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Claudette Colvin

Known at Last, Known at Last

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose (2009). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN: 0374313229.

Dozens of books have been written about Rosa Parks. Now at long last there is one book about Claudette Colvin.

In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin defied segregation laws by refusing to surrender her bus seat for a white passenger, choosing instead to be arrested. Local black leaders such at E.D. Nixon and Martin Luther King considered organizing a boycott of the busses, but chose not to.

Several months later, another woman was arrested when she refused to give up her seat. That woman was 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith. Civil Rights leaders again declined to boycott.

Then Rosa Parks, who had been intimately familiar with the Colvin case, did the same thing. Civil Rights leaders decided that, in arresting the 42-year-old woman, segregationists had gone too far. This time, they boycotted; and the Montgomery Bus Boycott is widely seen today as the first major campaign of the Civil Rights Movement (since historians tend to overlook the student strike organized by Barbara Johns.)

Unmasking Ageism

One great thing about Phillip Hoose's book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice is that he finally makes clear ageism was the reason Colvin and Smith were treated differently from Parks. Other historians had gotten that wrong. They had erroneously reported that Colvin was abandoned because she was pregnant and not married, and Civil Rights leaders feared putting her in the spotlight would make blacks look bad or turn public sympathies against her. Hoose explodes this myth. As his research reveals, the statutory rape that left Colvin pregnant did not even occur until after her arrest, after her trial, after her final appeal, and after her abandonment by the Civil Rights community.

Similarly, historians have reported that Mary Louise Smith was abandoned because her father was a drunk and because she and her father were so poor they lived in a shack, causing even the lower class blacks to turn up their noses. Hoose explodes this, too:

The truth was much different. Mary Louise later said she never in her life saw her father drunk. ... Hardly a shack, the Smith home was a two-story, three-bedroom frame house in a working-class neighborhood. But Mary Louise Smith, the second teenager with the nerve to face down Jim Crow on a city bus, was, like Claudette, branded "unfit" to serve as the public face of a mass bus protest. [p. 54]

The truth is, both teenagers were abandoned because of ageism. The adults who had cowered before Jim Crow segregation laws were embarrassed that teenagers were showing more courage.

Taking Heat

Among other eye-openers, Hoose reveals that Colvin was not only largely abandoned by the black community, she actually faced hostility from them:

"A few of the teachers like Miss Nesbitt embraced me," Claudette recalls. "They kept saying, 'You were so brave.' But other teachers seemed uncomfortable. Some parents seemed uncomfortable, too. I think they knew they should have done what I did long before. They were embarrassed that it took a teenager to do it." [p. 40]

And sadly, it wasn't just adults who turned against her. When her trial ended in her conviction, it confirmed the worst cynicism among her fellow students, some of whom eagerly embraced her legal loss as a vindication of their own cowardice. The book quotes Colvin:

When I got back to school, more and more students seemed to turn against me. Everywhere I went people pointed at me and whispered. Some kids would snicker when they saw me coming down the hall. "It's my constitutional right! It's my constitutional right!" [mocking what Colvin had said while being arrested]. I had taken a stand for my people. I had stood up for our rights. I hadn't expected to become a hero, but I sure didn't expect this. [p. 45]

Elsewhere, Hoose offers this recollection:

"From the time Claudette got arrested she was the center of attention," remembers Alean Bowser, one of Claudette's classmates. "But the attention was directed in the wrong way. Kids were saying she should have known what would happen, that she should have got up from her seat. ... We should have been rallying around her and being proud of what she had done, but instead we ridiculed her." [p. 51]

The Victory

book cover - Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Most people mistakenly believe the boycott ended segregation on the busses, but the segregation was actually ended by a lawsuit: Browder v. Gayle. Rosa Parks had no role in the suit, but Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith were among the four plaintiffs who testified. (The other two plaintiffs were older women who had never braved arrest but offered stories of how they'd been humiliated obeying the segregation law.) One of the lawyers would later acknowledge Colvin had been the "star witness" convincing the judges to order the busses desegregated.

Sadly, even after this victory, the Civil Rights community continued to shun Colvin, who by this time was an unwed mother. And while Civil Rights activists refused to recognize what she had done for them, segregationists did not forget:

I decided I would be safer [working] in restaurants than in white people's homes — you never knew who was KKK. But whenever I'd start a job in a cafeteria, word would get around fast about who I was. ... I got fired from several restaurant jobs when my employers found out I was the one who wouldn't give up her seat. I'd change my name back and forth from Colvin to Austin so I could work, but they'd always find out and that was that. [p. 98]

While Rosa Parks spent the rest of her life on a pedestal, Claudette Colvin had to keep her head down just to get by. She fell through the cracks of history, and most historians have been happy to leave her there.

Now, at last, we have one book about her.

Though the book is well-written and offers serious scholarship, it has been formatted and marketed as "juvenile literature." This would be a good thing, perhaps, if it increased the odds that juveniles will read it. But most young readers have figured out that the books given to youth are the ones adults don't want. Many are condescending or poorly written and designed to appease parents and librarians more than to satisfy young readers. Had Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice been released as an adult book, I suspect at least as many youth would read it and certainly more adults. As it is, the book will be ignored by mainstream America, and historians will continue to repeat the myths this book uncovered.

Thanks to Phillip Hoose, however, at least a few more people will know the truth about this young woman who paid the price to give us a better world.

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