Claudette Colvin (Twice Toward Justice) by Phillip Hoose

Claudette was 4 when she was teased in a canteen when a white boy purposely touched her. She got scolded by my mum and knew that it wasn’t right to touch them again. Jim Crow controlled life in Alabama from the 1940s to 1950s. The blacks and white lived separately. He tried to keep the black’s poor. The blacks had to be unskilled and menial work. The two groups had to be separated in many ways, including on public transport etc. In the bus, the first 4 rows of seats were reserved for whites. Even if they were not occupied but the rest of the bus was full, blacks were not allowed to sit. Whites could demand for blacks to move out from their seats. Blacks were supposed to stand up and move when ordered. Drivers were all white and carried pistols and they were tough. Black elderly and children were not treated separately. In the late 1940s, those who went against the rules were fined. Brooks, a black, was shot for defying police orders. In 1954, the racial segregation in public schools were outlawed. In 1955, Ms Claudette took the bus.

Mary Ann and Q.P are her great aunt and great uncle who treated her better than how her parents ever did. She was very curious since young and wanted to know more. At the time, the Whites learnt that God wanted to make them special so that they could feel superior. Claudette loved to climb trees and loved school although there were plenty of other black students in class. Since young, she was given the name ‘Coot’. It was mildly insulting. It was important to be tactful in front of the whites. The white people didn’t spend much time in church. Their family moved to the city and had to leave Mary Ann. She couldn’t go to Hank Williams funeral because mum said it would be racially segregated. Claudette loved to go shopping in town. For clothes shopping, she wasn’t allowed to try them on before buying. In order to try hats, we had to cover our heads with stockings first. We could only walk through the park but not play in it. One day, my sister, Delphine, was running a high fever. She was suffering from polio and couldn’t breathe. The doctors fitted her with an iron lung. The next day, she didn’t make it out alive. She passed away when Claudette was just 13.

Claudette couldn’t fit in very well and was still saddened by the loss of her sister. She became really sensitive. Boys called us nappy-headed. The problem was that black students always put themselves down and hated ourselves. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jeremiah Reeves was charged with raping a white housewife. There were rumours that he was forced to confess. He would be sentenced to death. This stirred me and I started going to rallies and collecting money for his legal defense. This was the turning point of my life. It was not safe to hang around white men as even if they raped you, the court would listen to the white man only. In 1954, a new trial was ordered. However he was convicted again. I wanted to stand up for justice. Geraldine Nesbitt taught literature to teach about life. She taught us about the Constitution as well. I wanted a good college education despite the discrimination. She taught me to love the colour of our skin and hair etc. Being African should be a proud thing to become. I dreamt of being a lawyer. Now, during Negro History Week, we started talking about how black people suffered. I was ready to do something big.

Early in life, I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise. – Malcolm X

The bus was full and Claudette was expected to give up her seat to the white lady. My classmates stood up and gave up their seats but I couldn’t. My lifetime of nasty experiences told me that I shouldn’t move. The white lady and the driver shouted but I didn’t say a word. The driver signaled for a transit policeman to make an arrest. The police officer ordered me to get up but I refused. Later, two policemen climbed in. I started crying and proclaimed that it was my constitutional right to sit here. The cops grabbed me and my books went flying. I was dragged off the bus. I was handcuffed in the police vehicle. The policemen didn’t treat me well in the car. They called me names and guessed my bra size. I was driven to the adult jail. I faced three bare walls, a toilet and a cot. My mum and friends were alerted. Reverend Johnson paid for my bail. I felt proud of my actions and for rebelling I stood up for my rights. Everyone was proud of me.

Claudette received good feedback from others. She was becoming popular. Her teacher, Jo Robinson, worked on the bus system. She became the president of the Women’s political council and lobbied for change. She met up with the black leaders and bus representatives. It was unproductive though. Now, a boycott was being planned. The white refused to budge so far. People were furious that Claudette was arrested. The opinions about her were divided. Now, she needed to find a lawyer. E.D Nixon connected her with some important people. Dr Martin Luther King Jr also wanted to help. Rosa Parks was called to get Claudette involved with the NAACP. Rosa was a department store seamstress. People were trying to raise funds for the lawyer. Fred Gray would be her lawyer and he was against racial segregation as well. He coached the other students on how to speak during the trial. The hearing was on March 1955. Many leaders attended the trail. The judge ruled that she would be guilty for all 3 charges. Claudette was now a criminal.

