Today is the fifty-sixth anniversary of the day that Rosa Parks was asked to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama city bus, and refused, sparking a movement that would change America.
But Claudette Colvin is worth remembering too.
In the spring of 1955, Claudette Colvin was a junior at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery. On March 2 of that year, on her way home from school, she was told to move to the back of the bus to allow a white person to take her seat.
Like Rosa Parks nine months later, she refused. Like Rosa Parks nine months later, she was arrested.
So why do we know Parks’ name and not Colvin’s?
Because where Parks was a 42-year-old civil rights activist, Colvin was a 15-year-old schoolkid.
Because where Parks was a respectable married woman with a good job, Colvin was poor … and would shortly become pregnant by an older, married man.
Because where Parks responded to injustice with quiet dignity, Colvin responded with noisy anger.
(When the bus driver told Rosa Parks that he would have to call the police if she didn’t get up, Parks replied, with extraordinary self-possession, “You may do that.” When the police arrived, she went without resistance. When the cops came for Claudette Colvin, she yelled at them that they were violating her rights, and refused to move. They dragged her from the bus. When they kicked her, she kicked them back.)
Rosa Parks is one of my heroes. Claudette Colvin is another.
And there’s another part of the Claudette Colvin story that’s worth telling. I first discovered it in Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, and it’s stuck with me.
In November 1952, a black Montgomery high school student named Jeremiah Reeves was arrested and charged with the rape of a married white teenager four months earlier.
It was widely believed in Montgomery’s black community that the two had been having an affair. Reeves himself said that she had gone to the authorities only because she feared she was pregnant with his baby. But the police were able to extract a confession from him by threatening him with the death penalty if he pled not guilty — they even forced him to sit in the electric chair where they said he’d be executed.
After the confession Reeves was quickly charged with raping or attempting to rape six white women, and brought to trial just weeks later. He was convicted by an all-white jury that included one of the police officers who had participated in the investigation. The jury deliberated for just 38 minutes, and — despite the police’s promises — sentenced him to death.
Jeremiah Reeves was a classmate of Claudette Colvin’s at Booker T. Washington High School, and a neighbor. He was a senior, she was a first-year. He was handsome, popular, a talented drummer, a friend. Colvin rallied in his support, raised money for his defense, wrote him letters in jail. His arrest was, she later said, “the turning point in my life,” the moment when she really began to think critically about racism and injustice.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ordered that Reeves be given a new trial on the grounds that his confession should not have been admitted into evidence. (He was retried, with the confession excluded, but the result was the same — and the jury’s verdict came even quicker.) In March of 1955, Claudette Colvin sat down on a Montgomery bus and refused to give up her seat.
In 1958 Jeremiah Reeves was executed in the same electric chair in which he had been threatened with death six years earlier.