This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.
When one of my work wives collaborated with a few other friends on our hallway to make me a beautiful, Pinterest-worthy Black History Month door decoration last year, I learned about several Black women who made history, but whose names I’d never heard before. An incredibly personal part of the decoration was a collage of Black women whom my dear friend had hand-picked based on how much she knew about me. Shirley Chisolm, a long-time personal hero of mine, occupied a prominent position in the center of the collage. Lizzo, Angela Rye, and Michelle Obama, among others, adorned the periphery. Along with them was the then unknown to me Dr. Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal Priest. Learning of who she was gave my little Episcopalian heart such joy.
Earlier this year, I shared with a colleague that Rosa Parks had not been the first Black woman to protest by refusing to give up her seat on a bus, but that she was preceded by both Claudette Colvin and Pauli Murray. This colleague’s resulting curiosity and internet research yielded this illuminating article, which she shared with me. In “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” I learned about Murray’s heartbreaking struggle with her gender identity and the integral role that her legal research played in Brown vs. the Board of Education.
A few weeks ago, I got the unexpected joy of introducing one of my students, a senior, to Claudette Colvin. Having found an article about Colvin in a Scholastic magazine, I passed it to this particular student, who within a few moments of receiving it, said that it would be the most important thing she ever learned in school. When Claudette Colvin was only fifteen years old, she refused to give up her seat on a bus while riding home from school. Even though three of her schoolmates moved when ordered to do so, Colvin asserted to the officers that boarded the bus that she knew her constitutional rights. After Colvin had been bailed out of jail and the NAACP, of which she was a part, began considering Colvin as the face of a bus boycott, Colvin found out she was pregnant. The NAACP, leary of confusing people who supported their just cause by supporting a teenage mother, decided not to make Colvin the face of their movement.
Furthermore, it would be Claudette Colvin, not Rosa Parks, who went on to become a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the federal case that determined Alabama’s bus segregation was unconstitutional. This decision forced Colvin to move to New York, since her participation in the case effectively nullified her ability to find employment in her hometown.
These days, riot-condemning folks like to weaponize Rosa Parks. They say and share on social media such tone-deaf faux maxims as “Rosa Parks didn’t burn the bus; she sat on it.” In their minds, it seems, Parks’ act of passive resistance was a simple case of being tired and not wanting to stand. In reality, it was a carefully planned and coordinated action, preceded and undergirded by Colvin, Murray, and others before her, and succeeded by more than a year of economic strife for the city bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, and beyond.
Rosa Parks was at the time of her arrest secretary of the NAACP, and she had married a member of the NAACP when she was nineteen years old. There should be no doubt, therefore, in anyone’s mind that Rosa Parks’ action was a planned act of civil disobedience. It served as the instigator of the very “cancel culture” so many people who weaponize her visage and actions decry today.
- What prior ideas do you have to let go of in order to accept the idea of Rosa Parks as an intentional, strategic activist?
- What do you lose when you recontextualize her work this way?
- Why do you think that the names of Pauli Murray, a gender queer woman, and Claudette Colvin, a teenage mother, are not taught to us alongside the name of Rosa Parks, even though all three were civilly disobedient in the same way?
- In what ways might respectability politics have influenced your idea of which Black lives matter and which ones don’t?
I hope you’ll read each of the resources linked here to deepen and expand your knowledge of the determination and strategy that have been required in order for Black Americans to make incremental strides toward justice and equity. I hope you will allow your defenses to fall as you think through the thoughts and feelings Murray and Colvin must have experienced, knowing that their lives were not deemed worthy enough to allow them to be prominently visible in the Civil Rights Movement. I hope you will look around at the single mothers and queer friends and neighbors in your life and extend them grace, empathy, and compassion from a newly realized space within.
And I hope, as always, that you’ll meet me back here again next week, so we can keep constructing thoroughly peaceful communities and lives, one piece at a time.