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Claudette Colvin: The Teenager Who Took a Stand Against Racial Injustice

We’ve all heard about the people made famous for standing up against injustice, inequality, and hate crimes brought on by prejudice and ignorance. Names like Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi are enshrined in the mind’s temple—a reminder of the power of one man or one woman.

These are the people that have inspired others to find their courage and take a peaceful, yet demonstrable stand against injustice. And then there are those whose names have been lost to history, eclipsed by the activists we have come to know in history books and on television, and yet, for many, they led the movement in the fight for equal rights.  

Claudette Colvin is one of these people.

Colvin was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in a time when segregation—separating people on the basis of race—was commonplace. Those in power achieved this through legal policies of repression, physical force, and psychological intimidation. She was 14 years old when the U.S. Supreme Court’s verdict on the landmark civil rights lawsuit, Brown v. Board of Education, ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th amendment. Less than a year later, and nine months before Rosa Parks famously refused to give her seat up to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Colvin refused to stand for a white passenger and was forcibly removed from the bus and hauled off to jail. 

She was 15 years old. 

What prompted someone so young to take a stand against inequality and racism? Would you or I have the same courage? Struggling for Recognition: The Psychological Impetus for Democratic Progress, reported Colvin as saying, “It just so happens they picked me at the wrong time—it was Negro History Month…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.”

Phillip Hoose reported in his book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice that, while the defiant act of Rosa Parks was celebrated, Colvin found herself “shunned by her classmates and dismissed by community leaders.” Despite her dismissal, she became a key plaintiff in the Browder v. Gayle case that was to play a vital role in the end of segregation in Alabama. 

Following Rosa Parks refusal, the Montgomery Improvement Association, an activist organization led by a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr., headed the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a boycott that lasted for about a year and led, in 1956, to the Browder v. Gayle lawsuit. Claudette Colvin was one of the star witnesses in this case that found bus segregation unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. 

“When it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’” – Claudette Colvin

The civil rights movement was made up of many “Claudette Colvins”—everyday people that made exceptional choices, risking freedom and, in some cases, their lives. While many of these brave and heroic individuals remain faceless and unnamed, it was their actions that prompted change and fueled a movement to end racial discrimination and gain equal rights under the law. The civil rights movement began in the late 1940s and ended in the late 1960s.

What one word can define the essence of those that have chosen to walk the road of peace and defiance against intolerance, injustice, and hate? Erasist. They have lived their lives with the intention of erasing the racism and prejudice that has defined too many of our days…too many of our decades. Now, it’s our turn.