Parks' predecessor to get her civil rights recognition at last

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For 50 years, Claudette Colvin stayed out of the spotlight, supporting the struggle for civil rights while others took the credit for igniting the battle. In reality, nine months before Rosa Parks famously refused to get up her seat on a bus and set in motion events that helped define the civil rights movement, Ms Colvin, then just 15, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white customer.

Yesterday, on the 50th anniversary of the recently deceased Ms Parks' historic act of rebellion, Ms Colvin and other lesser-known participants in the early days of the civil rights movement were honoured at a reception to mark the opening of a new exhibition about the struggle.

The exhibition opens today in Montgomery, Alabama, the once sharply segregated city where the two women staged their protests.

The story of Ms Colvin and the belated recognition for the contribution she and other little-known activists made is remarkable for several reasons. It highlights, for instance, the role of ordinary people in one of the biggest social battles in US history. But it also throws fresh light on the tactics of the civil rights movement of the 1950s. It demonstrates that Ms Parks' demonstration was not a spontaneous act in isolation but, perhaps, that her case was adopted by the movement because they thought that she - rather than Ms Colvin, said to have been pregnant at 15 - would draw more support.

"I believe they used Rosa Parks because they felt she would appeal to the adults and the middle-class people because she was fair skinned and I'm dark-skinned," Ms Colvin, 66, told USA Today. "If I was fair-skinned it would have been a different story. They would have used me."

On 2 March 1955, Ms Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white customer. She said it was entirely spontaneous and that when she boarded the bus with three friends she had no idea of making a protest. "When the bus began to fill up, the driver told us he wanted our seats," she said. "Three of the girls got up; I remained seated."

After her arrest, Ms Colvin and three other women who had been discriminated against by the bus operators went to court. Their legal action eventually resulted in the 1956 Supreme Court ruling that the state's segregated transportation system was unconstitutional.

Ms Colvin, who now lives in New York and insists that claims she was pregnant at the time are incorrect, is also convinced her actions paved the way for Ms Parks' actions nine months later. The arrest of Ms Parks, a seamstress who died last month aged 92, led to a 381-day boycott of the bus system by the black community. They formed car pools or walked.

Ms Colvin and the other activists, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, along with Fred Gray, the chief strategist of the boycott, were honoured at the opening of a travelling Smithsonian Institution exhibition focusing on the boycott and its role in the civil rights struggle. The organisers of the exhibition, 381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Story, say they hope it will bring home the reality to visitors of what the boycott meant.

"In some ways, we've romanticised the civil rights movement," said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African America History and Culture. "We often forget just how strong the walls of segregation were, just how close to the surface racial hatred was. This wasn't simply a walk in the park."