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Unjust laws will remain unjust until they are disobeyed by good people. Had brave individuals throughout history not risked imprisonment or worse to challenge tyrannical, racist, and immoral laws, society today, would be much less free — this rule is especially true for black people in America.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks made history by disobeying an unjust law that required people of color to yield their seats on the bus to white people. When the bus driver told the entire row of black people to move to the back of the bus because a white man boarded, everyone complied, except for Parks.
Parks was arrested and convicted for failing to obey the driver’s seat assignments. The events following her arrest, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the federal ruling of Browder v. Gayle which ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional, would be a turning point in segregated America.
While Rosa Parks is certainly a large part of American history, her idea to disobey the unjust bus law was not entirely original.
Rosa Parks’ decision to disobey that fateful day was inspired and, in fact, modeled after a 15-year-old hero named Claudette Colvin.
Nine months before Parks was arrested for her choice not to give up her seat, on March 2, 1955, this brave child, without the support of the NAACP, or Civil Rights groups, took a stand on principle alone and refused to give up her seat.
“It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.” Colvin said as she bravely asserted her rights on her way home from school that day.
“I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat,” she later explained.
For violating the city’s segregation laws, Colvin, at only 15, was thrown in a cage. “I was really afraid, because you just didn’t know what white people might do at that time,” Colvin later said.
Luckily for Colvin, however, her arrest got the attention of the NAACP, who had been searching for a case to use to argue against these unjust laws. Colvin was brought to the NAACP as they discussed using her case to fight for the rights of all blacks. However, they opted not to use Colvin for several reasons.
According to Bio, after some consideration, the NAACP opted to wait for a different case. There were several reasons for this decision: Colvin’s conviction for violating segregation laws had been overturned on appeal (though a conviction for assault on a police officer stood). Colvin’s age was another issue—as Colvin told NPR in 2009, the NAACP and other groups “didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
The 15-year-old also became pregnant a few months after her arrest as a result of a statutory rape.
“If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have [had] a field day,” said Rosa Parks, in regards to Colvin’s pregnancy. “They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance.”
“I told Mrs Parks, as I had told other leaders in Montgomery, that I thought the Claudette Colvin arrest was a good test case to end segregation on the buses,” says Fred Gray, Parks’s lawyer. “However, the black leadership in Montgomery at the time thought that we should wait.”
It was during her time at the NAACP that Colvin met Rosa Parks. The pair became friends and it was decided that Parks would be the spokesperson for the next act of disobedience.
When asked by the Guardian in 2000, Colvin explained that the reason Parks would go on to make the case by refusing to move on the bus was multi-faceted.
“It would have been different if I hadn’t been pregnant, but if I had lived in a different place or been light-skinned, it would have made a difference, too.”
As the Guardian reported, Montgomery’s black establishment leaders decided they would have to wait for the right person. And that person, it transpired, would be Rosa Parks. “Mrs. Parks was a married woman,” said ED Nixon. “She was morally clean, and she had a fairly good academic training … If there was ever a person we would’ve been able to [use to] break the situation that existed on the Montgomery city line, Rosa L Parks was the woman to use … I probably would’ve examined a dozen more before I got there if Rosa Parks hadn’t come along before I found the right one.”
By Monday, the day the boycott began, Colvin had already been airbrushed from the official version of events. Meanwhile, Parks had been transformed from a politically-conscious activist to an upstanding, unfortunate Everywoman. “And since it had to happen, I’m happy it happened to a person like Mrs Parks,” said Martin Luther King from the pulpit of the Holt Street Baptist Church.
Had the NAACP not had the foresight to market this act of civil disobedience to masses, the events that transpired after Parks’ arrest may have never happened and history could be entirely different.
After understanding the real story behind Rosa Parks, it now makes perfect sense why these images of her arrest and seat on the bus are so professional — they were meant to be.
The power of marketing information took on an entirely new meaning that day.
While American history books continue to ignore the bravery of Claudette Colvin, her heroism has resisted the whitewashing and her story has beat the odds.
Please share this story with your friends and family so that this unsung protagonist who had the courage to disobey unjust laws as a child gets the credit she deserves.