Young Heroes

Claudette Colvin

by Amelia Lebron from California

Everyday Deserving Hero: Claudette Colvin 

145245Claudette ColvinThe Visibility Project, Claudette Colvin, Public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsIn the words of Joseph Campbell, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Young teenager Claudette Colvin embodied these words with her inspiring story of rebellion. Claudette Colvin, a young African American girl growing up in the 1950s, defied the laws of segregation and challenged the Montgomery bus laws. Claudette gave herself over for the bigger picture: a unified, segregation-free America. Her story followed Joseph Campbell’s proposed idea of The Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is the common outline in which the protagonist undergoes a series of obstacles, all with the goal of changing their world into a better place for everyone. Through their adventure, not only do they experience tragedy or a crisis, but they also undergo change--whether moral, physical, or both. Claudette Colvin was an ordinary girl who saw that her own life and the lives of others were being ruled by fear and hate. She wanted that to change. Colvin knew that the impact she made would blossom into a movement and a fight for rights. She risked herself for the betterment of the country. Claudette Colvin’s story exemplifies Joseph Campbell’s idea of The Hero’s Journey; by accepting her call to adventure, overcoming obstacles, and leaving behind a lasting, powerful legacy, Colvin demonstrates how there is strength in everyone to stand up for what they believe in, regardless of what others think and say. 

Claudette Colvin underwent many injustices throughout her life, and bit by bit, she knew more and more that she was destined to do something about it, to answer her call. Claudette Colvin was born in 1939, in Alabama, at a time in which racism, violence, and hate plagued the streets of the United States, especially in the small, Southern town Claudette was brought up in. Almost every aspect of her life was segregated. In an interview, Claudette recalls: “Montgomery - it's a nice, little southern town, but everything was segregated. This is for colored folks and this is for white folks - couldn't try on clothes in the store, couldn't go to the movie theater when a good movie come in town, you know, things that teenagers like to do. So I knew that this was a double standard. This was unfair” (Colvin, "Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus"). This is the town and life Claudette grew up in. Being inferior was simply a part of life. As she became a teenager, she realized she couldn’t do the things teenagers like to do because of the laws in place. As she got older, more and more things started to affect her. She knew that what was happening in the country was not right--she wasn’t brainwashed by it. She knew how unfairly people of color were being treated, yet a spark inside her was still ignited and burned brightly. She knew the amount of trouble she could get in, with all the stories of rebellion making the headlines of the papers, yet she followed through despite what others thought. This was certainly a big part of her motivation to fight--she would not be ruled by cruel, unfair laws that were put into action without any representation. In addition, Claudette was largely aware of not only what was happening around her, but also her rights--all due to school. Colvin was a devoted student, inspired in her studies by two particular teachers at Washington High. Her English teacher, Geraldine Nesbitt, introduced her students to timeless texts that focused on the topics of human rights and democracy. Her history teacher, Josie Lawrence, explored the horrors of the slave trading that happened between 1500 and 1800 (“Claudette Colvin”). Claudette and her peers were being exposed to content that was not taught in schools at that time. They were learning about a crucial point in history that was being ignored by the education system. This was extremely significant, because Claudette learned that people of color were equally entitled to their rights as white people were. This shows how teachers and schools have a HUGE influence on students. Because of the Black History unit Claudette studied at school, she felt more empowered to exercise her constitutional rights. For the first time, she was publicly exposed to human rights, to her rights. Because she was now educated, she knew that she had rights, and that the laws in place were not protecting them. Furthermore, tragedy struck when an innocent teenager was convicted of rape, then killed. Claudette could no longer continue to be a bystander: “Later in November of 1952 a popular 16-year-old senior at Washington High, Jeremiah Reeves, was arrested and purportedly confessed to sexually assaulting several white women--a confession he later recanted. Colvin and other students were horrified when Reeves was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to die in the electric chair” (“Claudette Colvin”). This was a call to action for Claudette. Not only was her life and the lives of other people of color ridiculously restricted by rules, but now she saw it was easy to be wrongly convicted of a crime, and be considered lucky if one could escape with their life. Claudette could no longer remain indifferent to all that was happening--more and more lives were being lost at the hands of hate. Though risky and frightening, Claudette had to accept this call. Throughout her life, Claudette realized that she lived in an unjust reality, but those experiences helped push her to become the hero she is and accept her call to action.

