colvin was one of the earliest to be overshadowed by respectability politics.