By Eric Yosomono
Ask any not-stupid fourth-grader in the country, “Who got the got the American civil rights movement rolling?” and they’ll give you one answer: Rosa Parks, durr. Everyone knows that Rosa Parks’ refusal to acquiesce her bus seat to a white man was the spark that lit the desegregation fire. And for that one act, Parks was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, had her face plastered on a stamp and was named one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Not too shabby for a day’s ride home.
The most any of us has ever gotten out of a bus ride is covered in pee.
Here’s the thing, though. Parks was only one lady in a long line of black women who refused to give up their seats. And like Parks, those women were also arrested, scorned and harassed for their bravery. Over a hundred years before Rosa, Elizabeth Jennings Graham insisted on her right to ride a horse-drawn street car in New York City. In an age when black people could still be the property of white people, it took the conductor and a policeman to physically remove her from the car, and her suit against them was whatdesegregated New York public transit.
Anyone who says anything about Aunt Jemima is a racist.
Still, Graham was ancient history by the time Parks came around. Plus, New York City is no Montgomery, Alabama. But oh, wait — 15-year-old Claudette Colvin totally lived in Montgomery, Alabama, took the exact same buses as Parks and was also arrested for giving up her seat nine months before Rosa. As was 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith six weeks before Parks’ arrest. Same buses. Same city. Same story. What did Colvin and Smith get for their troubles? Not much more than a rap sheet.
So why have we never heard of them?
Because Colvin was a knocked-up teenager and Smith’s dad was rumored to have a drinking problem. Rosa Parks, on the other hand, looked like a 19th-century school-marm:
Months before Parks refused to give up her seat, local members of the NAACP were looking for the right test case: someone who could be the face of the civil rights movement as they took their cause to court. Colvin didn’t work because not only was she was an unwed, pregnant teenager, but the father of her baby was an older, married man. Plus, she was described as “mouthy” and “feisty,” which didn’t sit well with leaders who knew that whoever gained notoriety would be a target for every racist on Earth. Likewise, Smith didn’t work because word on the street was that her dad was an alcoholic, an allegation she later said wasn’t true at all. She didn’t even find out she had been in contention for the role until a reporter let it slip in 1995.
Parks, on the other hand, was perfect. Colvin’s own mother cited Parks’, um, lighter skin color and likable personality as reasons why she should be the one.
It sounds cynical, but you can’t argue with the results.