All heroes face a sort of obstacle as part of their journey, and Claudette was no exception. In her case, these challenges arose after she made her mark, taking a stand against racist laws. But that moment of glory ended abruptly; Caludette got arrested. Colvin remembers the very moment the jail cell clicked into place: “When it go, click, and I knew I was locked in and couldn't get out. And then I got scared and panic come over me, and I started crying” (Hoose). When Claudette got arrested after her act of rebellion, it was probably one of her lowest points. She felt alone and scared, because she didn’t know what was next for her. She didn’t know what to expect. For being so young, she knew this would alter her life completely. No one seemed to have her back. Her rights, her future, were all placed in the hands of people who were small-minded, unfair and stubborn--not willing to make a change so that EVERYONE in the country felt accepted, safe, and loved. In the hero’s journey, this is described as the crisis. Claudette was all alone and confused. This was one of her lowest points, since she had no control over what was to become of her next. Despite this mental battle, once she got out of jail, she was able to put all of that behind her and focus on her trial. She developed a mental stamina which transformed her to be even stronger than ever. In addition, after she stood up to the bus driver for invading her constitutional right, she was met with more isolation. It is evident how she was being exiled by the people she fought for, even though she took risks to save their lives. Claudette herself recalls, “Everything changed. I lost most of my friends. Their parents had told them to stay away from me because they said that I was crazy, I was an extremist” (Colvin, "Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus"). Even the very people she was standing up for were turning against her too. Her friends wanted nothing to do with her, simply because she dared to be different and take action. Colvin had to be able to cast away the thoughts of others and focus on what SHE believed in, what SHE wanted to see change. However, that is not easy to do, especially as a teenager. This shows a horrific reality in which African Americans were brainwashed into thinking that standing up for themselves is not worthwhile, and didn’t want to bring unwanted attention upon themselves. They thought Claudette’s actions were completely wrong. This presented a challenge to Claudette. It must have been frustrating to see how countless people had surrendered to the iron-grip of the laws. Furthermore, Claudette did not receive the credit and positive reactions she deserved, simply because she was a teenager. She recalled, “I knew why they chose Rosa. They thought I would have been too militant for them. They wanted someone mildly genteel like Rosa. They didn't want to use a teenager” (Colvin, "Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus). Society and African American organizations didn’t want Colvin to become the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People in power, whether in the government or part of those organizations, failed to see that an act of courage is an act of courage, no matter who it came from. Colvin put her life on the line for the rights of her fellow people of color, and she wasn’t supported simply because of her age. As a result, once Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat nine months later, she became an instant favorite among everyone, and Claudette’s story was left to sit in dark silence for years and years. However this serves to teach the public about being a hero--Claudette knew her actions would be supported by few. But she still carried on with her intentions. She serves as a reminder that one cannot let others get in the way of their personal growth, their will to change the world. Claudette, as do many heroes when faced with challenges, went through a lot of change. She became mentally stronger, knowing that some things are worth doing, even if people will react unfairly at the time. Claudette Colvin dealt with neglect from a young age; however, this rejection formed her to become even stronger than ever, inspiring others to push past any barriers placed by people to ultimately become the best version possible of oneself.

