Obscured figures of the Civil Rights Movement

12 02 2009

Rosa Parks was not the first African American to defy state bus segregation laws in Alabama. Nine months before she was arrested on December 1, 1955, a fifteen year old African American girl named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. Colvin was a student at the Booker T. Washington high school in Montgomery and was riding the bus home from school one day ignored the bus driver’s repeated requests for her to vacate her seat. She was subsequently arrested. So, why didn’t we learn about her in school?

Well, she just wasn’t a good enough “poster child” for the civil rights movement. First off, she had dark black skin which was deemed inferior to lighter skin. Secondly, she came from a poor family living in the poorest neighborhood in Montgomery. She also often spoke profanities. To top it off, she was pregnant, carrying the baby of a much older, married man. Thus, Colvin couldn’t be the face of the civil rights movement because of the scandal that would erupt and discredit the civil rights movement.

Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council where Rosa Parks acted as one of the group’s advisers. Nine months after Colvin’s arrest, in December 1955 Parks became the poster person of the Civil Rights movement. So on December 1, 1955 the day Parks got arrested, NO she wasn’t too tired to stand up and give up her seat. It was all calculated beforehand.

Another prominent figure of the Civil Rights movement that you never really learned about is Bayard Rustin. Rustin closely advised Martin Luther King, Jr. on Gandhian techniques of nonviolent resistance and strongly influenced King’s ideology and activism. And why didn’t we learn about him? Because he was gay. In 1960, US Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. pressured Rustin to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because his sexual orientation would deter the civil rights movement.

Rustin also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Senator Strom Thurmond alleged that Rustin and King were romantically involved, although both men denied it. Because of this smear, the NAACP did not publicly credit or recognize Rustin for helping to organize the march.

History omits the stories and contributions of marginalized individuals, even if they have made crucial contributions to social movements. The invisibility of the hard work and contributions of members of oppressed groups helps to maintain the status quo because maintaining the invisibility of oppressed groups perpetuates structural inequalities based on race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. However we can’t forget about these individuals – their lives and their legacies have helped to bring us where we are today.