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Meet Little-Known Civil Rights Pioneer, Claudette Colvin

Everyone knows Rosa Parks — we hope.

She was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 when black people were routinely treated as second-class citizens and had no rights. When she put her foot down, 40,000 blacks wouldn’t ride city buses for 381 days during a boycott that ushered in the civil rights movement with the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. leading the way.

That’s the popular narrative when stories are told. Most people have never heard of Claudette Colvin, a forgotten footnote in history.

She played a major role in the 1955 boycott as well, but her contribution goes largely unnoticed. Colvin was 15 years old when she refused to give up her seat, and she did it nine months before Parks.

What makes Colvin’s part so significant is that her defiance led to the federal lawsuit that ended the Montgomery boycott and segregation on buses a year later in that city, the state of Alabama and the country.

She was among four women — the others were Susie McDonald, Aurelia Browder and Mary Louise Smith — who had been mistreated on buses. They agreed to be plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, the case challenging city and state segregation laws on transportation.

Over the years, Colvin has not talked much about her obscurity, but she opened up Thursday night during a Women’s History Month program in Newark.

“We beat them down by staying off the buses, but they don’t tell about the legal reasons, how the Supreme Court went against states’ rights,’’ she said. “They picked the wrong day to pick on me.”

Colvin told her story to a full house and standing ovations at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where the People’s Organization for Progress and elected officials honored her for taking a stance that eventually helped strike down segregation laws across the country.

“Even though her role has been documented in a number of books and historical archives, the fact remains that her name is not in the popular consciousness,’’ said Larry Hamm, chairman of the Newark organization…

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