131565Rosa ParksUnknown - USIA / National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency Record Group 306, Public DomainOne of the last parts of the hero’s journey is the legacy left behind; Claudette Colvin sparked change in the hearts of many people, all of which led the country to blossom into a better, accepting place. The power to change a country starts in the people--in their minds, and in their hearts. Claudette Colvin gave her people courage and HOPE, hope in themselves and their ability to change the world. As civil rights attorney Fred Gray put it, “Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks” (Hoose). Fred Gray was an attorney who was well acquainted with both Rosa Parks' and Claudette’s arrests. He knew both cases very well. He spoke for a lot of people when he said that Claudette gave them the strength, the power, to fight. Colvin’s influence, her legacy, is what sparked something inside the hearts of everyone. The importance of Claudette’s actions is how people were moved by them. Without Claudette, the masses wouldn’t dare to say anything. She showed them it was possible--she showed them they had rights, and that they should fight for them, regardless of the consequences. Colvin’s arrest showed that the fight for freedom is not easy, but some things are worth the fight. In addition, because of her influence, her stance led to the ruling of the Montgomery Bus Laws as unconstitutional. “As the boycott unfolded in the streets, Colvin and three other women who had been discriminated against on buses went to court. They sued, alleging that bus segregation ordinances denied them equal protection under the law. Their lawsuit led to a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Montgomery's segregated transportation was unconstitutional” (Copeland). Claudette was the first to start a ripple effect of rebellion and change. It was her fight, along with hundreds of inspired others, that put a halt to a highly unfair law that plagued the South. Heroes are influential--they inspire change, no matter what the rest of the world thinks. It is their actions that inspire others, and all those acts of bravery combined is what makes change happen. Not only did she end a cruel injustice, but she also taught Americans a lesson of courage. Claudette Colvin wraps up her journey with a legacy of courage and change, teaching all Americans what it means to be brave, even if one’s life is at risk.

In sum, Claudette Colvin is a crucial historical figure whose journey taught the American public a lesson about resilience and pushing past any obstacles. Colvin left behind a legacy of character, rebellion, change, and courage. She gave everyone a push toward their goals, dreams, and aspirations, daring them to be different. Claudette accepted her call, knowing the challenges that lay ahead. She faced those challenges with determination and a steady mind, which only made her stronger. Her powerful legacy reminds others of what it means to be a true hero, and that they can be one too. Her life is an inspiring tale, filled with countless ups and downs, yet she never allowed them to get in the way. When she had had enough, she did not stand off to the side and wait for someone else to change the world for her. She knew that remaining a bystander to her own suffering was not an option. Claudette Colvin inspires me to speak up when something is not right. She gives me the courage I need, because it can be frightening. She serves as a reminder of how I can be my own hero, the hero of my story. Her story taught me not to let the thoughts of others get in the way of my aspirations, and not to let them stifle my inner strength. Claudette will inspire generations always to live their lives they way they intend them to be--not to allow the small minds of society to limit one’s endless possibility. She shows to me how a hero might not always receive the recognition they deserve. That did not stop Claudette. She planted a seed that bloomed into the civil rights movement. She saw how her actions influenced others, and brought everyone together in one team to fight for their rights. To her, that was recognition enough. Her actions provide a beacon of light and hope to the rest of the world. She is an example of courage, a heroine who lived through the hero’s journey.

Page created on 2/11/2020 5:47:26 AM

Last edited 8/30/2021 8:21:00 PM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Related Links

Claudette Colvin- Quotes, Facts, and Civil Rights - Additional biography facts- early life and legacy, in addition to her involvement in the Browder v. Gayle case
Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin - Podcast and interview- listen to her experiences as she tells it firsthand!

Extra Info

Works Cited

"Before Rosa Parks, A Teenager Defied Segregation On An Alabama Bus." All Things Considered, 2 Mar. 2015. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 4 Dec. 2019.

"Claudette Colvin." Encyclopedia of World Biography Online, vol. 36, Gale, 2016. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 4 Dec. 2019.

Copeland, Larry. "Parks not seated alone in history." USA Today, 29 Nov. 2005, p. 03A. Gale In Context: High School,  Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.

Hoose, Phillip. "Give this civil rights hero the Medal of Freedom." Washington Post,  3 Apr. 2016. Gale In Context: High School,  Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.

"Who is the girl who came before Rosa Parks?" New Moon Girls Magazine, Mar.-Apr. 2011, p. 33. Gale In Context: High School, Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.