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Pitting Rosa Parks Against Claudette Colvin Distorts History

A new documentary explores the origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott — with lessons on how we see movements.

On Wednesday, NBC-Peacock will premiere “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” a documentary based on Jeanne Theoharis’s book of the same title, directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton and executive-produced by Soledad O’Brien. The film disrupts the fable of Parks as a tired, accidental heroine and instead displays her lifetime of fighting for freedom. It will be paired with a curriculum we helped create to aid teachers in sharing Parks’s “life history of being rebellious” and encouraging critical thinking toward a more accurate history of race and struggle across the 20th century.

Parks had been an activist for more than two decades before her December 1955 bus stand. Joining Montgomery’s NAACP in 1943, she spent the next dozen years pushing the chapter toward activism, mounting protests against wrongful convictions, unpunished rapists and school and bus segregation. “It was hard to keep going when all our efforts seemed in vain,” Parks observed, noting the pressures put on “troublemakers” like herself.

Beginning to despair of the complacency of adults, Parks placed her hopes in young people, re-founding the NAACP youth branch in 1954. It was through this work that Parks met and mentored Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat in a bus eight months before Parks took her stand.

It was March 2, 1955, when Colvin took the bus home from school and was arrested on three charges for refusing to give up her seat on the bus for a White woman.

One of the newer myths about Parks pits her against Colvin — holding that Colvin was the first and real resistor but was overlooked because respectability politics favored a middle class Parks and not a dark-skinned, pregnant Colvin. Distorting the contributions and personhood of both activists, the myth insinuates that Parks put herself over Colvin. But that simply wasn’t true.

Colvin and Parks were part of a long line of Black Montgomery residents who defied segregation orders on public transportation.

In 1944, Viola White refused to give up her bus seat and was arrested. When she decided to press her case, police raped her daughter. Then the state tied up her appeal and never let it come to court.

Hilliard Brooks, a veteran, rebuffed a bus driver’s orders in 1950 only to be shot and killed by the driver (who faced no charges).

Colvin herself also wasn’t some accidental resistor — she had been politicized by the wrongful rape conviction of a young man at her school, Jeremiah Reeves, who was set to be executed. To see Colvin — or Parks — as significant because they were the “first” also misses the point that no single act of resistance could have changed segregation in the buses. It took an accumulation of outrage, a collective breaking point, an organized movement.

After Colvin’s arrest, Black Montgomery residents began to mobilize. Some petitioned the city for better treatment in the bus, but Parks refused to go “paper in hand asking White folks for any favors.” She fundraised for Colvin’s case and got her involved in the NAACP Youth Council. The city, meanwhile, made promises it did not keep about improved bus treatment.

In May, a judge convicted Colvin only for an assault charge, strategically throwing out the other two charges (including a segregation charge), thereby making it harder to use her case to challenge segregation law. Colvin continued to show a rebellious spirit and stopped straightening her hair, which she said she’d do until the courts “straighten out this mess.” Between that, colorism and the assaulting-an-officer charge, the NAACP got scared off the case.

Part of the bias against Colvin was that she was young and “feisty.” Many adults didn’t trust young people to be the face of the case. Parks thought otherwise. As others backed away from Colvin, Parks encouraged her leadership in the NAACP Youth Council. Colvin recalled Parks asking her over and over to share her story of bus resistance with her peers to inspire them to also resist segregation — so much so that it began to embarrass Colvin. Periodically, Colvin stayed the night at Parks’s apartment.

She later said that Parks was the only adult who kept up with her that summer of 1955. Feeling isolated and vulnerable, Colvin met an older man, and shortly afterward became pregnant. In other words, she became pregnant after the community dropped her case.

In addition to the fallacy that Colvin was pregnant, the idea that Parks was chosen as a test case because she was middle class and pleasing to White people is also inaccurate. Parks wasn’t middle class. She had lived in the Cleveland Courts housing complex with her husband and mother since 1943. She and her husband Raymond never owned a home. Indeed, both Parks and Colvin had been overlooked by Black middle class people in Montgomery. The middle class Women’s Political Council (WPC) didn’t even tell Parks about announcing the boycott after her arrest; its leader said she didn’t feel like she needed to let Parks know.

Moreover, some White Montgomery residents scorned Parks. She constantly received death threats and hate calls — not just during the year-long boycott but afterward. Rumors raged that Parks was a Communist plant, that she was Mexican, that she owned a car, that she wasn’t even from Montgomery — all to discredit her as an outsider agitator. Five weeks into the boycott, she was fired from her job and never again found steady work in Montgomery. The Parks family left Montgomery for Detroit eight months after the boycott’s successful end because they still couldn’t find work and still received death threats.

Beyond artificially pitting Colvin and Parks against each other in sexist fashion, these myths downplay both the Black community’s will and both women’s courage. They miss the point that movements often don’t happen with the first injustice but, rather, after an accumulation.

If Colvin hadn’t done what she did in March, if 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith hadn’t done what she did in October by refusing to give up her seat, if the WPC hadn’t agitated for years around bus segregation, then Black Montgomery residents might not have been at the breaking point when Rosa Parks was arrested Dec. 1. The leaflet the WPC printed that night to announce the boycott read, “Another woman has been arrested on the bus.” It did not say Rosa Parks’s name. To sustain a year-long boycott, they organized 40 pickup stations across town; at its height, the movement was giving 10,000 to 15,000 rides a day.

What’s more, Colvin didn’t perform just one act of bravery but many. Two months into the boycott, lawyer Fred Gray decided to file a proactive case in federal court (known as Browder v. Gayle. It went to the Supreme Court and succeeded in overturning bus segregation).

Even as a pregnant young woman, Colvin agreed to be on the case with three other women, and Gray wanted her on it. Gray also wanted a minister but none were willing. (Parks was not on the federal case in part for procedural reasons and in part because her long political history could be a liability in Cold War Alabama.) When questioned on the witness stand about who put her up to this, Colvin testified, “Our leaders are just we ourselves.” Within the new Parks-versus-Colvin mythology, there is no room for Colvin’s second major act of bravery — joining the Browder suit — because the new myth begins and ends with respectability politics (and the community casting Colvin out).

Finally, while the myth that Colvin was the real hero seems to center on the bravery of young people, it actually foregrounds the decisions of those adults who didn’t think she was the right test case, and it misses Colvin’s continuing courage. It also misses the actions of adults like Rosa Parks and Fred Gray who supported rather than feared young people’s leadership.

Parks’s trust and support of young people continued throughout her life. In Detroit, she was buoyed by the spirit and militancy of young Black Power activists. She participated in the 1967 People’s Tribunal, which exposed the police killing of three Black teenagers at the Algiers Motel, served on the advisory board for groups such as the Northern Student Movement, and visited the Black Panther school in Oakland. “If I can be useful, I will come,” she told the young radicals who invited her to join these and many other mobilizations in the 1960s, 1970s and beyond.

We would all do well to take a page from her and support young people’s activism today.