On this day, 4th February 1913, Rosa Parks was born.
Parks is remembered in the history books as the African-American woman who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1st, 1955.
But what these history books often fail to acknowledge is that this was not an isolated action in Parks’ life, and nor was it an isolated action in the discriminated black community either.
Parks was a lifelong and deeply committed civil activist. As a six-year-old, she would sit with her grandfather, who had armed himself with a shotgun to protect his kin from the KKK. During her childhood, she also armed herself with a brick whilst confronting a white bully. In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, a member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) who was, at the time, collecting money for the defence of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of raping two white women. In 1943, Parks joined her husband in the NAACP, taking the role of secretary, a role she performed until 1957, despite facing the chauvinism of Edgar Nixon, the local NAACP leader who believed a woman’s place was in the home. Alongside her husband, Parks was a member of the Voters’ League and regularly attended Communist Party meetings.
Parks displayed her commitment to civil rights many times in her life in campaigns too innumerable to mention here. These included the fight for justice for Recy Taylor and Joan Little; black women who had been sexually assaulted by white men, her support for women’s reproductive freedom and her solidarity with the black power movement in Detroit, such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, aka the LRBW, the Black Panthers and the Republic of New Afrika. She described Malcolm X as her personal hero and continued the struggle for a better world right up until her death in 2005.
These same history books also often fail to acknowledge the actions of Claudette Colvin who, on March 2nd 1955 (nine months before Parks’ stand that helped change the world) refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus.
The fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin’s defiant stance against the prejudicial segregation laws went by largely unaccredited because, it is said, her pregnancy out of wedlock would have been frowned upon and fail to unify people in the same manner as Parks’ actions which ultimately led to the Montgomery bus boycott.
Like Parks, Claudette Colvin had always been politically active and engaged. At high school, she had ambitions to become the first African-American, female president of the United States and her activism was sparked by the tragic affair of her classmate Jeremiah Reeves, whose consensual sexual relationship with a white woman led to him being executed for rape. Joining the NAACP Youth Council, Colvin formed a close friendship with her overseer, Rosa Parks.
On March 2nd 1955, Colvin was returning home from her segregated study at Booker T. Washington High School where that day she had written a paper about the local custom of prohibiting African-Americans from trying on clothing they wished to purchase in the department stores of Montgomery. During the journey, the bus had become crowded and the procedure of moving black people from their ‘colored section’ to allow standing white passengers the opportunity to sit down began.
Seated next to Colvin was a pregnant black woman called Ruth Hamilton. On seeing that there was no seats available for his white passengers, bus driver, Robert W. Cleere, instructed both women to stand. Neither woman obliged and Cleere called for a policeman. Eventually, Mrs Hamilton did move, but Colvin refused to budge. She was subsequently arrested and forcibly removed from the bus, all the while shouting that her constitutional rights were being violated.
Colvin was subsequently tried in juvenile court, charged with disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws and assaulting a police officer. Whilst all charges were abhorrent, the last one was pure fantasy. Indeed, at the police station it was Colvin who was routinely verbally assaulted as police officers made lewd remarks about her body and, in particular, her breasts as they each took turns in guessing her bra size. Though convicted of all three charges, the charges of disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws were dropped upon appeal.
“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did”, Colvin would later say. “She told me to let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa, they like her” This advice was borne out by the decision made by the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement who felt they had a duty to put the most ‘appealing’ of protesters in the spotlight. Colvin, it was argued, did not meet these requirements because of her youth, her pregnancy (it was alleged that the father was Elliot Klein, a prominent white male in the Montgomery community who regularly sympathised with African-American Civil Rights) and because she did not have ‘good hair’ and was not ‘light skinned’. Rosa Parks herself had this to say about Colvin’s non-married, pregnant circumstances “If the white press got a hold of that information, they would have a field day. They called her a bad girl , and her case wouldn’t have a chance”.
Whilst it is important to remember Rosa Parks today, it’s equally important to remember Claudette Colvin too especially as, now aged eighty, she is still fighting for the recognition she deserves.