Monday, October 31, 2005

Saint Rosa (and a sinner)

Rosa Parks

If the Constitution is our sacred text, then Rosa Parks is being canonized.

But it takes nothing away from the achievement of the "mother of the civil rights movement," I trust, to remember that she wasn't the first woman in Montgomery to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat. That honor belongs to Claudette Colvin, who as a 15-year-old girl had a nightmarish experience on the same Montgomery bus system before being hauled off and arrested.

Like Parks, she, too, pleaded not guilty to breaking the law. And, like Parks, the local black establishment started to rally support for her cause. But, unlike Parks, Colvin never made it into the civil rights hall of fame. Just as her case was beginning to catch the nation's imagination, she became pregnant. To this exclusively male and predominantly middle-class, church-dominated, local black leadership in Montgomery, she was a fallen woman. She fell out of history altogether.

It wasn't just that she was pregnant. She happened to have very dark skin. She was decidedly working-class. After a long history of carefully chosen plaintiffs as well as issues--the NAACP's pre-Brown strategy comes to mind--activists in Montgomery were not inclined to take a chance on Colvin. Said one of them, "She lived in a little shack. It was a case of 'bourgey' blacks looking down on the working-class blacks."

Although the dominant line on Colvin (for she usually does get a footnote) is that she was foul-mouthed and immature, hardly one for political prime time, that wasn't exactly true. And besides, once the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed to conduct the boycott and file a constitutional class action in federal court, they chose her as one of the named plaintiffs.

She credits the lawsuit for ensuring the success of the boycott. She herself wasn't active in the boycott or the marches, she recalled the other day while reflecting on Parks' death. She was a poor single mother. "I didn't have the support to continue. If I went to jail, who would support my family?"

Rosa Parks is an American icon, but with images of a ruined New Orleans fresh in our minds, we needn't feel too triumphalist about what was accomplished in her name.

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