Travel back with me into the past if you will, lets take a trip to a moment in time when change started… The date is March 02 1955, the place a very hot and humid Montgomery, Alabama. Let me draw your attention toward a seat five rows back on this bus as it picks up Claudette Colvin from Booker T Washington High School.
Claudette is a bright girl, only 15 years old, and her parents were hard working and proud of her. Still Claudette knows the “rules” for black girls who take public transportation, they are required to pay their fare to the driver, then get off the bus and re-board through the back door. White people only could sit up front and black people could sit from the fifth row back, however if a white person didn’t have a place to sit in the first four rows, then the black person sitting in the fifth row would have to give up their seat and move further to the back.
On this day however Claudette had just written a school paper about the prohibition for black people to try on white clothes in department stores.. And this is the day Claudette decides she had enough.
She refused to move to the back when the bus driver, Robert W. Cleere, told her to do so. Instead she yelled that it was her constitutional right to stay sitting where she was. For her efforts, she was handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from the bus.
Claudette’s father posted her bail and she had the attention of the local NAACP who was willing to use her case to challenge the segregation laws of the South. But unfortunately, fate stepped in and Claudette became pregnant soon after her arrest. She said she was raped but back then, it was the “sort of thing that happened..”
Suddenly the very idea which Claudette started, the idea that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you sit on a bus, you have the right to be there.. went forward without her…
It would take till October 21 before another woman would refuse to give up her seat to a white person.
Mary’s father, Frank, worked two jobs to support his family, their Mother had died three years earlier, however Frank was known as a drinker and Mary’s arrest was kept quiet and out of the media..
the time would come soon and the right woman would refuse to give up her seat..
The fight against bus segregation had been going on for some time. In 1944 Irene Morgan, on a Greyhound bus in Virginia, had refused to give up her seat and the bus driver had summoned the local sheriff who tried to arrest her but Irene tore up the arrest warrant, kicked the sheriff in the groin and fought with the deputy who tried to drag her off the bus.
Her case, Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, was argued by Thurgood Marshall, the chief counsel of the NAACP and later himself an Associate Supreme Court Justice, who was successful in declaring segregation on public transportation illegal..
yet the South refused to obey the new law.. as a result on December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus and took a seat in the fifth row. She was ordered to surrender the seat to a white woman and she refused to do so, resulting in her arrest.
Rosa was no stranger to the NAACP, she was their secretary and eight months earlier when Claudette Colvin had done the same thing, Rosa had been one of those to meet with her and help raise money for her defense. Rosa Parks was the perfect woman for the time and the NAACP knew it. The first thing they did was call for a boycott of all of Montgomery’s buses in protest.
Rosa’s trial lasted thirty minutes, with the expected conviction and penalty, however that afternoon the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed and it’s elected president a then unknown young minister named Martin Luther King Jr.
King gave his speech that night at the Holt Street Baptist Church, igniting a movement that was to catch fire over the next decade and tear down walls that were hundreds of years old. After his speech, Dr. King asked Rosa Parks to stand. Rosa didn’t have to say a single word because people could see in Rosa the same ideas that Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith and Irene Morgan had championed.. “we are people and worthy as such”..
Imagine what if these women had moved back to the end of the bus as they were ordered?
What was wrong with society at the time to think it was okay to force people to sit in certain seats just because of the color of their skin? Did we not learn a lesson from the Nazi treatment of the Jews?
History will never forget Rosa Parks, however Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith and Irene Morgan should be remembered too. All these women knew something was wrong with the world and it would never change until someone did something.. and all these women did.
I never lived in the time of segregation, however one of the things I enjoy most about riding the bus today is the different people I see sitting all around me. They all have reasons, like me, they are on the bus and they all have stories worth listening too. Everyone on the bus, regardless of their race, would rather be driven around in the backseat of a limo. but for various reasons fate brings us together and for at least a half hour we share an experience.
56 years later, I want to thank these women for allowing themselves to be arrested for something they knew, and everyone else knows.. was wrong.
When something needs to change, it’s up to us to make that change, but sometimes change takes many people working toward the same result to happen.