The verdict shocked the black population. There was resentment, rebellion and unrest. Boycott was on people’s minds. However, some felt Claudette was too young to be the trigger of the movement. Some black leaders funded the appeal to the Montgomery Circuit Court. Claudette received support from the NAACP. 2 of the charges were dropped and she was ordered to pay a fine. Her records were blemished and was it worth the price? She didn’t want to straighten her hair and look like a white. She felt it was a waste of time to doll up. Her boyfriend wanted her to straighten her hair. However, Claudette was still very proud of her African roots. Some of her peers disliked her attitude. She wanted to be the President of the United States. Often, she stayed with Rosa because she didn’t want to talk the bus home. Rosa Parks was very strong against racial segregation but in person, was a nice lady.I spoke to someone in the park who managed to connect with me and understand the situation. He encouraged me not to listen to what others had to say. Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon were looking for the right person to spark big action. Mary Louise Smith was someone else who did that. She was also branded unfit to serve the community. Now, it was clear that young people wanted to act and make a change.

It was now Dec 1955 and the community was ready for action. Now, flyers were being distributed on the boycott. Jo Ann Robinson wrote the flyer. The message was to read and pass it on. Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat too. Hundreds of supporters started to cheer when they saw her. Claudette was the initial spark in this. She provided the necessary moral courage. Claudette got pregnant before marriage. Abortions were illegal. The father of the child was already married. The plan was to keep it a secret. The school didn’t allow me back and the plan was to have the baby before changing school and completing my education. I felt that I didn’t deserve the due respect like Rosa Parks received. The buses were empty and the message was successful. After Martin Luther King Jr gave a rousing speech, the bus boycott was born. I didn’t go for the meetings because of my pregnancy. I knew I could deal with motherhood when it came. What angered me was how I was treated in jail and not the pregnancy.

The boycott was covered widely by the media and staff. Martin Luther King Jr held very inspirational speeches and emphasized on the use of love to change the world. There was a system to run buses by volunteers. This would be black-owned. It was car-pooling system but there were not enough seats to go around in this system. I used to watch the boycott on television. The black people had to ferry each other more during the boycott. The bus company were bleeding and had to lay off drivers. Many people simply walked to work. Mayor Gayle wanted to clamp down on this and started questioning drivers. There was increasing violence and some black leaders were also targeted. Fred Gray, the lawyer, wanted to take the city and state to court for unconstitutional application of segregated schools. Gray raised the case in court. Now, his job was to look for plaintiffs. They needed to speak freely in court. Claudette Colvin was one of the 5 ladies chosen to be on the suit. Finally I spoke out. I needed to be up for it because there were potentially threats that I could face after testifying in court. My baby was born on March 29, 1956. He would be named Raymond. I rehearsed a lot before the actual thing. I needed to make the most of it.

It was May 11, 1956, the day of the trial. The crowd assembled early. It was the 159th day of the boycott. Everyone was tired. The whites at that time were still bent on segregating racially. Martin Luther King was also faced with death threats. The majority of the blacks were hopeful. There were a total of about 200 spectators. There were 4 instead of 5 witnesses after one pulled out at the last minute. The white were pushing for the 3 points: 1) that the black community did not object to segregated bus seating before the boycott; 2) Dr. King was a trouble maker. Claudette was subjected to intense questioning after she recounted her episode. I met Mary Louise and was impressed with her too. There was a fear of violence if the laws were lifted. Everyone commented that I gave a great account of the whole situation. I managed to stand up to the judges and that made me proud.

The three judges ruled that it violated the constitution, 2-1. It was a case of basic human rights being denied. The Mayor wanted to appeal the case. All the blacks rejoiced over the news. The judges received a lot of hate mail. I wanted to get my life back after having the kid and having got kicked out of school. I was shunned from other leaders because of my pregnancy. I had a light skinned baby. That was another problem. Despite all this, I knew I needed to pick myself up. The government were hunting Dr King down. He had to serve 1 year in prison. Someone blew up the Church as well Suddenly, the judges ruled in favor of Dr King. It was amazing. The federal courthouses ruled that the buses had to be integrated. It was over. Everyone was elated and they were able to sit anywhere they desired. Racial segregation ended, but not racial prejudice. Violence was rampant against the blacks at the verdict. No one wanted to be associated with Claudette. Dr King commented that I was a brave little girl. It was inspiring.

I gave a speech to students in 2005 at a school. Claudette eventually became a nurse. Rosa Park grew in fame. A reporter hunted me down and wanted to cover my story. She didn’t really support the stance of violence means as adopted by Malcolm X.

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.” – Claudette Colvin



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