Hidden from History?
August 13, 2005 2:20 PM   Subscribe

Claudette Colvin --a Montgomery teen arrested 9 months before Rosa Park's now-famous refusal to sit in the back of the bus. There were 4 women who stood up before Mrs. Parks, yet most of us know nothing about them. It was their actions that led to the Supreme Court overturning segregation on public transit, yet Rosa Parks is the visible symbol. On worthy and "unworthy" messengers and symbols.
posted by amberglow (14 comments total)
Picking the "right" people to represent a cause continues today. It's sad, but it's human nature to base support on immediate reactions, not grand ideals. Using this fact to your advantage is practical, no matter how "dirty" it makes you feel.
posted by Maxson at 2:46 PM on August 13, 2005

Even though I admire and salute the actions of those women preceding Rosa Parks, the fact remains that she was the perfect person to galvanize support for the civil rights movement. So it falls under the rubric of "whatever works." Nobody ever said politics was pretty.

and what maxson said.
posted by jonmc at 3:04 PM on August 13, 2005

damn activist judges.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 3:34 PM on August 13, 2005

... waiting for those who will follow Cindy Sheehan.
posted by bloomicy at 3:52 PM on August 13, 2005

Probably the most well-known of the four plaintiffs was Claudette Colvin. A 15-year old student at Booker T. Washington High School, she boarded a bus on March 2, 1955. After refusing to give up her seat to a White man, Colvin was handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from the bus, as she screamed that her Constitutional rights were being violated.

That is one impressive 15-year old!

It's funny how history gets made, how we pick out one moment in a continuum and say "this was the moment when everything changed!" Ignoring that there are other moments on either side of the chosen event that could just as plausibly serve as our historical marker.

Another example, also from the Civil Rights era, is the case of desegregation in Hoxie, Arkansas. I recently saw a great film on PBS: "Hoxie: The First Stand." It showed how the black families of Hoxie and the decent white members of the school board resisted enormous pressure and defused racial tensions as they fashioned a compromise to desegregate Hoxie schools, despite the arrival of the KKK and others. All of this months before Little Rock.

But we forget Hoxie, maybe because it is not the story we want to hear.

And by the way--Rosa Parks was not an old tired seamstress who made a sudden decision to keep her sea, as she presented herself to the media. She was an activist who chose to get arrested to put a spotlight on injustice.
posted by LarryC at 4:39 PM on August 13, 2005

..to keep her seat. Sorry about that.
posted by LarryC at 4:39 PM on August 13, 2005

She was an activist who chose to get arrested to put a spotlight on injustice.

And good for her. And part of the reason she was such an effective symbol is that plenty of people (including lots of white folks) looked at her and saw someone of who could've been their aunt or grandma. Yes, it would be nice if such things didn't matter, but they do. And adopting Rosa as a symbol of the struggle was a brilliant move.
posted by jonmc at 5:06 PM on August 13, 2005

"She was an activist who chose to get arrested to put a spotlight on injustice."

There's nothing wrong with the fact that she was an activist (hey, whatever it takes to change the system), but it is an interesting commentary on how history is recorded. I didn't learn this fact until a college class focusing on race relations...and most people will never learn it.
posted by elquien at 8:33 PM on August 13, 2005

A subtle point that's being overlooked is that Rosa Parks was a person more acceptable to the black churches that the NAACP wanted to recruit into a civil rights action. It was by no means a random act, which is sometimes used to criticize it; it was a very savvy strategic move by an organization which knew that it needed broad support to succeed. The Colvin case was proceeding on the legal front, and would achieve its own progress there, but they wanted to have a public boycott, and for a boycott you need a lot of people on your side.

Long before Parks there was, for instance, Irene Morgan, which broke a chink in the wall by overturning segregation in public interstate transportation, i.e. under federal authority.

But as early as 1892, Homer Plessy -- who was just 1/8 black -- tried to sit in a whites-only car after purchasing a ticket, and was thrown off the train. The case went to the Supreme Court, where it resulted in the landmark separate but equal doctrine -- the doctrine that allowed busses to be segregated into white and black sections. Before that, though, in 1884, Ida B. Wells won a lawsuit against a railroad over being "asked" to give up her seat to a white man, circumstances remarkably similar to Parks's. She didn't hesitate, by the way, to bite the hand of the conductor who manhandled her.

No doubt there were many more less celebrated instances. This is, in fact, the real tragedy -- that there is a continuum of individual rebellions almost a century long, and that an initial period of success after the Civil War was rolled back so substantially in the Jim Crow era.

Rosa Parks was standing -- er, sitting -- in for those who had gone before her.
posted by dhartung at 10:05 PM on August 13, 2005

Rosa Parks was also incredibly involved in the political aspects of the movement before her action. I really hate how history paints her as a woman who "just got tired and fed up" one day. She was way more politically saavy than that.
posted by piratebowling at 11:14 PM on August 13, 2005

First, from where I sit, the most important point is not that Colvin was ignored or that Parks was more acceptable in some way. To me, the real point here is that resistance requires a group effort. Think about it this way; the whites didn't live in fear of giving one black person the occasional bus seat. Rather, they lived in fear of every black person taking a bus seat. Parks was threatening to whitey and effective as a civil rights hero because she was part of a group.

Second, Booker T. Washington High School has kind of an interesting history. [Note: I live in Montgomery]. Evidently, it existed in the fifties and then, at some point, ceased to exist. I say this because, despite the fact that, growing up, I heard many a reminiscence from many a local about their high school experiences in the fifties and sixties, I don't remember ever hearing anyone mention Booker T. Washington and there certainly was no such institution in existence by the time I hit junior high. In fact, until I read these articles today, I thought the only version of BTW that ever existed was the current one. See, toward the end of the nineties, BTW was launched/resurrected as an "Arts Magnet" school. I'm guessing many of you are familiar with the concept, but, in a nutshell; it's a public high school offering specialized classes (in this case ranging from journalism to violin) for those who get through the application process. My sister and my most recent gf graduated from the school and, I'm happy to report, it's probably the first public high school in the entire history of Montgomery county where two people of the same gender can openly have a relationship and not worry about getting beat down in the parking lot. And yes, they can even attend the prom as couples. Oh, and if that's not enough... I once attended an Indigo Girls concert there. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, it was during the school day. And yes, all the kids got to attend for free. It totally kicked ass.

So, you know... yay for civil rights.
posted by Clay201 at 11:29 PM on August 13, 2005

thanks all.

related: What Fox News Channel Would Have Done to Rosa Parks
posted by amberglow at 8:11 AM on August 14, 2005

Also, it says something about the popular view of activism that so many people feel like it somehow undermines Rosa Park for her to be an "activist."
posted by RobotHero at 8:18 AM on August 14, 2005

Amberglow's link just above is very witty.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:06 AM on August 14, 2005

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