Celebrating a Civil Rights Pioneer

BC Social Work speaks with the family of Claudette Colvin, the first to resist bus segregation in the South

A poster advertises the upcoming Selma 50th Anniversary Jubilee

A poster advertises the upcoming Selma 50th Anniversary Jubilee.

You undoubtedly know the story of Rosa Parks, the American hero whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus provided an important early symbol of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. You may not, however, be familiar with Claudette Colvin, a civil rights pioneer who protested the segregation of buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and did so nine months before Parks.

On February 19th, Colvin will speak at the Boston College School of Social Work, when she will share portions of her life story (RSVP to Christine McIntosh at chris.mcintosh@bc.edu if you’d like to attend). The appearance at BC is a latest in a growing number of events marking the emergence of Colvin as a public figure, now some 60 years after she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus as a 15-year-old. It is only over the past few years, explains her family, that Colvin has received her proper due as a champion in the cause for civil rights in America.

In this conversation, BC Social Work speaks with Claudette’s granddaughter Jennifer, who is a first-year MSW student at the school, and Jennifer’s mom Cheryl, who is currently playing an important role in organizing a 50th anniversary jubilee commemorating Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

Cheryl and Jennifer, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today. We are honored to be able to host Claudette in a couple of weeks. Talk to us about what it means for your family that she will be speaking at Boston College.

Jennifer: It certainly makes me feel very proud, but more than that, there’s a real personal connection to this event for me that ties into both my family history, and my chosen career as a social worker.

We learn that in social work, we often are called to work with clients who don’t want to talk or who may be afraid to share their stories. Growing up, I felt this way about my grandmother’s role in history. I knew that she had refused to give up her seat on a bus even before Rosa Parks, but in school, we always talked about Parks, and as much as I wanted to let people know about my grandmother, I felt like I couldn’t share her story because nobody would know what I was talking about.

Over the past few years my grandmother’s story has become more public, and I’ve been able to take pride in verbalizing and in owning my part in her life history. To know that I now attend a school that accepts my family really makes me feel at home, and I’m thankful to Boston College for this.

Cheryl: It’s been wonderful to watch Jennifer’s excitement grow. When my husband Randy and I were raising our three children, we often had a difficult time, because he is Claudette’s son. We knew the significance of her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, but we were afraid to share it publicly.

Most importantly, we didn’t want our children to suffer — we remained silent about Claudette to protect them. The Civil Rights Movement was impactful, but it was also very dangerous at times, and unfortunately, we still live in a racist society today — the recent shootings in Ferguson and New York City are an unfortunate reminder of this. I remember in third grade, Jennifer read about Claudette in class, and I was incredibly nervous when she came home and told me about it. I didn’t want this to impact her in school, or have the students or teachers treat her differently. We lived in a predominantly white area in the South, and we didn’t want to expose our children to anything threatening.

It’s so nice not having to feel that way anymore. We can celebrate Claudette as the living legend that she is, now that it’s become more widely known that there was a ’15-year-old girl before Rosa Parks.’ In fact, that’s exactly how we’re billing her — as a ‘living legend’ — at our upcoming Bridge Crossing Jubilee event in Selma, where she will be a speaker.

Please tell us more about this important event.

Cheryl: Absolutely. This event has been held every year for the past 35 years. It commemorates the March 7, 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery of 600 foot soldiers calling for the right to vote for African Americans. Once they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the police attacked the marchers with billy clubs and teargas. This is why it’s referred to as Bloody Sunday. This year’s event is going to be a big one, we’ve recently learned that President Obama plans to be in attendance.

My responsibility has been to locate foot soldiers from across the nation, so that they can be honored at the upcoming 50th anniversary jubilee. It’s been really quite amazing to hear from people all over the country, and we’re going to hold a series of events with the foot soldiers, where they can talk about what happened on that day in their own words. Actually, Bloody Sunday had a deep impact on my own family, as my father was one of the original foot soldiers himself.

Do you remember Bloody Sunday?

Cheryl: I do, I was three years old. I always remember being told the story of that day, and you know how certain memories almost become imprinted on your DNA? Well my memories of Bloody Sunday are like this. I remember being afraid, even if I may not have been aware what I was afraid of at the time.

The story is still so real in my mind. My father was standing at the base of the bridge when the police began attacking people with teargas and billy clubs. He compared the moment when he realized something was wrong to how people recognize something isn’t right in nature, when birds all flock in a certain direction, away from trouble. When the police began to attack the foot soldiers, they all began to run towards him, in what seemed like slow motion. So he took off running all the way back to the projects where we lived.

When he got home, my father was so upset he went to get his shotgun, intending to shoot the police who followed him to our house on horseback. But thank goodness my mother was able to hold him back, and wouldn’t let him take the gun outside to the porch. During this time in history, when blacks would retaliate against the police, the police would respond with an even more detrimental force; this is one reason why Martin Luther King, Jr. placed such an emphasis on non-violence. My mother saved my father’s life, and this is something I will never forget.

This year, the film “Selma,” which is based on the voting rights marches of 1965, has made a major impression at the box office. I know you’ve both seen the film several times. What does it mean to you that this period of history, that was such a part of your family’s life, is now easily accessible to a new generation of Americans?

Jennifer: Honestly, I think I want the film to be for white people. We already know our history, what it’s all about. I want other people to be able to begin to understand what it is we went through. I want to be able to have more and better conversations about history. As good social workers, let us all open up our eyes and look, and then work together to address the issues of race that are still so prevalent in our country today.

Cheryl: This movie is a great point of reference; it’s helping to bring light to what happened, so that it remains at the forefront of our conversations. I’m grateful that this current generation is being exposed to what happened 50 years ago. The old adage goes, people who forget history are destined to repeat it. This is not something we are willing to have happen. We must continue to talk about our past, and move forward with new ideas and find solutions.

We are, of course, incredibly fortunate at BC that Claudette is willing to engage us in conversation on the 19th. How do you think she feels about all of the newfound interest in her life, 60 years after she played such a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement?

Cheryl: People don’t often realize that it was my mother-in-law’s experience that was cited in Browder vs. Gayle, the court case that first ruled that the segregation of buses was unconstitutional. The public has always seen Rosa Parks as the woman who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. But the law sees Claudette Colvin. She played such an important part in the Civil Rights Movement, and it’s good to see that she can now openly share that, at this time in her life. I think this is meaningful to her.

Jennifer: I think she’s happy, a little bit relieved. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for people to have forgotten what you’ve done for more than half a century; to live for over fifty years, unrecognized for something that you did. But she’s happy to share her memories now, to tell her story of what happened.

Still, it’s important to remember, these are not happy memories. Black people in the United States have endured a painful history, and it can be a very difficult thing to have to bring up memories from this painful past, and talk about them.

Recently, I watched coverage of the Ferguson protests with my grandmother, who has participated in many similar protests throughout her own life. The black community is still struggling. There may be some new happiness, but we can’t be that happy yet. There is still so much to do.

To learn more about Claudette Colvin, we encourage you to listen to this NPR interview from 2009. For those wishing to delve deeper into her life’s work, we recommend the book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose. To attend the upcoming event, RSVP to Christine McIntosh at chris.mcintosh@bc.edu.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating a Civil Rights Pioneer

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