Claudette Colvin, a 15 year old writer, journalist, activist, came before Rosa Parks. On 2 March, 1955, she refused to give up her seat on a bus at the same bus stop in Montgomery, Alabama that Rosa Parks would board 9 months later. Predictably, in apartheid America, she was arrested for her infraction of Jim Crow law.
However, her arrest did not garner national press because she was a dark-skinned, working-class young woman (aged 15) who happened to be pregnant out of wedlock (the product of statutory rape- the rapist was a much older married man). The “establishment” of the Civil Rights- primarily educated, middle-class, Southern Baptists discriminated against Claudette Colvin because of her low socio-economic status, dark skin and out of wedlock pregnancy.
Some historians have argued that civil rights leaders, who were predominantly middle class, were uneasy with Colvin’s lower class background. Indeed, before Colvin, the NAACP had considered and rejected several protesters deemed unsuitable or unable to withstand the pressures of cross-examination during a legal challenge to racial segregation laws. (Wikipedia)
The same movement that shoved Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin aside because they were gay, shoved Claudette Colvin aside on the basis of classist, sexist and colorist justifications of “respectability.” This did not, however, stop Colvin from testifying in a Montgomery federal court hearing in the caseBrowder v. Gayle in May 1955. It did not stop her from continuing her work as an activist in the face of active job discrimination on the basis of her race, gender and marital status.
In all of this, the irony of a Civil Rights Movement whose leadership discriminated against their poorer, darker, more marginalized counterparts is not lost. I suppose this is why women like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height and Grace Lee Boggs did the work they did. Anti-racism activism requires challenging (cis)sexist, classist and homophobic discrimination in the ranks of any organization.
- The Guardian: She Would Not Be Moved
- Claudette Colvin: an unsung hero in the Montgomery Bus Boycott
- New York Daily News: A Civil Rights Pioneer Finally Gets Due Recognition
I also recommend reading Marla F. Frederick’s Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith
It’s all about grassroots activism in Southern communities.