One of the motivating factors in the creation of my fiction has been to celebrate how the contributions of ordinary people became meaningful in changing the lives of others. Small acts of defiance called attention to injustice and became the building blocks of a movement. Last week, I spoke about a giant in the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks, who had been inappropriately transformed into a mythology because of her defiance on a bus. This vaunted act of courage was only the tip of the iceberg for Parks who used her entire lifetime to fight against a system of oppression. In The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis says that Parks tired of talking about it, because the bus incident diminished all of the other good that she did.
But what if a young person, instead of a middle-aged activist, had committed that same defiance on the bus? What if that act was the first rebellious incident in a young life? Would it get the same attention?
Well, a young person did do these things. And no, it didn’t get the same attention. Claudette Colvin, who is still living, was a fifteen-year-old when she showed her defiance against the system of oppression on the bus in 1955, nine months before Parks did. However, as with other things in life, history is all about public relations. Colvin didn’t present the same kind of face of middle-class respectability that Parks did. Colvin was a young teenager, who got pregnant in that same year and didn’t participate in organized civil activities. The incorrect impression people received of Colvin was of a “wild child.”
Despite her status as an A student in her high school, the NAACP didn’t see Colvin as an appropriate person to present as a public face. So, because of her “wild child” guise, she didn’t get the PR that Parks did for the same act of defiance. Some have even suggested that colorism played a part in why the lighter-skinned Parks became the icon of a movement and the darker-skinned Colvin just faced trouble and castigation.
However, Colvin must be remembered, because while Parks presented the proper PR face of middle-class defiance, Colvin was one of five women who was part of the actual lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, that went all of the way to the Supreme Court and ended the desegregation of the buses in Montgomery. Colvin’s battle was fought quietly, in the courts and actually resulted in change.
Claudette Colvin paid the price. She didn’t get public credit for her defiant stance, but she still found it hard to find work in her hometown because she was seen as a troublemaker. She left Alabama for New York just a few years later. Fortunately, people are learning more about Colvin and the brave legal stance that she took. I’m hopeful that more people can learn about her, and acknowledge her contribution now, while she is still alive, for the part that she played as an ordinary young girl who made change happen.