Rosa Parks Is Not the Only Hero

Claudette Colvin

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December marks the 61st anniversary of a courageous act that changed our world forever. On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. was an act of individual resistance and her bravery changed the course of history and made her an American icon.

The opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington D.C. has been glorious. It has literally changed the composition of the National Mall, inside and outside, with this long overdue brilliant amalgam of our nation’s true history.

A teenage Claudette Colvin (left) refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger during the segregation era in Montgomery, Ala.; (right) Claudette Colvin in a 2015 interview with The Associated Press. (Courtesy Photo and AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A teenage Claudette Colvin (left) refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger during the segregation era in Montgomery, Ala. 1955; (right) Claudette Colvin in a 2015 interview with The Associated Press. (Courtesy Photo and AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Inevitably, with such a long, rich and textured history, people will quibble with what is curated. One omission jumped out at us, given its importance to the narrative of the civil rights movement, we continue to omit Claudette Colvin, the courageous 15-year-old who first championed the cause to end segregation.

In researching history, especially Black history, there are many discrepancies which can be found. A plethora of reasons may be responsible; the lack of documentation, the loss of information due to death, and the fact that truth can remain buried in a mystery. However, the parts of history that are quite clear and concise should never be skewed.

One of us founded a civil rights festival to honor and tell as truthfully as possible this nation’s history. Another of us made that history. We together are committed to educating people as broadly as possible.

When bus segregation was legal, a young Birmingham girl named Claudette Colvin was arrested for resisting it–this was nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested. Claudette was just 15-years-old and as a result of this incident, and the persistent stain of mistreatment, JoAnn Robinson and others within the Montgomery Improvement Association started and organized a one-day bus boycott in support of Claudette.

When Claudette’s case was brought up, Attorney Fred Gray represented her in his first case out of law school. He sought the help of the NAACP attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Robert L. Carter. They argued the Browder v. Gayle case in 1955 before the Supreme Court and successfully won the case. This is the Supreme Court ruling that ended segregation of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. In addition, the ruling also impacted public transportation throughout the United States including taxis, airplanes and trains.

The case against Mrs. Rosa Parks wasn’t used at all; as she was actually arrested for a misdemeanor.

The other three women’s cases that were used in addition to Claudette’s case were those of Amelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith. Although Mrs. Parks did not take part in any of this, she is clearly cited in history and in the new museum as being the one who ended bus segregation. Unfortunately, Claudette’s case and her involvement have not been cited, nor properly included.

The facts and documentation are clear and shows the precise evidence of the truth. As truth has provided, because of Claudette’s personal movement, we had the support of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and prominent attorneys Robert L. Carter and Fred Gray.

And, allow us to also give honor to Rosa Parks and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for furthering the goal to end bus segregation.

For American history–Black history in particular–we must include every ounce of the truth. We know all too well that history defines and propels our future and the futures of generations to come. It is our hope that the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and others will include Claudette Colvin’s participation in and contribution to this pivotal point in history.

Robert Raben is the Founder of The Raben Group and The March on Washington Film Festival. Gloria Laster is the sister of Claudette Colvin. Colvin, now 77 years old, resides in the state of New York and is one of two survivors of the Browder v. Gayle Supreme Court case.