By Coshandra Dillard
Middle-aged black men are usually elevated as the face of the Civil Rights Movement, however, young people, particularly young women, were active in efforts to stand up to bigotry and assert their dignity.
At 42, Rosa Parks’ Dec. 5, 1955 act of defiance is rightfully cemented in our minds and in our textbooks. But while we recognize her as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, there were others before her who refused to give up their seat and challenged discriminatory laws.
In the summer of 1944, 27-year-old Irene Morgan was dragged off a bus and arrested after refusing to give up her seat in rural Virginia. She was fined $10 for violating the segregation law and $100 for resisting arrest.
With the help of Thurgood Marshall, she appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court where the conviction was upheld. The case, Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, advanced to the U. S. Supreme Court in March 1946. The Court struck down state laws requiring segregated seating for interstate bus travel on June 3, 1946.
In 1947, an interracial group, led by another lesser known civil rights icon Bayard Rustin, staged bus rides in parts of the Upper South to test compliance with the new ruling.
However, segregated seating on interstate buses continued in the Deep South. This sparked Freedom Rides in 1961, putting national attention on the cause.
And then there was Claudette Colvin.
RESPECTABILITY AND ERASURE
On March 2, 1955, nine months before Rose Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery.
Well aware of black history, she said in an NPR interview, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”
Colvin was arrested and convicted in a juvenile court of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault. She and four other women–Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanette Reese–challenged the segregation law in Browder v. Gayle.
On June 5, 1956, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama ruled that bus segregation laws in Montgomery and Alabama were unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ruling on Nov. 13, 1956.
But the NAACP chose Parks to be a face of the bus boycott movement. She was the secretary of the NAACP, well-respected, and well-known.
Colvin on the other hand, was a pregnant teen.
“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did,” Colvin told the New York Times. “She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’ ”
So why is it that we know about Parks, but not Colvin? The black community is no stranger to respectability politics and it was especially a prominent concept 60 years ago.
In an essay published in Harper’s Magazine in 2015, writer Randall Kennedy describes the politics of respectability as “taking care in presenting oneself publicly and desire strongly to avoid saying or doing anything that will reflect badly on blacks, reinforce negative racial stereotypes, or needlessly alienate potential allies.”
If you wonder how that looks today, imagine the many times we hear people tell young black men to “pull up your pants,” and to speak proper grammar to avoid drawing attention to themselves or avoid getting killed by police.
Noted social scientist and author Michael Eric Dyson said in an opinion piece for the New York Times “the belief that good behavior and stern chiding will cure black ills and uplift black people and convince white people that we’re human and worthy of respect” doesn’t work.
Thankfully, these women’s roles in American history are no longer being erased. Morgan was awarded the Presidential Citizens medal by President Bill Clinton in 2001, and she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010. She was featured in the 1995 documentary “You Don’t have to Rid Jim Crow!” and the 2002 PBS documentary, “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.”
Colvin’s story has gained more attention since “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice” was released in 2009.
Irene Morgan (Kirkaldy) died at age 90 on Aug. 10, 2007. Colvin, now 77, lives in the Bronx.