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  • The Ladies Before Rosa:Let Us Now Praise Unfamous Women
  • Paul Hendrickson (bio)

Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared under Mr. Hendrickson's byline in the Washington Post on April 12, 1998.

One way to get there is on the No. 6 Lexington Avenue train. You take it to 177th Street in the Bronx and then it's only a short walk. You find an apartment building. You press a buzzer marked "C. Colvin 11-H." Upstairs lives a 58-year-old woman who works nights at a nursing home. Upstairs, pondering how destinies work out, lives one of the women before Rosa.

As in Rosa Parks.

A long time ago, in a Deep South apartheid place called Montgomery, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on the bus to a white rider and the civil rights movement in America was born. But before that, before Rosa, on another racist Montgomery municipal bus, this woman, too, summoned something large inside her and said no, she would not move. Only, when she said it, the world wasn't ready to hear. Not quite.

History is always up to its own turns and ironies and devices. Her name is Claudette Colvin. Her no was on March 2, 1955. They took her off the Highland Gardens bus late that afternoon kicking and screaming. They charged her with assault and battery as well as transgressing city and state segregation laws. It was nine months—almost to the day, nearly to the spot—before Rosa Parks's no and subsequent arrest, which had a much different quality and tone about it, although the humiliation was the same.

You see, while one was a highly emotional 15-year-old 11th-grader about whom there were unsavory stories and who lived in a house that didn't have an indoor toilet, the other, "Mrs. Parks"—as so much of black Montgomery respectfully thought of her—was a small, modest, ascetic-looking, wholly untainted 42-year-old seamstress and civic activist and youth leader: a perfect [End Page 287] and righteous symbol for igniting not just a year-long boycott but an entire movement. Not that anybody in Alabama or anywhere else understood it so clairvoyantly at the time. That understanding would come later.

"Why do you push us around?" Mrs. Parks asked them quietly that evening. "I do not know," said one of the arresting officers, "but the law is the law, and you are under arrest."

Eldridge Cleaver later wrote that when a woman, who earned $23 a week, summoned no, in the gathering dark of a homebound suppertime bus, on December 1, 1955, a gear in the machinery shifted. Martin Luther King Jr. once said it was the instant in eternity when she got "anchored to her seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by, and by the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn."

And yet, what about other no's, earlier no's, prior anchorings, some of which go back into previous decades? Don't they, too, represent a swimming against unfathomable tides?

"I haven't talked about it very much," Claudette Colvin says. "It's pulling out of me now." By "it," she must be referring not only to what happened to her in downtown Montgomery on a day when the world didn't heed, but to the rest of her life as well, which has been hard.

A visitor isn't five minutes inside her door when she'll say, with traces of soft Southern cadences: "'What do we have to do to make God love us?' I always grew up with that. I always used to go around thinking that. 'God loved the white people better. He must've. That's why he made them white.'"

And toward the end, after she's talked for almost four hours, she'll say, no pity in it: "They didn't want me because I didn't represent the middle class. . . . They didn't want me involved because of where I lived and what my parents' background was."

Let us now praise unfamous women. Let us write of those unattended by history. Let us try to honor names in the shadows...


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pp. 287-298
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