Black America and the burden of the perfect victim

Michael Brown wasn’t an angel. Does that mean he had it coming?


On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., and became an icon. But Parks was not the first to defy the rules. Nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. In an interview last year with Democracy Now, Colvin said that when the cops arrived and ordered her to get up, “it felt like Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder, and I could not move.”

So they pulled her up and jailed her. Colvin sued and became one of the five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, a desegregation case that would reach the Supreme Court. In November 1956, the court ordered the end of bus segregation in Alabama. Parks was not involved in that suit.


But Colvin did not become an icon of the civil rights movement. In a March 2009 interview, she told NPR that civil rights leaders at the time thought Parks would be a better symbol for the movement. Parks “was an adult,” Colvin said. “They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.” She also speculated that Parks had the right look for the part. “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class. She fit that profile.”

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