2013 Black History Note l From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History

From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History

By BROOKS BARNES

Published: November 25, 2009

On that supercharged day in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., she rode her way into history books, credited with helping to ignite the civil rights movement.

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times (left), The Montgomery Advertiser, via Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Claudette Colvin in a portrait taken in November (left) and as a child around 1953.

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Claudette Colvin’s historic stand preceded that of Rosa Parks.

Michael Appleton for The New York Times

Phillip Hoose, with Claudette Colvin, accepting a National Book Award last week for “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.”

The Montgomery Advertiser, via Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux

 

But there was another woman, named Claudette Colvin, who refused to be treated like a substandard citizen on one of those Montgomery buses — and she did it nine months before Mrs. Parks. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his political debut fighting her arrest. Moreover, she was the star witness in the legal case that eventually forced bus desegregation.

Yet instead of being celebrated, Ms. Colvin has lived unheralded in the Bronx for decades, initially cast off by black leaders who feared she was not the right face for their battle, according to a new book that has plucked her from obscurity.

Last week Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The honor sent the little-selling title shooting up 500 spots on Amazon.com’s sales list and immediately thrust Ms. Colvin, 70, back into the cultural conversation.

“Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Ms. Colvin said in an animated interview at a diner near her apartment in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. “Maybe by telling my story — something I was afraid to do for a long time — kids will have a better understanding about what the civil rights movement was about.”

Ms. Colvin made her stand on March 2, 1955, and Mrs. Parks made hers on Dec. 1 that same year. Somehow, as Mrs. Parks became one of Time Magazine’s 100 most important people of the 20th century, and streets and schools were named after her, Ms. Colvin managed to let go of any bitterness. After Ms. Colvin was arrested, Mrs. Parks, a seasoned N.A.A.C.P. official, sometimes let her spend the night at her apartment. Ms. Colvin remembers her as a reserved but kindly woman who fixed her snacks of peanut butter on Ritz crackers.

“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did,” Ms. Colvin recalled. “She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’ ”

Ms. Colvin said she came to terms with her “raw feelings” a long time ago. “I know in my heart that she was the right person,” she said of Mrs. Parks.

Ms. Colvin was riding the bus home from school when the driver demanded that she give up her seat for a middle-age white woman, even though three other seats in the row were empty, one beside Ms. Colvin and two across the aisle.

“If she sat down in the same row as me, it meant I was as good as her,” Ms. Colvin said.

Two police officers, one of them kicking her, dragged her backward off the bus and handcuffed her, according to the book. On the way to the police station, they took turns trying to guess her bra size.

At the time, the arrest was big news. Black leaders, among them Dr. King, jumped at the opportunity to use her case to fight segregation laws in court. “Negro Girl Found Guilty of Segregation Violation” was the headline in The Alabama Journal. The article said that Ms. Colvin, “a bespectacled, studious looking high school student,” accepted the ruling “with the same cool aloofness she had maintained” during the hearing.

As chronicled by Mr. Hoose, more than 100 letters of support arrived for Ms. Colvin — sent in care of Mrs. Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery branch of the N.A.A.C.P.

But Ms. Colvin was ultimately passed over.

“They worried they couldn’t win with her,” Mr. Hoose said in an interview from his home in Portland, Me. “Words like ‘mouthy,’ ‘emotional’ and ‘feisty’ were used to describe her.”

Mrs. Parks, on the other hand, was considered “stolid, calm, unflappable,” he said. The final straw: Ms. Colvin became pregnant by a married man.

A second Montgomery teenager, Mary Louise Smith, was also arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat — after Ms. Colvin’s arrest but before Ms. Parks’s — and she was also deemed an unsuitable symbol for the movement partly because of rumors that her father had an alcohol problem.

Although Ms. Colvin quickly left Montgomery, she returned during the peak of the bus boycott that Mrs. Parks had subsequently sparked, and testified in federal court in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that effectively ended bus segregation.

“It’s an important reminder that crucial change is often ignited by very plain, unremarkable people who then disappear,” said David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Dr. King.

Even Mrs. Parks was forgotten for the better part of 20 years, only re-emerging as a world-famous figure in the early 1970s after magazine articles and attention in several children’s books.

