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his is the story of an African American woman in segregated Montgomery Alabama in the year 1955, who boarded a bus to go back home after a long day at work.  This was a journey that she has made many times before, but this bus journey turned out to be quite eventful and would in fact change her life and change the course of American history.  You probably think that you know the name of this woman, but do you?

On 1st December 1955, Rosa Parks became an international icon for the resistance against segregation and a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement in America by refusing to move at the back of the bus to make space for white passengers.  Good stories become history, and this was definitely a good story. But Rosa Parks was not the first woman to have been arrested for refusing to move at the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama; Claudette Colvin was, but nobody knows her name.

Rosa Parks the chosen one

No one remembers who comes second. Fame, fortune, and a place in the history book usually go to the first person on the podium, the first person who walks on the moon, and the first person who discovers penicillin, but Rosa Parks is the first person who made the second place shine brighter than the first one.  

The question that we have to ask ourselves is: why the world only remembers Rosa Parks and not Claudette Colvin? Was there a concerted effort by some interested parties to shine the light on Rosa Parks leaving Claudette Colvin in the “oubliettes” [French for the place where you are sent so that people forget about you]?  This was no accident. Rosa Parks was “set up” to become an icon and the hero of the Civil Rights Movement.  The triumph of the Civil Rights movement required forgetting about Claudette Colvin.

Claudette Colvin was 15, pregnant with the child of an older married man, and from a poor family. Her personal life and character were judged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as too volatile to make her the hero of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, on the other hand, was a Civil Rights activist, who had attended social justice strategic workshops, lunched with influential lawyers, and hang out with Martin Luther King. Parks was 42 years old, married, employed, from a respectable family, and politically savvy. She was the perfect candidate to help inspire the black community and help advance the objectives of the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks’ 10 steps to becoming an international icon for the Civil Rights Movement in the year 1955

  1. Be of good character, and reputation, married, employed, and politically savvy.  Being quiet with a dignified demeanor and photogenic was definitely a plus.
  2. Board a bus in Montgomery Alabama to go back home after a long day at work.
  3. Refuse to move at the back of the bus to make space for white passengers.
  4. Get arrested and charged with violation of Chapter 6, Section 11, Segregation Law of Montgomery City Code.
  5. Have the NAACP team of lawyers, activists, strategists, and Martin Luther King watch your back and bail you out of jail.
  6. Have a friendly journalist/photographer in the vicinity to take pictures of the whole drama and make it go viral.
  7. Go to trial. Be found guilty. Appeal the decision and call for a general boycott by all the black community living in Montgomery, Alabama against the bus company. [Note this boycott lasted 381 days. Black and colored people walked to work; black taxi drivers dropped their fees to the same price as a bus ride helping those who were working quite far from home!]
  8. Being the principal reason why a significant number of public buses stood idle for months, severely damaging the bus company’s finances, and bringing it to the brink of bankruptcy.
  9. Being the principal reason why the Court Case Browder v Gayle was won by the plaintiffs, making the city repealed its law requiring segregation on public buses judging it unconstitutional.
  10. Become an international icon for the Civil Rights movement, an activist, and an author.

The story of Rosa Parks is both a verified episode from history and a fable created to make history. The refusal to move at the back of the bus by both Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks was bold and brave and both women deserve full credit for this act of bravery, but there is no doubt that Rosa Parks embodied the most inspiring version of events because her profile was super sleek, she had the whole NAACP behind her and everyone in the movement understood the power of narrative.

Good stories become history.

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