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.