Rev. Jesse Jackson is irked by the hit film Barbershop, in which a character played by Cedric the Entertainer complains that Rosa Parks gets too much credit for the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott. Parks, he says, is deified because she was affiliated with the NAACP; worthier pioneers were simply forgotten. Is the movie’s history lesson accurate?
Pretty much. Nine months before Parks famously refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for the identical crime. On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a bus opposite Martin Luther King Jr.’s church on Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue. She was seated next to a pregnant African-American woman known only as “Mrs. Hamilton.” As the bus became crowded, the driver requested that the pair stand so whites could sit. Both refused, although another black passenger eventually let Hamilton take his place. Colvin, angry over the arrest of a classmate who’d been accused of raping a white woman, stood firm and was charged with misconduct, resisting arrest, and violating municipal segregation laws.
She was later found guilty and placed on probation. Though her plight attracted national attention, local black leaders were reluctant to use Colvin as a test case. She became pregnant by a much older man soon after the arrest, which scandalized the deeply religious community. The white press, they assumed, would flaunt Colvin’s illegitimate pregnancy as a means of undermining any boycott. Some historians also argue that civil-rights leaders, who were predominately middle class, were uneasy with Colvin’s impoverished background.
On Oct. 21 of that same year, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was also arrested for defying a bus driver’s orders to relinquish her seat. She was upset after being stiffed for $11 by her employer, a white woman for whom she worked as a maid. Yet again, Montgomery activists were hesitant to turn a teenager’s arrest into a cause célèbre. It is widely believed that rumors concerning Smith’s father’s alcoholism were a turnoff. (Smith vehemently denies that her father drank.)
Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress and secretary for the local chapter of the NAACP, was not arrested until Dec. 1, 1955.
Colvin now lives in the Bronx, at last report working as a nurse’s aide. Smith still lives in Montgomery, in virtual anonymity.