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A Voice for Claudette Colvin

Today, we hand over the Partnership Post to Jada Gardner-McIntosh, a Partnership Eighth Grader in New York. Jada wants to spread the word about Claudette Colvin, a Civil Rights pioneer whose contribution has largely gone unheralded. It is our honor to help her do just that.

You may not recognize the name Claudette Colvin, but it is a name I hope everyone learns. In history class last year at Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem, I was taught by Mr. Beller that there isn’t “the history” of a topic but “a history,” altered and told by a different perspective each time. Claudette’s story is a history of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s that has been covered up. Her story inspired me, which is why I shared it with our whole school this month. I hope it inspires you too.

Claudette Colvin was coming home from high school in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 2, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated and crowded bus. She was arrested and handcuffed; the school books in her lap flew to the floor, a reminder she was only fifteen years old. Claudette engaged in this protest nine months before Rosa Parks, who is much more famous.

You may say now, “Why didn’t I know about her before?” Well, let me tell you. There are three reasons Claudette Colvin’s story was covered up by leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

First, she was forgotten because of her skin color. Now you must be saying “Well Rosa Parks is black too and she is a Civil Rights icon.” Let me tell you about this thing called “colorism.” Colorism is when you discriminate against people with darker skin; typically, this is seen in the black community and occurs when individuals internalize the racism aimed at them by outside groups. Racism more often is discrimination against someone of a different race by those who believes their race is superior. Colvin had darker skin, and Rosa Parks had “the right hair and right look.” Rosa Parks looked more similar to a white woman, meaning she would be more accepted by society—particularly in the middle class.

People also thought teenagers weren’t reliable. In order to reach a wide audience, they needed a role model for the Civil Rights Movement. If the movement wasn’t taken as seriously, no serious change would come. Usually, people view teenagers as less trustworthy sources even to this day. Adults can be viewed as more trustworthy, and in today’s society teenagers are still often discredited.

Finally, Colvin was pregnant at a young age, adding to the hostility towards her. She was shunned by her community because of this. Claudette was scared of being attacked after her arrest, and her father stood guard along with community lookouts in fear of the real threat of the KKK.

This should show us that even when someone does something contrary to your beliefs, you shouldn’t try to hurt them and rather support them. We should treat others as we would like to be treated. It shouldn’t matter what you have done in your life; if you are willing to fight for minorities and for a better change, the more the merrier. Hopefully we can move on as a community.

The author, at a pre-covid school festival.

Claudette stood up for what she believed in. That’s just one of the reasons why she inspires me, and she should inspire you too. Through the slurs, sexual harassment, and horrible treatment, she remained strong. She held her ground and stood up for what she believed in. I want people to remember Claudette Colvin because of her bravery. She sparked a movement that changed narratives. Claudette knew Rosa Parks very well and was active in her youth group. She was the first to really change the law, and after that on December 5, 40,000 African Americans boycotted the system. This shows how much effect Colvin had.

Now Colvin is 81 years old and lives in the Bronx. Yes, the Bronx. A Civil Rights icon is living right under our noses. This shows how many leaders and people who changed history are still alive and thriving right in our own neighborhood and yet we don’t know it.

I shared her story with my school—and now with you—because of how angry it made me. She shouldn’t have been discredited and disregarded the way she was. She should have the same praise as Rosa Parks and more.

This isn’t the first instance of people being ignored by history. Even now, there are hidden figures and activists in our own backyards who have been thrown away because they didn’t fit the standards to be in history. This teaches us that we should be careful when we hear a history not to assume that it is all of the history. For example, news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests often highlighted rare moments of violence in long days of widespread, peaceful protests. When children in the future learn about those protests in history class, I want to make sure they know the full story.

Claudette Colvin is an example of another black person having their history altered to fit a specific narrative or agenda meant to benefit a specific group of people. She deserves much more than what she was given because, as she quotes writer Phillip Hoose as saying, “really, if I had not made the first cry for freedom, there wouldn’t have been a Rosa Parks, and after Rosa Parks, there wouldn’t have been a Dr. King.”

Inspired by Claudette Colvin, I hope that I can make waves and changes in my own community. I hope when I get silenced, I speak up like her and don’t take no for an answer; I want people to realize black people will forever have a voice and not back down. As a young person myself, I feel like there needs to be more participation in my age group; when we see something, we should say something. I promise, someone else probably has the same ideas as you. The most common thing we may hear is what Claudette heard—“teenagers aren’t reliable”—but look at her now. She didn’t withdraw from the fight and neither should you.

If you would like to read more about Claudette Colvin, Jada recommends the following sources: 

And one to watch:

Jada Gardner-McIntosh is an Eighth Grader at Our Lady Queen of Angels, a Partnership School in East Harlem.