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.


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2 responses

12 02 2009
Melissa

very interesting!

12 02 2009
Pheen

Given the climate that the civil rights movement operated in, I think the role models and leaders that the NAACP picked back then is understandable. It’s that classic dilemma of how far do you go in fighting against oppressive people, policies, and cultures, and how much do you have to play the game to garner respect and support? I think the NAACP recognized that it had to do both, that if they put Colvin at the forefront of their movement, people would just use her to reinforce and justify the stereotypes they had about black people. Likewise, American didn’t even start to make strides in decreasing homophobia probably until the 90s, so publicly associating Rustin with civil rights in the 60s probably would’ve discredited the movement in the eyes of a majority of white Americans who would’ve otherwise supported the movement.

That is not to say that the NAACP back in the 50s and 60s didn’t have prejudices against women and gays, and I think that Colvin and Rustin’s lack of recognition was is unfortunate. I think Colvin’s story is especially interesting because the unsavory character of her situation was probably a product of the institutionalized racism that she dealt with throughout her life. Many black women make the mistakes that she made, in large part because of continued socioeconomic and educational inequality.

At the very least, there are forums like this blog where we can recognize them now, even belatedly.

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