Saturday, February 13, 2016

Before Rosa Parks

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Most of us have heard the story of a black woman who stood up to segregation in Montgomery Alabama by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person.  She then led a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court to see such laws struck down as unconstitutional.  That woman of course is the famous Claudette Colvin.  Perhaps you were thinking Rosa Parks, but you would be wrong.

Claudette Colvin
On March 2, 1955, 15 year old Claudette Colvin was riding home from school on a public bus in Montgomery Alabama.  White people sat in the front seats while "colored" people as they were called at the time had to sit in the back.  Ms. Colvin dutifully took her seat in the back of the bus, near the front of the colored section.  However, as the bus made its rounds, the bus began to fill up.  In such cases, the white section got pushed further back to make more seats available for white passengers.  Black passengers would have to give up their seats and stand.  Even more obnoxious in this case, there was an empty seat across the aisle from where Ms. Colvin was sitting. A white passenger had sat down there and everyone was seated.  But the law prevented colored passengers even from sitting in the same row as white passengers.  Colvin essentially had to give up her seat so that it could remain empty, simply because a white woman had sat down in the same row.

The bus driver demanded Colvin give up her seat.  She refused saying "It's my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it's my constitutional right."  In a later interview with Newsweek magazine, she said:  "I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, 'Sit down girl!' I was glued to my seat." Colvin had been on the bus with several of her friends.  Apparently, all but one of them obeyed the bus driver's orders.  The other friend remained seated next to Colvin until the police arrived, then lost her nerve and obeyed the police order to get out of the seat.  At that point, Colvin was alone.

Many years later, Ms. Colvin described her arrest in another account:

"Well, they asked me to get up, and I refused. And one of the policemen was a traffic policeman at Court Square. And he yelled to the bus motorman that he had no jurisdiction here, and he got off. So the bus driver moved the bus to Bibb and Commerce, and then two squad car policemen came on the bus. And they—I became more defiant. And when they asked me the same question, and the gal, "Why are you sitting there?" I said, "It’s my constitutional right. I paid my fare; it’s my constitutional right." And he said, "Constitutional rights?" And then one kicked at me, and when one—and he knocked the books out of my hand—out of my lap. And then one grabbed one arm, and one grabbed the other, and they manhandled me off the bus. And after I got into the squad car, they handcuffed me through the window and took me to booking and then to—not to a juvenile facility, but to an adult jail. And I stayed in jail three—approximately three hours, until my pastor, Reverend H.H. Johnson, and my mother came and bailed me out."

According to the police, she struggled against their attempts to arrest her.  She kicked and scratched the officers.  You can read the arresting officers' account in the original arrest record.    She was charged, not only with violating segregation laws, but also misconduct and resisting arrest.  She was tried as a juvenile, found to be a juvenile delinquent, and put on probation.

By all accounts, Colvin's decision to resist was a spontaneous one.  She had been learning about the growing resistance to the racial injustice in Montgomery's African-American Community.  In some of her accounts she alludes to the fact that her school had just finished black history month (yes, some places had that even in the 1950's) and that she was inspired by those stories.  Her reaction that day though, seemed to be one made without much forethought.

A segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama
The African-American community was rallied by this injustice and began to hold meetings as people tried to decide how to react.  There was some discussion of a bus boycott and the local NAACP chapter considered bringing a civil suit.  In the end though, they decided that Colvin would not make a good public face for the issue.  There are a variety of reasons given by different people.  Some said that she looked "too black" and that it would be better to have a lighter skinned more attractive woman as the poster child of this injustice.  Some argued that as a teenager, she might not be up to all of the controversy she would have to face.  Some were concerned about the fact that she had apparently fought the police and might be seen as a violent, out of control teenager.  In a later interview, Ms. Colvin commented "I knew why they chose Rosa. They thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa." A few months after the incident, Ms. Colvin, still a teenager, became pregnant, allegedly from a married man.  That seemed to settle the matter. Her personal story now seemed just too scandalous.

Nine months later, in December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for the same offense.  Ms. Parks was a lighter skinned woman deemed more attractive and an adult who could manage herself well in the spotlight.  She was an employee of the NAACP and some argue that she deliberately provoked police into arresting her so she could be the flash point of a real challenge to the law.  I think provocation is a strong word.  It seems Ms. Parks, who rode the bus to and from work, sat at the front of the "colored" section of the bus when possible, and probably resolved ahead of time that if asked to move she would refuse.  But resolving to refuse an unconstitutional order is not provocation.  It is simply standing up for one's rights.  By the time of Ms. Parks' arrest, the African-American community was organized and ready to begin the now famous bus boycott.  Rosa Parks became the poster child and a young Montgomery pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. began a civil rights movement.

Claudette Colvin's story, however, did not end with Rosa Parks' arrest.  Lawyers on behalf of Parks filed suit in Alabama State Court.  It appeared that the State judiciary was going to drag out the case forever so that it would take years to get either a positive resolution or a final decision that could be appealed to federal court.  As a second option, lawyers representing Claudette Colvin and three of her friends from the bus that day filed suit directly in federal court.  That case, decided by a three judge panel in district court found Alabama's bus segregation laws unconstitutional  A few months later, in December 1956, the Supreme Court refused to overturn that finding, making the decision final.  Days later, Montgomery began to allow all riders to use buses on a non-segregated basis and the boycott ended.  It was Colvin's case, not Parks' case, that ended bus segregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin was active in the NAACP, but like many black activists, she was seen as a trouble maker by the white community and could not find work in Alabama.  In 1958, at age 18, she moved to New York City where she eventually found work as a nurse's aide in a Manhattan retirement home.  She worked there for the next 35 years, with few of her coworkers knowing about her civil rights record.  Although she is retired now, Claudette Colvin still lives in New York City.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Further Reading

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