Monday, January 16, 2017

Read This: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Freedom

Claudette Colvin was a teenager growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, and she was tired of the daily struggle to survive in a world ruled by Jim Crow.
"I was done talking about 'good hair' and 'good skin' but not addressing our grievances. I was tired of adults complaining about how badly they were treated and not doing anything about it. I'd had enough of just feeling angry... I was tired of hoping for justice. When my moment came, I was ready."
Her moment came on March 2, 1955, when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. A full nine months before Rosa Parks did the same, in the same city. We know Rosa Park's name and story (or at least we should!), but what do we know about Claudette's? What role did she play in the fight for equality? What effect did her refusing to give up her seat have on the movement in Montgomery?

In Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (library) Phillip Hoose does a remarkable job of not only sharing Claudette's background, but he places her story within the larger civil rights timeline. He gives us a good understanding of her life growing up in Jim Crow Alabama -- her stories of experiencing racism first hand, watching her family and neighbors struggling with oppression, the influence of special teachers, and the natural questioning of a young woman determined to make a place for herself in the world -- that ultimately led her to fight back in such a publicly dangerous way.

The more I read about Claudette's life and the events leading up to her decision to stay in her seat on March 2, the more I admired her strength, her conviction, and her absolute bravery. She wasn't only taking a momentary stand against the overt racism of the people on the bus with her, she was fighting the decade's long state laws enforcing segregation on the buses. Because she was breaking the law, she knew she could be arrested (she was) and almost certainly putting herself in the extremely dangerous position of being a young black woman at the mercy of white male police officers who had shown, repeatedly, they they knew they could act with impunity in some of the most shockingly horrible ways. She knew the stories of black women being raped by white police officers, and others being beaten for any perceived misstep. And then, after her arrest and release, although she would be able to return home, she and her family and their community would very likely be targets of violence from the white community. She knew all of this on that afternoon in March, and yet she stayed in her seat.
"But worried or not, I felt proud. I had stood up for our rights. I had done something a lot of adults hadn't done. On the ride home from jail, coming over the viaduct, Reverend Johnson said something to me I'll never forget. He was an adult who everyone respected and his opinion meant a lot to me. 'Claudette,' he said, 'I'm so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We've all been praying and praying. But you're different -- you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.'"
Her story doesn't end there, though. The phrase "Twice Toward Justice" in the title refers to two brave acts -- the first being her refusal to move from her seat, and the second her agreeing to join three other courageous black women in a ground-breaking federal lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle. She agreed to testify, answering questions from hostile attorneys and facing intense public scrutiny in the press, because she knew the importance of continuing the fight for justice.
"At night, I would lie in bed and rehearse the things I was going to say, Raymond (her son) slept beside me in a little bassinet. It was just the two of use in the front room, him breathing or fussing or pulling at his bottle, and me thinking about what I would say at trial. Sometimes I thought about Harriet Tubman, about her courage. I prayed I could have her courage on the trial day."
Spoiler alert: she did! She testified to the treatment she received on the bus and from the police offices, and why she and others in the black community had been boycotting the buses. She, a black teenager who'd been told her whole life to defer to whites at the risk of her safety, brazenly looked these powerful men in the eyes and answered their questions without hesitation or backing down. When asked why she stopped riding the buses on December fifth, she answered coolly, "Because we were treated wrong, dirty and nasty." She bravely spoke the truth in the face of overwhelming hatred and oppression. And for this, she deserves to be remembered as a civil rights hero.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (library) is an excellent book for young adults (and older adults, to be honest) who want to know more about Claudette Colvin, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s. Phillip Hoose gives the reader an excellent understanding of the important issues of the era, with photographs and quotes from people who were there as context for Claudette's story. I learned quite a bit of new information about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other important people and events that eventually led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and its eventual success. While Rosa Parks is remembered for her refusal to move to the back of the bus, Claudette's defiant action and arrest nine months earlier was the spark that pushed the already fed up black community of Montgomery into action.

That alone makes this book an excellent addition to any library. But not content to simply tell Claudette's story, Phillip Hoose was determined to meet with her and hear her tell her own story. The book switches from historical explanation to memoir, with Claudette explaining events from her life in her own words. This is what makes this book such an incredibly powerful read. As he writes in the book:
"More than any other story I know, Claudette Colvin's life story shows how history is made up of objective facts and personal truths, braided together. In her case, a girl raised in poverty by a strong, loving family twice risked her life to gain a measure of justice for her people. Hers is the story of a wise and brave woman who, when she was a smart, angry teenager in Jim Crow Alabama, made contributions to human rights far too important to be forgotten."
Claudette Colvin is still alive. After the Browder v. Gayle, she continued to struggle to support herself and her child in Montgomery, and eventually moved to New York City to escape the hate-filled backlash of violence against blacks raging across the south and especially in Montgomery. When I write about "self-rescuing princesses" I mean people like Claudette Colvin. She never once stopped working for justice. When her moment arrived, she was ready and she held her ground. And then when she needed to, she found a way to persevere and protect herself and her child.
"When I look back now, I think Rosa Parks was the right person to represent that movement at that time. She was a good and strong person, accepted by more people than were ready to accept me. But I made a personal statement, too, one that she didn't make and probably couldn't have made. Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one. I made it so that our own adult leaders couldn't just be nice anymore. Back then, as a teenager, I kept thinking, Why don't the adults around here just say something? Say it so they know we don't accept segregation? 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 she did. And you can learn all about her fight for justice -- and get a healthy dose of inspiration for your own fight, as well as inspiring the next generation of social justice warriors -- by reading  Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (library) by Phillip Hoose.

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