Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks

There has been some debate around the Cheddarsphere in the past week over the usefulness of the tactics employed in last week's civil disobedience demonstration that disrupted a meeting of the Joint Finance Committee.

Some have cited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement as proof that civil disobedience should always be supported by the left when it seeks to address social injustice.

There is a lot we can learn from Dr. King and the story of the Montgomery bus boycott.  A lesson that usually goes unnoticed is that all civil disobedience is not perceived equally.

When most Americans are asked to name the first African-American person in Montgomery to refuse to give up her bus seat to a white person, they will likely say it was Rosa Parks.  That answer is incorrect.  Mrs. Parks was actually the third African-American woman in the space of nine months to be arrested in Montgomery for challenging its bus segregation law.

The first was an idealistic young student named Claudette Colvin.  After learning about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth during Negro History Week in February 1955, she was inspired on March 2 to refuse an order to give up her seat, for which she was forcibly arrested.  At first, local civil rights leaders thought they had their poster child to fight the unjust law.  It was not to be.
Soon after her arrest, however, Colvin became pregnant by a much older, married man. Local black leaders felt that this moral transgression would not only scandalize the deeply religious black community, but also make Colvin suspect in the eyes of sympathetic whites. In particular, they felt that the white press would manipulate Colvin's illegitimate pregnancy as a means of undermining Colvin's victim status and any subsequent boycott of the bus company. Colvin was also allegedly prone to emotional outbursts and cursing. She was ultimately sentenced to probation for the ordinance violation, but a boycott and legal case never materialized from the event.
The next woman to challenge the unjust law was Mary Louise Smith. She was also considered and rejected by the movement as their test case, due to (untrue) rumors that her father was an alcoholic.

Finally, Rosa Parks made her historic decision, and the movement had its standard-bearer.
King recalled in his memoir that ‘‘Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history,’’ and because ‘‘her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted’’ she was ‘‘one of the most respected people in the Negro community’’ (King, 44).
VDLF has played the Claudette Colvin role in the #Wiunion movement.  The discomfort felt by other segments of the movement now is actually very similar to the discomfort felt by the Women's Political Council of Montgomery back in 1955.  They understood that not all civil disobedience tactics are equally effective, and that it is important to elicit sympathy from the political mainstream.


The Sight said...

Jill Sixpack:

While I take exception to your comparison of the current civil disobedience on display last week, to and with the civil disobedience to garner basic human rights in the 1950s and 1960s, I thank you for your thoughtful post about Colvin.


Dan said...

I agree with David and say that the protesters are nothing like the protesters for the civil rights movement in the 1950's and 1960's. The civil rights protesters in the 50's and 60's had to deal with violence against them and some were killed for their protests. Further, the protesters today are mostly white middle class government employees while the majority of protesters int he 50's and 60's were mostly minority and poor.
And any respect the protesters may have had with me and I'll be honest there wasn't much respect there was lost when the protesters thought they were more important than some Special Olympic athletes who were there on a field trip and to visit Scott Walker. How dare they interupt Walker talking to the Special Olympians. Do these protesters think they are more important than Special Olympic athletes?
There is a time to protest and a time to shut up and the protesters went way over the line when the protesters decided they were more important than some mentally challenged athletes.

Tim Morrissey said...

Your point is well-made, Jill, and as a former resident of New Orleans (and faculty member of Xavier University) I appreciate your history lesson about Mrs. Parks, which will probably come as a shock to a lot of northerners.

But the paradigm loses some impact because of what the other commenters above have said. This fight is of a far different nature, with significantly less risk to life and limb than the historic battles - and civil disobedience - of those struggling for civil rights in the south in the 50's and 60's.

I believe some of the hard-core lefties who are "organizing" these protest events are doing, in many cases, more harm than good. The battle here (and in the recalls, etc.) is to win over the moderates. Nobody's going to change the minds of the hard left or hard right. Moderates in places like Rice Lake and Rhinelander and scores of other Wisconsin cities outside Dane County look at a lot of the stuff going on here with a jaundiced eye.

Tim Morrissey said...

Take a look at how the "zombie-Special Olympics" protest is playing today (Thr.) on statewide electronic and social media.

This is the sort of stuff that a lot of locals think is cute and creative, but repulses the vast majority of people who don't live around here.

Ordinary Jill said...

I completely agree, Tim. Some other bloggers have quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to justify last week's disruption of the JFC meeting. The point I am trying to make is that they should not assume that Dr. King would have supported that particular act of civil disobedience. See the comment thread at for the background on my argument.