Well… it was History of Afro-Americans that was being taught in school for a month, and the stories of exploitation of the Coloured by the White: All these had a profound impact on her!
One day, when she was returning from school, the bus driver asked her to leave the seat for a White co-passenger… However, the 15-year-old girl refused to give up her seat to the White woman inside the crowded bus. Later, the Police arrested the girl… Claudette Colvin had acted a few months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, the Secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, played the lead role, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955!
A New York-based Jewish organisation – Congregation Kol Ami – honoured 79-year-old Colvin with the ‘Be The Light’ Award on April 28, for her bravery in White Plains! After presenting the award, Rabbi Shira Milgrom of Congregation Kol Ami recalled the event that had taken place six decades ago. He said that the pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement in the US sat in the coloured section, about two seats away from an emergency exit, in a Capitol Heights bus. As the bus became over-crowded, all the White seats in front were filled, and a White person was standing… African-Americans seated nearby were supposed to get up from their seats to make room for Whites, and to stand in the aisle if there were no empty seats in that section! When a White woman was left standing in the front, driver Robert W Cleere asked Colvin and three other Black women in her row to move to the back.
Although the other three moved, a pregnant Black woman – Ruth Hamilton – got on and sat next to Colvin. The driver asked both of them to get up and they refused to do so, with Colvin telling the driver: “I was not going to get up either.” The driver called the Police and got Colvin arrested. Later, she vociferated that her Constitutional Rights were being violated… When Colvin’s case was brought to the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955, the charges of disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws were dropped.
After receiving the award, Colvin asked the audience (especially the youths) to do the right thing at the right moment… and not be afraid of anyone who is wrongly intimidating!
A few months after Colvin’s rebellion, another Black lady – Rosa Parks – refused to give up her seat in a bus in Montgomery (on December 5). Her action triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement! Martin Luther King Jr, too, had joined the movement as the Blacks moved the Supreme Court, demanding justice! On December 20, the Apex Court ruled that the Seat Sharing Law in Alabama was discriminatory and that it should be abolished. On December 21, the image of Parks, sitting on the front seat of the bus, was published on the front pages of all the major dailies in Alabama! It is told that it was Parks with her place secured in history, while Colvin rendered into obscurity…
Once, Colvin told the media that Montgomery’s Black leaders did not publicise her pioneering effort, as she was an unmarried teenager at the time and was impregnated by a married man. “Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn’t the case at all. Her case did help the cause, however,” she stressed. According to Colvin, protesters might have thought that if they portrayed her as the face of a rebellion, then the move could highlight her pregnancy, and not her courage!
On April 28, Colvin told the audience: “Whenever people ask me: ‘Why didn’t you get up when the bus driver asked you?’ I say it felt as though Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder. I felt inspired by these women because my teacher taught us about them in so much detail.”
Colvin, who was eclipsed by Parks, continued: “After my release from the jail, I came back to my home and found my dad standing at the door with a shotgun. He told me that it was a precautionary measure, in case the Ku Klux Klan turned up. I realised that it was just the beginning… We would have to go a long way__*!”
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