Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin

In March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a White on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Claudette Colvin was arrested for the same “offense.” She was taken to jail and later placed on indefinite probation. Colvin was 15 years old at the time.

So why didn’t Colvin become a civil right hero? She cites three reasons. First, she wasn’t entirely non-violent. She resisted arrest. The officer who arrested her claimed she kicked and scratched him.

Second, Colvin became pregnant soon after her arrest. She wasn’t the saintly model victim Rosa Parks was.

Third, Colvin believes she was shunted aside because of her skin color. Unlike Parks, Colvin has very dark skin.

The first two reasons may be enough to explain why Colvin wasn’t lionized by the civil rights movement in 1955. They don’t explain why she wasn’t widely recognized later.

Maybe by then the view of Parks as the pioneer was already locked in. But maybe Colvin’s theory that her skin color played a role is accurate.

That theory almost surely had a basis in the way she was treated by light-skin African-Americans in Montgomery at the time. Indeed, skin color discrimination among African-Americans was prevalent in the 1970s when I did plaintiffs’ anti-race discrimination work, and was a fact of life in Washington, D.C.

I don’t know whether, or to what extent, it exists today. However, if we’re going to have a “racial reckoning,” brown-on-black discrimination should be a part of it (and “Whitey” shouldn’t take most of the blame).

Meanwhile, Claudette Colvin, who is still on probation for her defiance back in 1955, should have her record expunged.

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