On March 2, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for not giving her seat on the bus to a white woman. This action was nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat up to a white man, which was a catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
It is important to remember that Colvin was a teenager. She was described as straight-A student, deeply religious, and well-behaved. She showed her power through resistance even with the repercussions. She was arrested and charged with misconduct, resisting arrest, and violating the city segregation laws. Despite the outcries and support, including from her pastor and Montgomery Civil Rights organizations, Colvin was sentenced to indefinite probation in the care of her parents. Colvin’s action was a defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement and immensely changed her life.
Colvin also became pregnant, which hindered civil rights leaders to embrace her as part of the movement. She was further shunned by some of her community. She was one of the five plaintiffs in the 1956 Gayle v. Browder case to challenge bus segregation, which affirmed the decision of the lower court that bus segregation was a violation of the law, and most importantly, overturned the long-standing decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which made separate but equal and, by extension segregation, the law of the land.
Colvin is still alive and is 81 years old. Her life is the subject for Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose.
The following three texts uplift Black women who were not heralded yet emphasize their leadership and voice to the Civil Rights Movement:
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson is her memoir about her years long work in Montgomery, particularly with the Bus Boycott, when Black people refused to ride the bus that was vital transportation. The boycott lasted for 381 days and lead to the bus system in Montgomery eventually becoming integrated.
Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby is a deeply researched biography about Ella Baker and her long career as an organizer in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and her time as a teacher, among other things. The book also tackles the intersections of the Civil Rights Movement with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century.
The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs focuses on Alberta King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin, who are the mothers, respectively, of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and James Baldwin. A celebration of Black motherhood this book explores how the foundation provided by their mothers helped them survive in a society that would deny them their humanity as not just Black men, but movement makers.
Notoriety is not the intention of these leaders, who mostly wanted to protect themselves, their family, and to focus on the work for their communities. May these voices, as well as many Black women leaders, ring true as a blueprint for the work that has been done and an inspiration for the civil rights work that must continue.