The woman who just said, ‘No’
by Hannah Knight
Suitable for Key Stage 3/4
To acknowledge a remarkable woman who put others’ best interests before her own.
Preparation and materials
- You will need some images of the Montgomery bus boycott that began in America in 1955 as part of the civil right movement, plus the quotes given in the ‘Assembly’, Steps 1, 4, and 7 and the means to display them during the assembly.
- You will also need a copy of the book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Philip Hoose(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) and the video Claudette Colvin, and the means to show it during the assembly, at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMJi7RPSFig The video is 5.50 minutes long.
- Who first stood up for civil rights?
Display the following quote:
I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free . . . so other people would be also free.
Can anyone put their hand up and tell me why Rosa Parks is important in black history?
That’s right! Rosa Parks is well known for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Alabama. This one simple act helped initiate the bus boycott and the civil rights movement in the United States.
- Put your hand up if you think Rosa Parks was the first woman to refuse to give up her seat.
No, she wasn’t. Many women fought the bus system, believing that all passengers on the bus, regardless of their race, were entitled to a seat on a first come, first served basis. Many of these women were fined and, thanks to the media, their protests were kept very quiet, in the hope that they would soon cease and not threaten the systems already in place.
- The story of Claudette Colvin is not as famous as that of Rosa Parks’ because Rosa was chosen to be the face of the bus boycott. Claudette was the first black American woman to challenge the law, but Rosa Parks, as she was older than Claudette’s 15 years, was thought to be more suitable as a representative of the political point that was being made.
- Claudette was born on 5 September 1939, in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Montgomery, Alabama. At just four years old, Claudette was introduced to the struggles of segregation in a local supermarket. Two young boys asked Claudette to touch hands with them and compare the colour. Claudette’s mother, Mary Anne Colvin, witnessed the event and slapped Claudette, informing her that she must not touch them. This was quite a wake-up call for someone so young and innocent.
In 1955, Claudette became a committed student of the Booker T. Washington High School and her drive to succeed resulted in her achieving good grades and becoming a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) youth council. The council taught Claudette about the civil rights movement and helped her find her political voice.
Here is a quote from something Claudette said about her childhood that shows how simple everyday tasks were not so simple at that time if you were black.
Display the following quote:
We couldn't try on clothes, you had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot . . . and take it to the store.
- Then, on 2 March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks’ actions, Claudette was riding home on a city bus after school when a bus driver told her to give up her seat to a white passenger. Claudette refused, saying, ‘It's my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it's my constitutional right.’ Claudette was passionate enough to stand her ground, but this, of course, had consequences.
Claudette was arrested for violating segregation laws and sat in jail feeling utterly terrified.
The NAACP considered using Claudette’s case to challenge the segregation laws, but decided against it because she was only 15. Around this time, Claudette became pregnant, too, later giving birth to her son, Raymond, and there were worries that an unwed mother would attract too much unwanted attention in the media.
- When Claudette was taken to court, she declared herself not guilty. The court, however, ruled against her and decided to put her on probation. Claudette’s sentence was mild, but she felt her reputation had taken the biggest hit. This led to many people thinking she was a troublemaker, which made it difficult for her to continue her studies and find work.
- Claudette, against all the odds, did find work as a nurse aide in Manhattan and she continued to dedicate all her time and patience to her beloved patients and family.
Display the following quote:
I feel very, very proud of what I did. I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on.
Claudette was a woman on a mission. She understood the prejudice and unfairness of the segregation system and knew that someone had to make a stand.
- We can learn from Claudette’s actions and use them to help us in our own lives. If we see or experience injustice, we must remember the courage others have shown and that we, too, can stand up for what we believe in!
- Hold up copy of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.
If you would like some more inspiration, read this book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, which tells Claudette’s story.
- Play the video.
Time for reflection
Thank you for all those people who have put us first, who have loved us and cared for us, nursed us when we were sick and held us when we were sad.
Give us strength to bestow this kindness on others and follow in the footsteps of people such as Claudette Colvin.
‘We are the free’ Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman, on Matt Redman’s album 10,000 Reasons (Kingsway, 2011)
‘Freedom reigns’ by Michael Larson on his album Perfect Love (ION Records, 2007)