08 Mar / Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Philip Hoose
Winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Philip Hoose‘s inspiring title brings much-needed focus on a brave 15-year-old girl who decided, “You just have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.'” In March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks made history, young Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery, Alabama bus.
Even though Colvin did not resist arrest, she was violently dragged backwards off the bus by two police officers as she repeatedly screamed, “‘It’s my constitutional right!'” She was thrown into the back of a police car, handcuffed through the open window, and endured racist, sexually-charged verbal abuse all the way to the police station. “‘I recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm over and over in my head, trying to push back the fear,'” she told Hoose. Booked and fingerprinted, she was transferred to the adult city jail and thrown into a cell without even a phone call. Schoolmates had seen what happened and reported back to Colvin’s mother who immediately headed to the jail with the family’s reverend and bailed out the frightened teenager. Colvin’s life would never be the same.
For all her courage in standing up (or, more accurately, sitting down) against injustice, Colvin became a social pariah. At school, she was shunned as ‘the girl who got arrested.’ She was charged with and found guilty of three criminal acts: violating the segregation law, disturbing the peace, and – shockingly and incongruously – “assaulting” the policemen who had dragged her off the bus. Upon appeal, the first two charges were dropped, but the assault charge held. Because she was labeled “emotional” and saddled with a permanent criminal record, she was dismissed as a symbol around whom Montgomery’s civil rights leaders might rally.
Nine months later, Rosa Parks – older, married, an established activist with the local NAACP – became that beacon behind which the African American community of Montgomery could unite. In spite of her youth, Colvin never lost hope in her personal fight for justice. She would emerge again in the public eye to fight injustice, proving to be a key plaintiff in the 1956 landmark Browder v. Gayle case which finally knocked down Montgomery’s bus segregation laws.
Using Colvin’s own words culled from 14 interviews, as well as four interviews conducted with Colvin’s activist lawyer Fred Gray (who also represented Rosa Parks), Hoose combines first-person testimonies, journalism, and extensive historical research to bring Colvin’s missing story to glorious life. He tells that story with care and accuracy, never glossing over the more difficult details, including Colvin’s teenage affair with a married man and the resulting pregnancy that led to her high school expulsion.
Best of all, in the book’s Epilogue, Hoose captures Colvin’s half-century-later appearance at Booker T. Washington Magnet High School in Montgomery, from where she never graduated. She returns as a hero to share her remarkable history, and tells the eager students, “‘Don’t give up. Keep struggling, and don’t slide back.'” Good advice for us all.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult