Under the Bus (1939)
A 1976 slogan coined by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” stimulated the feminist G-spot. The words proliferated on T-shirts, coffee-mugs and bumper-stickers. Although a docile woman may classify as Miss Congeniality, she does not leave footprints in the sands of time. In the Jim Crow South, where being female and African-American secures a niche in the bottom of the hierarchy, one of these girls ‘misbehaved’ with the result a finger was removed from a long pent up damn.
A 1955 incident on a segregated Montgomery bus changed the racial landscape of America. The arrest of Rosa Parks set off a chain reaction that began the bus boycott that launched the Civil Rights Movement that transformed the apartheid of the South from a local tradition to a national outrage. It also conferred a saint-like aura on the gray-haired seamstress. What has been lost in the translation of time is Ms. Parks was not the first person to take a stand by keeping her seat.
Claudette Colvin was born in King Hill, which, despite its name, was on the wrong side of the segregated tracks of Montgomery. Claudette remembers her neighborhood where broken cars were permanently parked outside ramshackle houses, a section looked down upon by the middle-class blacks. There were unpaved streets and outside toilets, and nights were punctuated by alcohol and poverty-induced fights. Colvin lived at 658 Dixie Drive, where she was raised by a great aunt, who worked as a maid, and her great uncle, who worked as a gardener. They loved her as their own and she referred to them as her parents.
Besides the sword of penury that hung over Dixie Drive was the ever present bigotry. Before she even knew her ABCs she knew the societal differences between being white or being black. Not only was she victimized by Caucasians, but by African-Americans with lighter skin. In the ‘pigmentocracy’ of the South, while whites discriminated against blacks on grounds of skin color, the black community discriminated against each other in terms of skin tone. The lighter the better, as this was closer to the appearance of the prevailing power. Thus, because of her complexion, Claudette was at the bottom of the social pile.
Residents of King’s Hill remember her as deeply religious, a bookworm and straight A student. Nevertheless, Claudette also sported a rebellious streak, demonstrated when she stopped straightening her hair; when her 10th grade teacher, Ms. Nesbitt, asked the class to write down what they wanted to be her paper read: president of the United States. She said as a young teen her fantasies were to marry a baseball player and to go North to liberate her people.
During Claudette’s freshman year racism reared its head when police cars descended on Booker T. Washington High to arrest the teenaged Jeremiah Reeves for having sex with a white woman. She cried rape while he swore it was consensual. In either contingency, he was guilty of violating the South’s deeply ingrained taboo on interracial sex. He was put on death row and executed four years later.
On March 2, 1955, the clever and angry Claudette boarded the Highland Avenue bus whose stop was opposite Dr. Martin Luther King’s church on Dexter Avenue. The law at that time designated seats for blacks at the rear and for whites at the front, but left the middle ones as a murky no man’s land. Black people were allowed to occupy them as long as white people did not require their use.
As more white passengers got on, the driver told the African-Americans in the middle to move to the back, and while three girls complied, Claudette refused. She recalls, “If it had been for an old lady, I would have got up, but it wasn’t.” To add to the drama, a pregnant black woman, Mrs. Hamilton, got on and sat next to Colvin. When the driver spied their defiance in his rear view mirror he shouted at them, but neither budged. They expected verbal abuse, but nothing more. However, he left the bus to summon the authorities and the air was electrified with tension. Colvin became the target of infuriated Caucasian students and one shouted. “You got to get up!” and an African-American who replied, “She ain’t got to do nothing but stay black and die.” Passenger Gloria Hardin recalls of that forever etched in the mind day that they all sat tensed, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
An officer arrived, displaying two of the characteristics for which white Southern men are renowned: gentility and racism. He did not berate the pregnant Mrs. Hamilton, and yet he could not allow the flouting of the law. He turned on the black men sitting behind her, “If any of you are not gentlemen enough to give a lady a seat, you should be put in jail yourself.” Mr. Harris, a sanitation worker, stood up and exited. This left Claudette and when she shook her head and kept saying “No Sir” a black woman began to wail “Oh, God.” A white woman told the policeman that if he let them get away with this they would take over.
Claudette’s refusal had been partly fueled by her teacher, Geraldine Nesbitt, who had just finished a unit on Black History month where she had taught about the 14th Amendment. Colbert said of the decision that altered the trajectory of her life, “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.”
The policeman kicked Claudette, informed her he would take her off, followed by two more kicks. Immune to her tears, he dragged her to a patrol car accompanied by her screams “It’s my Constitutional right!” After she was forced into the back, one officer asked “what was going on with these Niggers?” and another started guessing about her bra size. Claude was terrified, realizing there was no telling what might transpire. She was well aware that a few months earlier, Emmet Till, a 14 year-old-boy, had said, “Bye, baby,” to a white woman at a store in nearby Mississippi. A few days later he was fished out of the Tallahatchie River, a bullet in his skull, an eye gouged out, and forehead crushed. The teen was filled with apprehension, “I didn’t know if they were crazy, if they were going to take me to a Klan meeting. I started protecting my crotch. I was afraid they might rape me.”
The police carted Claudette to City Hall and to detach herself from the horror she concentrated on material she had been learning at school. “I recited Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee,” the characters in Midsummer’s Night Dream, the “Lord’s Prayer,” and the “23rd Psalm.” The court charged Colvin with misconduct, resisting arrest, and violating the city’s segregation laws. Her pastor arrived to pick her up and by the time she arrived at Dixie Drive her parents, as well as everyone in King’s Hill, knew what had transpired. In her trial Colvin pleaded innocent but was found guilty and released on indefinite probation. After hearing the verdict, her agonized sobs filled the courthouse.
The shock waves of the teen’s bravery proved big news. Black leaders jumped at the opportunity to use her case to fight segregation laws in court. In the Alabama Journal the headlines blared, “Negro Girl Found Guilty of Segregation Violation.” The decision met with heated controversy. Some thought she would make a perfect figurehead given her studious, religious and intrepid nature. Others felt she was too much of a loose cannon given her screams about Constitutional rights and hysteria. People also said Colvin was unsuitable because she was not raised by her parents, lived in a shack, was dark-skinned. Residents of King’s Hill felt, “It was a case of ‘bourgey’ blacks looking down on the working-class blacks.” The heated debate abruptly ended.
The quiet, fifteen-year-old was emotionally adrift when she became involved in the eye of a storm and an older, married man offered comfort that ended with her pregnancy. For Claudette, this was an equally traumatic experience, “Nowadays, you’d call it statutory rape, but back then it was just the kind of thing that happened.” She refused to name the father or have anything to do with him. “When I told my mother I was pregnant, I thought she was going to have a heart attack. If I had told my father who did it, he would have killed him.” Her son, Raymond, emerged light-skinned and her community, feeling she had slept with a white man, which was not the case, ostracized her. As another kidney punch to her soul, her school kicked her out on a morality clause. The once happy teen became withdrawn and cried at every free moment. Her personal tragedy also meant the Civil Rights leaders would not consider an unwed, pregnant teenager, as their figurehead.
Montgomery’s black leaders determined not to abandon their cause, and cast their eyes on another person to best represent it. They settled on an elderly, soft-spoken Rosa Parks, whose act of resistance was orchestrated by an unknown 26- year- old preacher, Dr. King, who made his political debut fighting her preplanned arrest. Ms. Parks went on to become one of Time Magazine’s 100 most important people of the 20th century, and streets and schools were named in her honor. In contrast, Claudette Colvin was regulated to a footnote of history. However, Claudette is not one to hold on to bitterness. She remembers Miss Parks as a reserved but kindly woman who made her snacks of peanut butter on Ritz crackers and often invited her to spend the night in her apartment.
Because of their daughter’s notoriety her parents shuffled her off to Birmingham; however, eventually she returned to Montgomery to take part in the movement she had helped ignite. One year after her arrest, while her infant son slept, she became a star witness in the landmark federal lawsuit attacking segregation, Browder v. Gayle. The attorney in the case, Fred Gray, remembered Colvin for her bravery. He said, “I don’t mean to take anything away from Mrs. Parks, but Claudette gave all of us the moral courage to do what we did.”
Claudette was left in a highly vulnerable position: she was a poor, single, pregnant, black, teenage mother who had taken on the white establishment and run afoul of the black. The bleak scenario would have left most young girls bloodied and bowed, but Claudette determined no matter what she would still rise. Part of her fortitude stemmed from the responsibility of raising a child as a single parent.
Hoping to leave the injustice of the South, in 1958 Claudette and Raymond moved to the Bronx; when she first arrived, she was at a drugstore and a white man held the door open. She froze in disbelief. Ms. Colvin never married and Raymond passed away at age thirty-seven, while a second son is an accountant in Atlanta. She loves watching television-“Who Wants to be a Millionaire-” is her favorite, and is a regular at the local diner. Ms. Colvin, who now relies on a cane to steady herself when she walks, reads two newspapers a week and chats about topics such as recent Nobel Prize winners. Less lofty subjects are Chris Rock, Alicia Keyes, and Aretha Franklin, who, she thinks, should lose a few pounds, but is impressed the singer wore a good hat to President Obama’s inauguration. One thing it is best not to start her on is the topic of Sarah Palin. Colbert retired from her job as a nurse’s aide in a retirement home after thirty-four years and during that time contributed to her obscurity, never talking about how her youthful protest prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The answer to “Who Wants to be Famous?” is not Claudette Colvin.
She was plucked from obscurity by Phillip Hoose’s book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. Its genesis was when the author heard an urban myth that a teenager had beaten Ms. Parks to the punch in Montgomery. The retiree with a thick Heart of Dixie drawl, her eyes grow misty when she speaks about the old days such as when she waxes about Dr. King, “He was just an average-looking fellow-it’s not like he was Kobe Bryant or anything,” she revealed, accompanied by the flirtatious fluttering of her eyelashes. “But when he opened his mouth he was like Charlton Heston playing Moses.” The fiery young rebel yet survives.
When asked if she is bitter that through circumstances Rosa Parks usurped her place in history the answer is negative. She says she is content with a bigger reward, “Being dragged off that bus was worth it just to see Barack Obama become president, because so many others gave their lives and didn’t get to see it, and I thank God for letting me see it.” In a nod to irony, her spiritual salvation was when the black and white establishment failed to break her spirit-even when they threw her under the bus.