Tag Archives: Civil rights

Claudette Colvin, Respectability Politics and Human Dignity

Manushka Gracia-Desgage is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh graduate with a degree in English Writing. She has a passion for writing, law, God, and social justice. She spends her time tutoring 1st and 2nd graders.

March 2, 1955 was a monumental day in Montgomery, Alabama. When they hear this, most people will assume that I’m referring either to the stand that Rosa Parks took or the introduction of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But both will be wrong. March 2, 1955 was the day a 15-year-old Black girl stood up for justice. Before there was Rosa Parks, before there was a Montgomery Bus Boycott, there was Claudette Colvin.

        Claudette Colvin’s place in history is generally denied or passively mentioned. From elementary school on to the rest of our lives, it is cemented in our historical schema that Rosa Parks’ arrest was the spark that ignited the bus boycott which served as the springboard for the Civil Rights Movement. However, nine months before Rosa Parks took her stand, Claudette Colvin found herself in the same situation and did the same thing. And that’s about where the comparisons end. When Colvin was arrested, she was grabbed by the wrists and jerked up from her seat. Her books went flying everywhere. She was dragged and kicked. Parks, on the other hand, was relatively peacefully escorted off the bus with two officers carrying her belongings for her. Her hands were not cuffed. When she got to city hall, her fingerprints were taken and she was given permission to phone her family.

        Rosa Parks was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP; Claudette Colvin was a teenager who came from a family that wasn’t part of the prominent sect of Black Montgomery. Parks was deemed as a composed, acquiescent, and levelheaded person; Colvin was seen as feisty, emotional, and demonstrative. Parks was light-skinned; Colvin was not. In short, Claudette Colvin did not embody the politics of respectability that the religious leadership of the Civil Right Movement wanted to project.

        Once Colvin was charged and convicted of “assaulting” an officer, the support she reaped from leading Black officials dwindled. People had hoped to use Colvin’s case as the means to challenge the system of segregated bus seating. However, she was regarded as an uncontrollable teen and too young to be the face of such a powerful and transcendental movement. She was from King Hill, the place seen as the bottom-feeder of Montgomery, Alabama. The leader of the Montgomery NAACP, E.D. Nixon, put it this way: “I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with.” Claudette Colvin wasn’t seen as that ‘somebody’.

The bus boycott ensued not too long after Rosa Parks made her stand. In the meantime, NAACP lawyers were mounting a case to attack the constitutionality of segregated bus seating. When the case was formulated and prepped to go to court, Claudette Colvin was one of the four witnesses chosen to testify in the case that came to be known as Browder v Gayle, a case that changed the course of history but is widely forgotten. The testimonies of Colvin and the three other women (not including Rosa Parks) had helped the federal court abolish segregated bus seating in Montgomery, AL.

        After the case was over, Colvin was once again ignored and undermined. There were no congratulatory phone calls, no visits, no letters, no anything. She was pregnant. Yes, she was pregnant. And so she wasn’t exactly someone to be heralded in their eyes. It didn’t help that she didn’t reveal who the father was, a man that had taken advantage of her sexual naïveté, and the fact that her child was light-skinned, prompting most to assume that the father was white (even though he wasn’t).  Colorism (read: internalized White Supremacy) was part of the reason why the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ostracized Claudette Colvin.

        There’s a famous picture of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a key figure of the Civil Rights Movement, and Inez Baskin of the Montgomery Adviser. It is a portrait of the three on a bus on the first day of integrated bus seating. Claudette Colvin is nowhere to be found in that photograph. It’s a glaring absence every time I look at that portrait. A 15-year-old girl from the shunned town of King Hill who was raised by a great-aunt and great-uncle who were maids made a stance that adults of higher status didn’t have the gall to make. She sparked a fire that grown men and women didn’t dare risk to spark before her. Yet, the most mind-numbing part of her story is not the back seat the laws expected her to take, but the one the people that shared her skin color (and, of course, those who don’t) forced her story to take. They didn’t want her to be the face of the boycott movement because she was viewed as a feisty teen who didn’t respect authority. The same authority they were tirelessly fighting against. The irony. Nine months later, Rosa Parks was catapulted to iconic status for doing the same thing. The difference was that Parks was, number one, not a teenage. Number two, Park’s hair was silky and shiny as well as her skin was much lighter. Lastly, Park’s family wasn’t lower-lower class like Colvin. Did I mention Parks wasn’t a teenaged mother either?

