One of the unhealthy manifestations of social justice in the Blue Meme is respectability politics. Here we are defining respectability politics as advocating for black people that fit a mainstream view of acceptability. Mainstream defined as wealthy, chaste, orderly, and conformist. The story of Claudette Colvin shows of these mainstream standards that are set upon us by outsiders prevents advocating for all black people.
Claudette Colvin was a high schooler that had stopped straightening her hair one year before the not giving up her seat on a Montgomery bus. She lived in Montgomery Alabama when the Civil Rights Movement was heating up. Local black leaders had been looking for a way to challenge the city bus segregation law for years. The leaders had built resources and expertise that would be instrumental in 1955.
In March of 1955, Claudette boards a bus in front of the church Dr. King pastored. After a few stops more white passengers board, but there are no seats available for these passengers. The bus driver ordered Claudette to move to allow the whites to sit. Claudette said she felt the spirit of the ancestors pushing her down in her seat and she refused to move.
The bus driver called the police. When they entered they said “We have had trouble with that “thing” before.” They move closer and order her to leave. She refuses again. The grab her to drag her off the bus. In the scuffle, she scratched the officer. In an interview year later Claudette said she does not remember doing so and the scratch was not intentional. Whether the scratch was deliberate or not she was charged with, disorderly conduct, violating segregation law, and assault on an officer.
On the way to lock-up the police joke about her bra size and call her a “nigger-bitch.” They do not take her to juvenile hall which would be warranted if she was 17. They took her to an adult jail. She spends three hours there before her mother and pastor bail her out. Her father sat up all night with a loaded shotgun waiting for KKK retaliation.
The NAACP began working on her case immediately. She was introduced to Rosa Parks who was running a youth bible study. Claudette joined the Bible study and started to help in the civil rights movement. In court, they were able to overturn the two counts of disorderly conduct and violating segregation law, but assault on an officer stuck.
Many in the black community shunned Claudette as a troublemaker. The NAACP never publicly advocated for Claudette, so many black citizens were not fully aware of the importance of what she did. She says she entered a mild depression. The condition was exacerbated by her pregnancy later that year. Once the NAACP found out she was pregnant, she definitely could be the face of the boycott campaign. She was left pregnant and alone.
In fall of that year, Rosa Parks follows the footsteps of Claudette and refuses to give her seat up. Rosa a light-skinned, relatively well-educated, adult was a much better face of the movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was ultimately a success, but Claudette’s early sacrifice was forgotten.
Years later in an NPR interview, Claudette was asked why she could not be the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She says being pregnant would have been a distraction to the movement. However, another reason that Rosa was a better pick as a light-skinned woman with straight hair. Her look was more palatable to blacks and whites with a European standard of beauty. Having a dark-skinned woman with natural hair would not play well in the media.
Claudette’s contributions did not stop. The NAACP asked her to be part of a Supreme Court case against the Montgomery Bus System to end legal segregation in transportation, Browder v. Gayle. She again testified at the local, state, and national level putting herself and her new baby at risk. Once the NAACP won the case, they did not invite her or any other of the four plaintiffs to the celebration.
Claudette decided that her life may be better if she moved to the north. She began a career and never spoke about her part in the Civil Rights movement until 2004. A book written by Phil Hoose on her life was published in 2009 and won the national book award.
Respectability is an area social justice activist in the blue meme and those that understand a blue meme audience struggle. Yes, it is essential that our collective best foot is put forward when trying to win allies from outside the community. However, we must remember that those within the community need aide even if they are in difficult circumstances. 1955 would not have been an optimal time to tackle segregation and teen pregnancy. Yet, we have to find a way to prevent similar stories in the future.
January 6, 2019 at 4:30 am
Thank you…great piece!