Don't Pit Rosa Parks Against Claudette Colvin – Recognize the Movement Both Shared InRoundup
tags: civil rights, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, montgomery bus boycott
Jeanne Theoharis is distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and author of the award-winning The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Theoharis and Brian Purnell are editors of the forthcoming book, The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North.
Say Burgin is assistant professor of history at Dickinson College and author of an essay on Judge George Crockett, Jr. in the forthcoming volume, The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South.
On Wednesday, NBC-Peacock will premiere “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” a documentary based on Jeanne Theoharis’s book of the same title, directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton and executive-produced by Soledad O’Brien. The film disrupts the fable of Parks as a tired, accidental heroine and instead displays her lifetime of fighting for freedom. It will be paired with a curriculum we helped create to aid teachers in sharing Parks’s “life history of being rebellious” and encouraging critical thinking toward a more accurate history of race and struggle across the 20th century.
Parks had been an activist for more than two decades before her December 1955 bus stand. Joining Montgomery’s NAACP in 1943, she spent the next dozen years pushing the chapter toward activism, mounting protests against wrongful convictions, unpunished rapists and school and bus segregation. “It was hard to keep going when all our efforts seemed in vain,” Parks observed, noting the pressures put on “troublemakers” like herself.
Beginning to despair of the complacency of adults, Parks placed her hopes in young people, re-founding the NAACP youth branch in 1954. It was through this work that Parks met and mentored Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat in a bus eight months before Parks took her stand.
It was March 2, 1955, when Colvin took the bus home from school and was arrested on three charges for refusing to give up her seat on the bus for a White woman.
One of the newer myths about Parks pits her against Colvin — holding that Colvin was the first and real resistor but was overlooked because respectability politics favored a middle class Parks and not a dark-skinned, pregnant Colvin. Distorting the contributions and personhood of both activists, the myth insinuates that Parks put herself over Colvin. But that simply wasn’t true.
Colvin and Parks were part of a long line of Black Montgomery residents who defied segregation orders on public transportation.
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