Thursday, July 29, 2010

Claudette Colvin: Unheralded Civil Rights Activist

I just finished reading Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice. Colvin was a teenager who would not give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery, Alabama bus nine months before Rosa Parks did. Colvin was roughly handled by the police and arrested.

What made her do it? After learning about her constitutional rights in school, Colvin was fired up. As a teen, she didn't understand how adults could continue to live with the kind of treatment black Montgomery bus riders experienced. The spark she lit did set the eventual bus boycott in motion, but Colvin herself was for the most part unappreciated. Black civil rights leaders didn't feel she was an appropriate representative. Over the years, her story and participation in the court case that led to the end of bus segregation in Montgomery has been overlooked.

Since this book was written for young readers, its main theme is about a teenager who spoke out and made a difference, although she was overlooked. One reviewer notes that even though it does not shy away from saying Colvin was left out, the book treads carefully when it comes to Dr. King and Rosa Parks, two of the big names in the Civil Rights movement.

Even if the book has a limited scope, so many details that get left out of the abbreviated version of the story of the Montgomery bus boycott really enrich my understanding of history: things like the way Colvin was ostracized for taking action, even more so when she adopted a natural hairstyle and later had a child out of wedlock; the transportation system set up to as an alternative (with used cars bought with donations and people turning over their car keys so their neighbors could get where they needed to go); and the white woman who wrote a letter to the editor in support of the boycott who was threatened, ostracized and killed herself a year later.

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