        The aspect of self-hate that permeates throughout her story is interesting to note. Black leaders who dedicated their lives to fighting for racial equality were still victims of some level of self-hate. Rosa Parks, to them, was a more politically respectable figure to make the poster-person of the Montgomery Bus Boycott because of what she presented: lighter skin, smoother hair, more privileged background, and an appeased spirit, akin to W.E.B. DuBois’ Talented Tenth. White people wouldn’t feel challenged by someone so docile and who resembled them more than Claudette Colvin. It showed that, despite the fact that the black community had garnered enough audacity to contest the racism laced in segregated bus seating, they were still colonized intellectually. Their mindset was still, “We need THEM to accept US,” a mindset that still plagues our people today, when our mindset should be, “We ARE just as good and just as worthy. We don’t need acceptance.” Using Claudette Colvin as the face of the bus boycott movement would have shown that our people were aware that we are so valiant that even a 15-year-old girl with poor parents, coarse hair, and dark skin could change the course of history. But instead, the all-too-familiar rhetoric prevailed.

In spite of it all, the truth doesn’t change because of how one feels about it.  Courage doesn’t have a preconceived mold. When you stand up for what is right in the face of hostile forces, you could be two years old or 222 years old. History can be made by ordinary people who come from meager circumstances. Claudette Colvin changed history regardless of who people decide to put on the historical poster. Colvin’s courage was the bank from which Rosa Parks withdrew her courage. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to fame from what Colvin had the courage to do.

        Historians have often dismissed Colvin’s story, citing her as a passing notion, a mere detail that helps provide color to a bigger story. But historians don’t make history, history makes history. History is still history even if no one talks about it. Biblical history shows a God who takes persons like Gideon, the youngest child from the least respectable family, and transforms a deliverer, yes the poster child of divine liberation. God is not a respecter of persons because God has created us with infinite worth, the imago Dei. The liberation movements of human beings should be committed to human dignity, which is a matter of the heart, and not the superficiality of respectability politics. While Rose Parks will always be seen as the face of the Montgomery Boycott, nevertheless, Claudette Colvin was THE catalyst. She is not forgotten. Just like Rosa Parks is not forgotten. As Colvin herself said, “I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’ And I did.” And that’s all that matters. 

Lessons From #Selma50: #3 From White Sign to White Mind

Many know the story of Nashville, Tennessee as the country music hall of fame. Musicians from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash and many others have walked down those streets. The recognition that the city has been given because of its role in the development of country music has even resulted in a popular television show with its namesake. However, there is also a different history in Nashville that exists alongside this narrative that we already know. It also played a crucial role in the development of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s and prominent leaders during the movement such as: James Lawson, C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and Congressman John Lewis. Furthermore, it is home the the most comprehensive Civil Right library in the country. Nashville is also home to the first health center that trained African Americans called the MeHarry medical college. So why has Nashville’s rich history during the Civil Right Movement and beyond been overlooked. Again I turn to lessons that I learned from conversation with various members of the community. Kwame Lillard, a civil rights veteran reasoned that this was because of the insufficiencies that resulted from the movement. Chief among those was the transition from eradicating the white signs [legislation] to eradicating the white mind [white supremacist ideology, practices].

