Do you recognize the name Claudette Colvin?
In 1955 she was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a White woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was 15.
Her classmate, Ann Price, described the incident. Price said the bus was crowded, the bus driver asked Colvin to get up, Colvin refused, and Colvin was forcibly removed from the bus, shouting.
Colvin recalled telling the bus driver, he had no right to make her move and said, “I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing… Talking back to a White person.”
Colvin was charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault.
This was nine months before Rosa Parks quietly refused to give up her seat on the bus to a White woman. But the Montgomery bus boycott began after the Parks arrest and not the arrest of Claudette Colvin.
The NAACP organizers believed that Parks was the ideal candidate to challenge the state’s segregation laws. Parks was an example of civil disobedience and Colvin displayed youthful defiance.
The lawyers strategically went with Parks.
But the NAACP organizers also believed they couldn’t persuade law-abiding citizens of the Black community to rally around the exploits of a “mouthy” teen, who eventually ended up pregnant.
What would have happened if the lawyers and the NAACP organizers didn’t strategize and the Colvin case was the catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott instead of Parks?
The answer may be in the present.
Now we all heard of Ferguson and the Michael Brown police shooting. We’re aware because of the riots in Ferguson that captured national attention. The unrest happened before any official investigation was complete. Witnesses said Brown had his hands up and begged the officer not to shoot. The officer claimed he tussled with Brown over his gun and he had to discharge his weapon.
There was no video footage of the shooting, but a video surfaced of Brown committing, what the press called, a strong arm robbery in a store, right before his fatal confrontation with the Ferguson police officer.
Did this store incident have anything to do with the police shooting?
Of course not. Even Claudette Colvin admitted what she did was worse than stealing, but the strategist in 1955 would have recognized it as a red flag, and they never would have used the Michael Brown case to make any national statement. Especially after witnesses backtracked from their original statements and the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative turned out to be false.
Then there was Baltimore.
A Black man named Freddie Gray died in police custody. Riots broke out again before any investigation was complete. But different protest groups and national supporters used this incident to address a host of grievances, and the national dialogue was about poverty, unemployment, and systemic racism. The prosecutor eventually charged six officers with felonies ranging from second degree murder to manslaughter to reckless endangerment.
The 1955 strategist wouldn’t have understood the systemic racism argument because the U.S. President was Black, the U.S. Attorney General was Black, Baltimore’s mayor and police chief were Black, three of the officers charged were Black and the prosecutor was Black. This wasn’t the case to protest systemic racism. And the 1955 strategist would have questioned the strategy of the prosecutor who was accused of overcharging the officers for political reasons.
Now, the 1955 strategist would have viewed the recent acquittal of the police officer that shot and killed Terrence Clutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma as the ideal case to begin a national campaign about securing police convictions in America. Here the shooting was captured on video and the officer wasn’t overcharged. The prosecution had a strong case, but the jury would not convict a police officer.
But, in the present, nothing happened after the Tulsa acquittal, because all of the energy was wasted in Ferguson and Baltimore.
So if Claudette Colvin was the catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks would have been a missed opportunity like the Tulsa acquittal.
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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