Ms. Colvin, who relies on a cane to steady herself, retired in 2004 after 35 years as a nurse’s aide at a Manhattan nursing home. She contributed to her own obscurity: after settling in New York, she never talked about how her arrest helped prompt the famous bus boycott.

“She continued to heed her mother’s advice, and worried that drawing attention to herself would result in the loss of her job. “I wasn’t going to take that chance,” she said.

So she settled into living an average life. She never married. The son she had in Montgomery died at age 37; a second son is an accountant in Atlanta. She watches television — “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is a favorite — and is a regular at the diner.

Ms. Colvin said she reads two newspapers every day to keep up on current events, chatting about recent Nobel Prize winners. She likes Chris Rock and Alicia KeysAretha Franklincould stand to lose a few pounds, but she wore a good hat to President Obama’sinauguration. Don’t get Ms. Colvin started on Sarah Palin.

She has fond memories of Dr. King. “He was just an average-looking fellow — it’s not like he was Kobe Bryant or anything,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes. “But when he opened his mouth he was like Charlton Heston playing Moses.”

Mr. Hoose said he stumbled across Ms. Colvin’s story while researching a previous book, “We Were There, Too! Young People in U.S. History.” Several sources told him to investigate what had almost become an urban myth: that a teenager had beaten Mrs. Parks to the punch in Montgomery.

He eventually tracked down Ms. Colvin, who has an unlisted telephone number. She refused to talk to Mr. Hoose for almost four years.

Mr. Hoose won over his reluctant subject over a long lunch at the diner. It was clear, he said, that she yearned to have her story told despite protests to the contrary. “It was easy to find the rebel girl inside of her,” he said.

One of her first questions: “Can you get it into schools?”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 4, 2009
An article on Nov. 26 about Claudette Colvin, who protested segregation on theMontgomery, Ala., buses nine months before Rosa Parks did and is the subject of a book for young people that won a National Book Award last month, referred imprecisely to Mrs. Parks’s protest. While the boycott that followed her arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger was planned by civil rights leaders who were waiting for the right case, her protest itself on Dec. 1, 1955, was not “carefully planned.”

More Articles in Books »A version of this article appeared in print on November 26, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.

Visit our Honoring Our Past Pages

“EYES ON THE PRIZE” l A Special Presentation of American Experience PBS

EYES ON THE PRIZE

America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954-1985

Series Description

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is welcomed with a kiss by his wife Coretta Scott King after leaving court in Montgomery, Alabama, March 22, 1956.
A teenager and adult protest against school integration in Montgomery, Alabama in 1963.Produced by Blackside, Eyes on the Prize tells the definitive story of the civil rights era from the point of view of the ordinary men and women whose extraordinary actions launched a movement that changed the fabric of American life, and embodied a struggle whose reverberations continue to be felt today. Winner of numerous Emmy Awards, a George Foster Peabody Award, an International Documentary Award, and a Television Critics Association Award, Eyes on the Prize is the most critically acclaimed documentary on civil rights in America.

Eyes on the Prize recounts the fight to end decades of discrimination and segregation. It is the story of the people — young and old, male and female, northern and southern — who, compelled by a meeting of conscience and circumstance, worked to eradicate a world where whites and blacks could not go to the same school, ride the same bus, vote in the same election, or participate equally in society. It was a world in which peaceful demonstrators were met with resistance and brutality — in short, a reality that is now nearly incomprehensible to many young Americans.

Through contemporary interviews and historical footageEyes on the Prize traces the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Voting Rights Act; from early acts of individual courage through the flowering of a mass movement and its eventual split into factions. Julian Bond, political leader and civil rights activist, narrates.

The driving force behind Eyes on the Prize and Blackside, Henry Hampton (1940-1998) won numerous awards for this landmark series including the duPont-Columbia Gold Baton, the Peabody Award, and Academy Award nominations. He set out to share his vision of what he called “the remarkable human drama that was the Civil Rights Movement” through the Eyes on the Prize documentary and a book of the same title by Juan Williams. In recent years, a number of key figures who appear in the films (including the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott; Coretta Scott King, wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and an activist in her own right; Kwame Ture, also known as Stokely Carmichael, leader of theStudent Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and George Wallace, the 1960s Alabama governor who resisted integration) have died, making this record of their testimony all the more valuable.

Programs in the series:

Awakenings (1954-1956)
Individual acts of courage inspire black Southerners to fight for their rights: Mose Wright testifies against the white men who murdered young Emmett Till, and Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.

