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We all know Rosa Parks, the American civil rights activist who is known for standing up against racial injustice. Okay, actually, she was seated when she took her stand, but you get what I mean. We learned about the pivotal role she played in the Civil Rights Movement several times in school and we rightfully still celebrate her today.
When she refused to give up her seat in the section designated to Black people to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, it led to her arrest. When she was arrested, she was met with support from her community and members of the Black community from across the country. This level of support is what initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted for 381 days.
Rosa Parks continued her work for racial equality and became an influential leader in the Civil Rights Movement. However, she is not the first or only woman who fought against racial inequality by not getting up from her seat on public transportation. If you are surprised to hear this then I would like to share the stories of two women who also sat in their seats to take a stand.
Are you ready?
In 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, a free Black schoolteacher, was headed to church on a July Sunday morning. To get to church that day, she boarded a horsecar in Manhattan, New York. When she got into the car, she was told to get off and wait for a horsecar that operated for Black passengers. However, during this time, Black New York residents were expected to walk as horsecars designated for Black people were rarely available. In response, Jennings refused and resisted multiple physical attempts to remove her from the car until the police came to force her out of the car.
The Black community in New York responded just like the Black community in Montgomery would respond about 100 years later. They held a rally at the church Jennings attended. Jennings sued the driver, conductor, and the Third Avenue Railway. She was represented by the future President Chester A. Arthur and won her case. Judge Rockwell from the Brooklyn Circuit Court ruled, “Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by the rules of the company nor by force or violence.”
Additionally, she received a total of $225 in damages. Her court victory was a catalyst to the ongoing fight for equality in New York public transit. By 1873, the Civil Rights Act was passed in New York. The act prohibited explicit discrimination on public transportation in New York, right before the New York subway first opened.
We also have Claudette Colvin, who refused to get up from her seat on the bus at the age of 15. Just 15! Colvin was arrested for not giving up her seat 9 months before Rosa Parks on the same bus system in Montgomery, Alabama. Colvin was on her way home from high school and when the bus driver told to get up to give her seat to a white woman. She responded by saying that she had paid to ride the bus and that it was her constitutional right. When she refused, she was put in handcuffs and was arrested.
Colvin was charged with violating segregation laws. She spent several hours in jail before her minister paid her bail. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People considered using her case to confront segregation laws. However, the association decided not to because of her age and her being pregnant at the time.
Despite the National Association for Advancement of Colored People not using her case, she became a plaintiff in the Browder v. Gayle case. The ruling of this case declared that the segregated bus system in Montgomery was unconstitutional.
We all know the story and the work of Rosa Parks, but few people know the stories of Elizabeth Jennings and Claudette Colvin. Jennings and Colvin’s stories serve as a reminder that it takes more than one person to institute real change. We should always remember that there are many people that we do not learn about in our history books that made sacrifices and helped influence important changes.
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