Women’s History Month profiles: Claudette Colvin

The name of Rosa Parks is known wherever the American civil rights struggles of the sixties is retold. But who has heard of Claudette Colvin? Nine months before Rosa Park, Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Continuing our series on historic women as part of Women’s History Month, Heather Savigny, senior lecturer in political science at the University of East Anglia, Claudette Colvin, forgotten hero of the American civil rights struggle.

The name  of Rosa Parks is known wherever the American civil rights struggles of the sixties is retold.  But who has heard of Claudette Colvin?  Nine months before Rosa Parks in 1955, Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, helping the build the momentum towards the boycott of the town’s segregated bus system, which became so emblematic of the civil rights struggle.  So, why is it that Rosa Parks is an icon, while Claudette Colvin has been lost to the mists of history?  It may well be partially Claudette’s gender  – history is still dominated by writing about men – but it may also be that her social class meant that she has been largely ignored.

Claudette was a studious teenager, who was intelligent and  loyal with a fierce sense of right and wrong. She watched a good friend sentenced to death and later executed, for the ‘crime’ of having sex with a white woman.  Her profound sense of injustice and intelligent understanding of her rights provide the background to her courageous act: when threatened with arrest for refusing to give up her seat for a white person, she remained where she was.  Dragged from the bus by policemen, kicked and afraid of being raped, she was arrested and thrown into a police cell.  Pleading innocence, she was found guilty. She was not the first person to be arrested for such an act, but she was the first to plead not guilty to such a charge. Yet, despite her courage, community elders marginalised her because she was from the ‘wrong side’ of town.

Not only this, Claudette later became pregnant by an older married man under circumstances which today would be termed statutory rape.  To the male-dominated ‘respectable’ community leaders, not only was she poor, but she was a ‘fallen woman’.  Rather than celebrating her actions, dominant class norms ensured her ‘falling’ from history. 

 The way in which history is written is a political act in itself.  Claudette’s place in the changing of US history has been marginalised. And as Gary Younge observes, while her name is mentioned in civil rights books, it is rare that she gets more than a dismissive mention. Most Americans in the US have never heard of her. 

We know that women have struggled to have their voices heard in history.  But for Claudette this ‘invisibility’ is also a product of her social class. Rather than celebrating her act of courage and political activism and her role in reshaping the US political landscape, her social class has meant that historians have largely ignored her voice.  History is often written from perspectives which reinforce, rather than challenge, cultural and gendered dominant norms of the day.   Writing history needs to celebrate those women who have acted courageously.  Writing history is even more powerful when we restore those women whose voices have been marginalised because of their class.

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