Fighting Back (1957-1962)
States’ rights loyalists and federal authorities collide in the 1957 battle to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School, and again in James Meredith’s 1962 challenge to segregation at the University of Mississippi. Both times, a Southern governor squares off with a U.S. president, violence erupts — and integration is carried out.

Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961)
Black college students take a leadership role in the civil rights movement as lunch counter sit-ins spread across the South. “Freedom Riders” also try to desegregate interstate buses, but they are brutally attacked as they travel.

No Easy Walk (1961-1963)
The civil rights movement discovers the power of mass demonstrations as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerges as its most visible leader. Some demonstrations succeed; others fail. But the triumphant March on Washington, D.C., under King’s leadership, shows a mounting national support for civil rights. President John F. Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act.

Mississippi: Is This America? (1963-1964)
Mississippi’s grass-roots civil rights movement becomes an American concern when college students travel south to help register black voters and three activists are murdered. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenges the regular Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.

Bridge to Freedom (1965)
A decade of lessons is applied in the climactic and bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. A major victory is won when the federal Voting Rights Bill passes, but civil rights leaders know they have new challenges ahead.

The Time Has Come (1964-66)
After a decade-long cry for justice, a new sound is heard in the civil rights movement: the insistent call for power. Malcolm X takes an eloquent nationalism to urban streets as a younger generation of black leaders listens. In the South, Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) move from “Freedom Now!” to “Black Power!” as the fabric of the traditional movement changes.

Two Societies (1965-68)
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) come north to help Chicago’s civil rights leaders in their nonviolent struggle against segregated housing. Their efforts pit them against Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard Daley. When a series of marches through all-white neighborhoods draws violence, King and Daley negotiate with mixed results. In Detroit, a police raid in a black neighborhood sparks an urban uprising that lasts five days, leaving 43 people dead. The Kerner Commission finds that America is becoming “two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” President Lyndon Johnson, who appointed the commission, ignores the report.

Power! (1966-68)
The call for Black Power takes various forms across communities in black America. In Cleveland, Carl Stokes wins election as the first black mayor of a major American city. The Black Panther Party, armed with law books, breakfast programs, and guns, is born in Oakland. Substandard teaching practices prompt parents to gain educational control of a Brooklyn school district but then lead them to a showdown with New York City’s teachers’ union.

The Promised Land (1967-68)
Martin Luther King stakes out new ground for himself and the rapidly fragmenting civil rights movement. One year before his death, he publicly opposes the war in Vietnam. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) embarks on an ambitious Poor People’s Campaign. In the midst of political organizing, King detours to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he is assassinated. King’s death and the failure of his final campaign mark the end of a major stream of the movement.

Ain’t Gonna Shuffle No More (1964-72)
A call to pride and a renewed push for unity galvanize black America. World heavyweight champion Cassius Clay challenges America to accept him as Muhammad Ali, a minister of Islam who refuses to fight in Vietnam. Students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., fight to bring the growing black consciousness movement and their African heritage inside the walls of this prominent black institution. Black elected officials and community activists organize theNational Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in an attempt to create a unified black response to growing repression against the movement.

A Nation of Law? (1968-71)
Black activism is increasingly met with a sometimes violent and unethical response from local and federal law enforcement agencies. In Chicago, two Black Panther Party leaders are killed in a pre-dawn raid by police acting on information supplied by an FBI informant. In the wake of President Nixon’s call to “law and order,” stepped-up arrests push the already poor conditions at New York’s Attica State Prison to the limit. A five-day inmate takeover calling the public’s attention to the conditions leaves 43 men dead: four killed by inmates, 39 by police.

The Keys to the Kingdom (1974-80)
In the 1970s, antidiscrimination legal rights gained in past decades by the civil rights movement are put to the test. In Boston, some whites violently resist a federal court school desegregationorder. Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, proves that affirmative action can work, but the Bakke Supreme Court case challenges that policy.

Back to the Movement (1979-mid 80s)
Power and powerlessness. Miami’s black community — pummeled by urban renewal, a lack of jobs, and police harassment — explodes in rioting. But in Chicago, an unprecedentedgrassroots movement triumphs. Frustrated by decades of unfulfilled promises made by the city’s Democratic political machine, reformers install Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor.

 

More at PBS.org