 

So what exactly is the transition from white signs to white minds? It begins with the assumption that racism is actually an oligarchical beast. It is both individualistic as well as institutional. Both aspects can be mutually reinforcing. One cannot be eradicated without eliminating the other. White signs in a very literal sense are the policies enacted under Jim Crow that systematically disenfranchised African Americans and many other minorities from the political process and public accommodations. White signs describes segregated schools, buses, lunch counters, housing, employment opportunities, and every other form of explicit representation in which “Whites Only” is the written law. White signs was the major battleground in which the civil rights struggle took place. When the Nashville Five refused to move when the sought to integrate lunch counters in the South they had effectively waged war against the white signs. When these same individual continued to execute CORE’s plan of testing the federal law via Boynton v. Virginia 1960 which mandated integrated transportation facilities they were once again attacking white signs. During the  famed March on Washington in 1963 John Lewis and others gave speeches that were pivotal putting pressure on the U.S. government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both the speeches and the ensuing legislations were aimed at ending white sign. What had yet to be addressed was white supremacist logic itself.

 

White minds, according to Lillard, are the dominant ideologies created by the fog of white supremacy that continues to disenfranchise African Americans in society today. He noted that one of the shortcomings of the activism from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s is that it did not go far enough. Indeed activists were effective in the ability to force America to deliver on its promises of equality in the areas of voting rights and public accommodations it did nothing to attack the ideologies and cognitive notions that allowed a racial hierarchy to permeate every aspect of society including the government. He compares the struggle for civil rights to warfare tactics. When the Allied Forces invaded Normandy in what would be the largest seaborne invasion in history, they did not stop once all of the troops had landed there. They aimed for and achieved a total and decisive victory over the Germany. Movement leaders got to Normandy ( equal access to public accommodations, and voting rights) but did not go for the total annihilation of a system. They did not confront the mindsets that made so many uncomfortable. Underlying ideologies remained the same and could be repackaged in various forms. To state simply the Civil Rights Movement did not confront the heart of white supremacy.

 

So what would we be necessary to finish what was started by Kwame Lillard and so many more during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s? One solution is to recognize that white supremacy is not just a question of civil rights; it questions the very fabric of what it means to be human. As Lillard expresses it is a transition from advocating for civil rights to advocating human rights. Human rights should not be simplified as to not recognizing the various racial disparities that affect black and brown bodies for a more general concern for humanity. Rather it recognizes the racialized nature of laws, norms, and various institutional structures. However, it goes beyond recognition of those structure and deals with issues of how to help oppressed and marginalized groups reclaim their human dignity and respect.

 

An example of this is with voter disenfranchisement laws throughout the country. Several states including my home state of Kentucky have laws that do not restore voting rights to citizen upon return from incarceration. In the state of Kentucky alone there are over a quarter million citizens who are denied their right to vote because they have a criminal conviction on their record. This measure of institutionalized racism has had a particular severe effect on the African American community in the state. Over ⅕ of the state’s African American population cannot vote because of these restrictions. Activist such as Jordan Mazurek and Greg Capillo have worked with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network to end this particular injustice. In a recent legislative session they petitioned for the Kentucky state senate to hear House Bill 70, which would offer reform to the current system in the state. In doing so they have found a way to transition to the struggle against the white mind. There are various other examples of how to move from  as Lillard suggests attacking white signs to white mind, however, it is imperative that we realize the struggle for human rights and equality is never over.

Photo description: ([Black] man drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma” ca. July 1939), found on Flickr. original photographer unknown.

Lessons from #Selma50: #2 Bloody Sunday

Selma, Alabama has garnered much attention recently for various reasons. The film combined with the 50th anniversary that commemorated ” Bloody Sunday,” has facilitated the visitation of many visitors including President Barack Obama on Saturday. Sunday March 8th a remarkable moment of solidarity occurred when people from across the country united to renew protest for social justice for many different causes including voter rights restrictions, police brutality, immigration policy, and continued economic injustices throughout the country. It is hard to say what the lasting impact will be of this event. However, given the magnitude of the event it is certainly worth pausing on for reflection. In particular what has shaped my perspective on this monumental event were two conversations that I had with citizens who lived in Alabama during the movement.

