Before Rosa Parks, there had been Claudette Colvin

Before Rosa Parks, there had been Claudette Colvin
Before Rosa Parks, there had been Claudette Colvin

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving her seat on the bus to a white man. At the time, in several states in the southern United States, black citizens like her could only sit in the back of buses and were forced to move or possibly get off the bus in case there were not enough seats for white passengers. Parks’ refusal and arrest convinced the African American community to boycott the city’s bus system for nearly a year, leading to the abolition of racial segregation on public transportation in Alabama.

Parks’ gesture and its aftermath made her famous around the world, inspiring numerous films, books and songs. In 1999 Parks – who died in 2005 – was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the most prestigious civil recognition that a US citizen can receive: in the official act it is recognized as the “first lady of civil rights “. But Parks was not the first person in Montgomery to rebel against segregation laws, also known in the United States as the “Jim Crow” laws. Nine months before her, a 15-year-old black girl, Claudette Colvin, had been arrested for violating the same city ordinance and accused of assaulting a police officer. For these charges she was sentenced to parole, without ever receiving notification of revocation or termination of the sentence. Colvin is 82 today, and a month ago he asked the Montgomery County Juvenile Court to clean up his criminal record.

“My schoolmates and I usually took a special bus that was reserved for black children. […] But on March 2, 1955 we were out of school early, I think because of a meeting between the teachers. We had walked to the center and took the city bus to go home, ”Colvin said in the written statement accompanying the petition presented in court. A few stops later, the front space on the bus was full and the driver had told her and her companions to then clear the front row of the rear section to make room for a white girl – the others had moved, while she was remained seated. In the statement Colvin said that she was “dragged off the bus, handcuffed and taken to the cell”, without mentioning the charge of assaulting the policeman.

In an article on the site of CNN he added that he resisted arrest and shouted “it’s my constitutional right!” It was for the assault that a Montgomery court – overturning the juvenile court’s convictions for violation of segregationist rules – upheld the sentence by assigning her indefinite probation, linked to the maintenance of good conduct. “As far as I know, my parole was never revoked,” Colvin now wrote, although his attorney explained to CNN that the probation period instead expired when Colvin turned eighteen, although she had not received any official communication at the time.

Colvin’s story immediately caught the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), one of the first and most important civil rights associations in the United States, and other similar associations which, however, decided not to organize any political action, despite having been looking for the right figure to lead the protests against the Racial segregation on Montgomery buses.

In fact, Colvin was 15 years old at the time of his arrest and shortly thereafter he discovered she was pregnant. “[I membri dell’organizzazione] they said they didn’t want to use a pregnant teenager because it would be controversial and people would talk more about the pregnancy than the boycott, ”Colvin told BBC.

Civil rights activist Gwen Patton years ago explained to Guardian that the decision of the NAACP board was also a class decision, linked to the fact that Colvin lived in a “small shack” and came from a working-class family. Always at Guardian, Ed Nixon, then president of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, admitted that Rosa Parks’ subsequent protest offered the organization the right person to start the protests: “a married woman, morally clean and with a fairly good academic preparation ». Parks had also been secretary of the NAACP for some time, and Claudette Colvin said she met her during one of the NAACP’s youth activities.

In another interview with Washington Post, Colvin added that in addition to having “the right background,” Parks had a lighter skin color than hers and therefore less chance of being discriminated against by both members of her own community and other citizens (this kind of discrimination is called “Colorism”).

More than a year after the arrest, however, the NAACP contacted Colvin asking her to participate as a plaintiff in the court case that took the name of “Browder v Gayle” (William Gayle was the mayor of Montgomery), along with four other women who later her had not complied with the segregation laws on city buses: Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanatta Reese (Reese retired following intimidation and racist threats). Parks was not involved in the complaint because at that time she was engaged in her trial, which was systematically slowed down and risked lasting years and complicating the other as well. On June 5, 1956, the district court ruled that segregation on buses in Alabama was unconstitutional. The same sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Court on December 17, 1956 and three days later the boycott of buses in Montgomery, inspired by the gesture of Parks, ended.

After testifying in that trial, Colvin stayed for another four years in Alabama, where he struggled to find work. “I was always fired when my employers found out I was ‘the girl’, the one who was sitting on the bus,” she said in her statement last month. Then she moved to the Bronx, New York, where she lived for most of her life without letting other people know of her arrest, returning to visit her family in Alabama in the summer, but always with the fear of being arrested by the police for violating her parole (after being fired from the shop where she worked in Montgomery, Parks also moved first to Hampton, Virginia, and then to Detroit).

Colvin has been living in a retirement home in Birmingham, Alabama for some time, but the idea of ​​moving to Texas with her son and grandchildren prompted her to petition to remove the sentence from her criminal record before moving. , and obtain justice on historical records. The judge entrusted with the matter has announced that the sentence will be canceled. For at least twenty years, however, Colvin and his family have also tried to have his role recognized and valued in the history of the civil rights movement.

In 2000, Colvin refused to appear in a video intended for Rosa Parks Museum Montgomery, stating that the name of the museum had already chosen which story to tell. In 2016, the request of Colvin and family members to mention his arrest within the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) of Washington was not accepted.

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