Rosa Parks Wasn’t A Pioneer

“I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.” —Claudette Colvin

In A Nutshell

In December 1955, Rosa Parks became a civil rights icon by refusing to submit her bus seat to a white woman. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became involved, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott and the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. Nine months previous, another woman had also refused her seat on the Montgomery bus line. However, she was 15 years old and pregnant, and the NAACP refused to back her, concerned that her indelicate personal situation might hurt their cause.

The Whole Bushel

Ever since the end of slavery, African Americans were treated as second-class citizens in the United States, subjected to Jim Crow laws, which kept them segregated from whites. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, largely marginalized today, were extremely powerful and vicious, conducting lynchings, bombing churches, and terrorizing innocent people. By the 1950s, tensions had reached a head, with many leaders in the black community preaching a message of civil disobedience—peaceful resistance to the racist status quo. Groups like the NAACP strove for equality.

On December 1, 1955, when African-American Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery city bus, the NAACP saw their chance. Parks became one of the darlings of the civil rights movement, the NAACP’s symbol of injustice. Her case led to the Montgomery bus boycott, headed up by rising civil rights advocate Martin Luther King Jr. In the years since, Parks has become an idol, meeting presidents, winning awards, and memorialized with street names all over the country.

But Rosa Parks was hardly the first African-American woman to refuse her seat. Nine months before her historic stand, another Montgomery woman took a stand against discrimination, declining to budge when the bus driver ordered her to give her seat to a white passenger. After proudly opining on her constitutional rights, the woman, Claudette Colvin, was dragged off the bus in handcuffs by the police. It would seem like the perfect platform for the NACCP to make their case. Unfortunately, Colvin was also 15 years old and pregnant by a married man. Such situations were not merely frowned upon in that era, but downright scandalous, and many black leaders gave Colvin’s case a wide berth, fearing it might bring disgrace to their plight.

Although she was left to relative obscurity in favor of Parks, Colvin would go on to have a lasting impact as one of the plaintiffs in the federal court case Browder v. Gayle. On June 13, it was ruled that segregation on buses in Montgomery was unconstitutional. After an appeal, the US Supreme Court upheld the decision on December 17, 1956. Claudette would move to New York afterward and worked in a nursing home for many years, living largely under the radar until very recently.

Show Me The Proof

Claudette Colvin: Biography
NY Times: From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History