Despite my understanding of the significance of this event I did not take very many pictures while in Selma. However, one picture that I did take was of two older ladies with whom I had conversed. Both were active leaders during the Movement years in Selma. They actually insisted that I take a picture not only of them but of their signs as well. Both women held signs that said: ” Justice is blind in Selma- Unfair treatment of citizens in Selma, Alabama by certain persons in high places. We need help in Selma, Alabama.” Before I left after taking the picture she told me to share the pictures with others because after the everyone who came from the rally left they would still be left in Alabama. This made me reflect on two aspects of my visit to Selma. First, I reflected on what it must have been like to have been in Selma fifty years prior. The environments would have obviously been vastly different, tension would have been high and officer may not have been so friendly. However, the spirit of unity between various groups united to stand for a cause remained reminiscent. Although the threat of putting one’s life endanger was gone I still had the sense that important work could be accomplished by the March. However, the two women’s remarks combined with their signs were a very subtle reminder that no work would completely solely through a march.Although it was a great gesture, it would not cause social change by itself. There remains much work to be done. As I left the city I was reminded that I was only a guest there, and that there are actual residents who still face injustice in Selma. Part of this reality is the systemic inequality that many residents still face today. I was reminded that after leaving Selma I need to do whatever it is that I can to help those ladies and what they represent. Even if I do not specifically act on their behalf I was reminded that it is my responsibility as an activist to fight for social changes that is beneficial to all of the “Selmas”, from Ferguson, Missouri to Green Bay, Wisconsin, of the world. Through continually fighting to end injustices I take up the call to “Help Selma.”

The next reflection on my time in Selma is admittedly partially influenced by my time conversing with Civil Rights activist in Jackson, Mississippi as well. While in Selma the first man that I spoke with explained that he was a teenager when the March happened. Nevertheless, he was very much involved in the movement. Infact, he explained that because many teacher who chose to be involved in the movement were fired, schools frequently just dismissed student. The students were subsequently rounded up by officers and held in captivity for a period of time. He somehow managed to avoid this. One of the most interesting stories he told me was about the history of many of the building that were in Selma. According to him many of the businesses in the area that we were in were owned by the Jewish community. The communities frequently employed African Americans at a time when many could not find work in Selma. He describe the cooperative relationship between African Americans and Jews as essential economic vitality of the Selma community. He even explains how during his teenage years he worked for a Jewish families furniture store. This story stressed to me the importance of interracial alliances in the struggle for equality. In Jackson this point was reiterated by freedom ride, Hezekiah Watkins. Watkins described the everyday circumstances during his involvement with the COFO organization (a coalition between SNCC, CORE, SCLC, and the NAACP). He stated that what is often overlooked is the way that would mean white Americans were involved in the Movement. Particularly, he noted how some were directly involved.

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Those who were directly involved could potentially face many of the hardships that African Americans faced for their involvement. As a result some decided not to put their life on the line directly. However, this did not mean they were not involved. As an example he pointed to the many instances where white Americans would drive by the headquarters of COFO and leave envelopes of money outside their doors without ever wanting to be identified. This money was crucial towards funding the various initiatives that organizations like COFO hoped to accomplish. There point here though is not to explain the ways in which white Americans were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Rather, it is to use a specific historical example to elucidate the point that the struggle for equality is an interracial struggle. It does not fall on any one specific race or ethnic group. Perhaps another activist has stated this best: “I believe that my freedom is very much entangled with the freedom of every other man and that if another man is not free I am not free.” I believe the same can be said about the struggle for equality today. The need for interracial alliances highlights this point.

Needless to say there were many more lessons that I learned from a visit to Selma, Alabama (For example, TCU’s beating of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl was witnessed by many). Ha ha! Couldn’t help it! However, the two that I will not soon forget are that the struggle for freedom and equality does not end with a march, and the necessary cooperation by many across racial ethnic and even class boundaries to participate.