Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks.
–Fred Gray, Alabama civil rights attorney
When I attended the Underground Railroad Conference at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY on February 27, the participants were treated to a performance by the group the Matie Masie Ensemble, who blended spoken word and song with African and jazz music. This particular series of story-songs included a narrative about a 15-year-old young black woman named Claudette Colin, who, nine months before Rosa Parks’ act of defiance, “refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus the same and was arrested for violating segregation law, disorderly conduct, and assault.”
So, as the Matie Masie narrative asks, Why does Rosa Parks get all the credit? What about Claudette?
She wasn’t considered the right symbol. She was young, impulsive, occasionally loud, wore her hair in cornrows rather than straightening it. It didn’t help that she subsequently got pregnant from “what she said was a non-consensual relationship.”
Rosa Parks, by contrast, was a good middle-class woman of a certain bearing with the right hair and the right look who would be a much better symbol for the Montgomery bus boycott.
However Claudette is part of legal history. It was four women… — Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith — who served as plaintiffs in the legal action challenging Montgomery’s segregated public transportation system.
In their case — Browder v. Gayle — a district court and, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation on buses.
There’s a 2009 book on Claudette Colvin by Philip Hoose which tells this underreported part of the story.
Civil Rights in America: Racial Desegregation of Public Accommodations