Claudette Colvin


Around 1828, Thomas “Daddy” Rice developed a routine in which he blacked his face, dressed in old clothes, and sang and danced in imitation of an old and decrepit black man. Rice published the words to the song, “Jump, Jim Crow,” in 1830. In the 1880s, the term “Jim Crow” (by now a derisive slang for a black man) saw wide usage as a reference to practices, laws or institutions that arise from or sanction, the physical separation of black people from white people.(1)

Jim Crow laws (1874-1975) were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to Reconstruction. In the depression-racked 1890s, racism appealed to whites who feared losing their jobs to blacks or former slaves. Politicians abused blacks to win the votes of poor white “crackers.” Newspapers fed the bias of white readers by playing up (sometimes even making up) black crimes.(2)

The most important Jim Crow laws required that public schools, public facilities, e.g., water fountains, toilets, and public transportation, like trains and buses, have separate facilities for whites and blacks. These laws meant that black people were legally required to(1):

– attend separate schools and churches
– use public bathrooms marked “for colored only”
– eat in a separate section of a restaurant
– sit in the rear of a bus

The facilities and treatments were almost always inferior. Racism had assumed its full form.
The South blatantly racist while the North subtly so.

Why Jim Crow?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” – states the second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence, 1776.(3)

The reference to ‘all men’ did not include the black community or slaves. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration himself owned more than 100 slaves.

More than one-in-four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House,” writes historian Clarence Lusane in his most recent article, “Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved.”(4)

United States Constitution drafted in 1787 barred the Congress from banning slavery till 1800 (which was later extended to 1808). The constitution also included a ‘fugitive clause’ stipulating that escaped slaves should be forced to return to their masters – in exchange for the fugitive slave clause, the New England states got concessions on shipping and trade.

Disagreement on the inhumane practice of slavery between the Northern and Southern states finally led to the Civil war (1861-1865) paving the way for abolishing slavery. After the war, three amendments were made to the Constitution – The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to everyone born in the United States. It also banned states from limiting citizens’ rights, depriving them of due process of law, or denying “any person … the equal protection of the laws.” The 15th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination in voting. These amendments offered promises that African Americans would finally achieve equal treatment under the law.(2)

However, when has anyone given up their key resource while reaping profits? If hundreds of thousands of slaves are freed, who would till the land and produce rich economies. States with the maximum slaves kept opposing emancipation attempts in Congress. As the federal troops withdrew from the South 10 years after the three Constitutional amendments, the states returned to its local white rule. Was it ever easy for masters to think of their slaves as ‘equals’?

Over the next 20 years, blacks would lose almost all they had gained. Worse, denial of their rights and freedoms would be made legal by a series of racist statutes, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws.(5)

Though seemingly rigid and complete, Jim Crow laws did not account for all of the discrimination blacks suffered. Unwritten rules barred blacks from white jobs in New York and kept them out of white stores in Los Angeles. Humiliation was about the best treatment blacks who broke such rules could hope for. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which revived in 1915, used venom and violence to keep blacks “in their place.”(5)

Claudette Colvin

March 2, 1955 in Montgomery Alabama; Claudette took the bus home from high school. The bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white person and she refused, saying she had paid her fare and it was her constitutional right. Two police officers put her in handcuffs and arrested her. Her school books went flying off her lap.

“All I remember is that I was not going to walk off the bus voluntarily,” Colvin says.     COLVIN540-1414ca3e9eb115af2f68e17c5e29afa1a7f685a1-s1400

It was Negro history month, and at her segregated school they had been studying black leaders like Harriet Tubman, the runaway slave who led more than 70 slaves to freedom through the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. They were also studying about Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Colvin says, “We couldn’t try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot … and take it to the store. Can you imagine all of that in my mind? My head was just too full of black history, you know, the oppression that we went through. It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.

Reverend Johnson bailed me out. I was afraid that night. It would have been easy for the Klan to come up the hill in the night. Dad sat up all night long with his shotgun. We all stayed up. The neighbors facing the highway kept watch. Probably nobody on King Hill slept that night.

Reverend Johnson had said something to me I’ll never forget. His opinion meant a lot to me. “Claudette,” he said, “I’m so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We’ve all been praying and praying. But you’re different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.”

Colvin, all of 15 years, was the first to really challenge the law. She was also one of the four women plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the court case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama.(6)

Rosa Parks

Nine months after Colvin, black seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in the same city, on the same bus route and helped initiate the civil rights movement in the United States. The same day, leaders of the local black Rosa_Parks_Bookingcommunity organized a bus boycott led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Over the next half-century, Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation.(6)

Parks became known through history as “the mother of the civil rights movement.” She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor the United States bestows on a civilian. When she died at age 92 on October 24, 2005, she became the first woman in the nation’s history to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.(7)

Although, Claudette Colvin was considered too young to be the face of the civil rights movement and Rosa Parks seemed more appropriate to lead the movement on and galvanize a nation, fact remains that Claudette, in her teens, was the first person to challenge the legally established racial segregation and stand up to society’s discrimination.

In the wake of the Charleston shooting and the many cases of Police brutality, this is even more important for society to understand and together celebrate human spirit – Race did not lead to Slavery but a history of Slavery could only sustain on the theory of race.

Racism was created to support the Politics of Economics!

2021 – How far have we come? Or have we? – Black Lives Matter

Feature image is by Patrick Campbell. His inspiring story can be found here – Patrick Campbell