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Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

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"When it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can't sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, 'This is not right.'" - Claudette Colvin
On March 2, 1955, an impassioned teenager, fed up with the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation, refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Instead of being celebrated as Rosa Parks would be just nine months later, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin found herself shunned by her classmates and dismissed by community leaders. Undaunted, a year later she dared to challenge segregation again as a key plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that struck down the segregation laws of Montgomery and swept away the legal underpinnings of the Jim Crow South.
Based on extensive interviews with Claudette Colvin and many others, Phillip Hoose presents the first in-depth account of an important yet largely unknown civil rights figure, skillfully weaving her dramatic story into the fabric of the historic Montgomery bus boycott and court case that would change the course of American history.

Claudette Colvin is the National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature, a Newbery Honor Book, A YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist, and a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book.

ISBN-13: 9780312661052

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Square Fish

Publication Date: 12-21-2010

Pages: 160

Product Dimensions: 6.05(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.55(d)

Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

Phillip Hoose is an award-winning author of books, essays, stories, songs and articles. Although he first wrote for adults, he turned his attention to children and young adults in part to keep up with his own daughters. Claudette Colvin won a National Book Award and was dubbed a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2009. He is also the author of Hey, Little Ant, co-authored by his daughter, Hannah, It's Our World, Too!, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, and We Were There, Too!, a National Book Award finalist. He has received a Jane Addams Children's Book Award, a Christopher Award, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, among numerous honors. He was born in South Bend, Indiana, and grew up in the towns of South Bend, Angola, and Speedway, Indiana. He was educated at Indiana University and the Yale School of Forestry. He lives in Portland, Maine.

Read an Excerpt

Claudette Colvin Twice Toward Justice

By Phillip Hoose

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2009 Phillip Hoose
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4821-0


Jim Crow and the Detested Number Ten

I swear to the Lord
I still can't see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.

— Langston Hughes

Claudette Colvin: I was about four years old the first time I ever saw what happened when you acted up to whites. I was standing in line at the general store when this little white boy cut in front of me. Then some older white kids came in through the door and started laughing. I turned around to see what they were laughing at. They were pointing at me. The little white boy said, "Let me see, let me see, too." For some reason they all wanted to see my hands. I held my hands up, palms out, and he put his hands up against my hands. Touched them. The older kids doubled up laughing. My mother saw us, and she saw that the boy's mother was watching. Then my mom came straight across the room, raised her hand, and gave me a backhand slap across my face. I burst into tears. She said, "Don't you know you're not supposed to touch them?" The white boy's mother nodded at my mom and said, "That's right, Mary."

That's how I learned I should never touch another white person again.

* * *

If, Like Claudette Colvin, you grew up black in central Alabama during the 1940s and 1950s, Jim Crow controlled your life from womb to tomb. Black and white babies were born in separate hospitals, lived their adult lives apart from one another, and were buried in separate cemeteries. The races were segregated by a dense, carefully woven web of laws, signs, partitions, arrows, ordinances, unequal opportunities, rules, insults, threats, and customs — often backed up by violence. Together, the whole system of racial segregation was known as "Jim Crow."

Jim Crow's job was not only to separate the races but to keep blacks poor. In 1950, nearly three in five black women in Montgomery, Alabama's capital city, worked as maids for white families, and almost three-quarters of employed black men mowed lawns and did other kinds of unskilled labor. The average black worker made about half as much money as the average white. "The only professional jobs ... open to blacks were ... pastoring a black church and schoolteaching, which was open because of segregated schools," recalled the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the minister of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery during the 1950s.

Jim Crow kept blacks and whites from learning together, playing or eating meals together, working or riding buses or trains together, worshiping with one another, even going up and down in the same elevator or throwing a ball back and forth in the same park. Black and white citizens drank water from separate fountains and used different bathrooms. They were forbidden to play sports on the same team, marry one another, or swim together in the same pool.

Some of the segregation laws didn't matter too much in the daily lives of black citizens, but the bus was different. Riding the bus was like having a sore tooth that never quit aching. Montgomery's neighborhoods were spread out, and the maids and "yard boys" — people like Claudette Colvin's parents who scraped together a few dollars a day by attending to the needs of white families — depended on the buses to reach the homes of their white employers. Thousands of students also rode the buses to school from the time they were little, learning the transfer points and schedules by heart. They gathered in clusters at the corners, chatting and teasing and cramming for tests, until the green and gold buses chugged into view and the doors snapped open. Most blacks had to ride the bus.

But everything about riding a bus was humiliating for black passengers. All riders entered through the front door and dropped their dimes in the fare box near the driver. But, unless the entire white section was empty, blacks alone had to get back off the bus and reenter through the rear door. Sometimes the driver pulled away while black passengers were still standing outside.

In other Southern cities, like Atlanta and Nashville and Mobile, black passengers sat in the back and whites sat in the front of the bus, with the two groups coming together in the middle as the bus filled up. When all the seats were taken, riders of both races stood.

But Montgomery had its own rules and traditions. Here, each bus had thirty-six seats. The first four rows of seats, which held ten passengers, were reserved for white passengers only. Day after day weary black passengers remained standing over empty seats in front. Trying to hold on to their packages and small children, they jostled for balance even as the aisles became jammed with dozens of seatless passengers. Seating behind the first ten seats was up to the driver, who constantly glanced into the mirror above his head to keep track of who was sitting where. If the ten white seats in front were filled, the driver ordered black passengers to surrender their seats in the middle and rear of the bus to newly boarding white passengers. In fact, if even one white passenger wanted to sit in a row occupied by four black riders, the driver would glance up and yell, "I need those seats!" All four blacks were expected to stand up and make their way to the rear.

It didn't matter if they were elderly, pregnant, ill, or balancing children on their laps. It also didn't matter that the city bus law — or ordinance, as city laws are called — had said since 1900 that no rider had to give up a seat unless another was available. Drivers simply ignored the law until it became customary for blacks to move when the driver told them to. When he said to get up, he expected people to get up, and they did. If there were no seats left in the rear, black passengers were simply out of luck.

The Montgomery City Lines bus company hired tough men to command their buses. And Montgomery's city ordinance gave them police powers. Every driver understood from the day he was hired that his main job, other than driving the bus, was to enforce the Jim Crow rules. Some drivers carried pistols.

Having to stand up at the end of a long day within plain sight of an empty seat was both depressing and infuriating. "The ten empty seats became an obsession to weary workers," wrote Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College at the time. "The number ten became a damnable number ... Nobody wanted that number on anything that belonged to him." And being packed together inside a small tube magnified the rudeness of segregation. "There were no Negro drivers," recalled Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Montgomery buses. "It was not uncommon to hear [drivers] referring to Negro passengers as ... 'black cows' and 'black apes.'"

Over the years, a few black riders stood up to the drivers. In 1946 Geneva Johnson was arrested for "talking back" to a driver and not having the correct change. Charged with disorderly conduct, she paid a fine and her case was dismissed. A few years later Viola White and Katie Wingfield were arrested for sitting in seats reserved for whites. They also pleaded guilty and paid fines.

In the summer of 1949, sixteen-year-old Edwina Johnson and her brother Marshall, one year younger, had come down from New Jersey to visit relatives in Montgomery. During their stay they climbed aboard a city bus and sat down next to a white man and his son. The white boy ordered Marshall to move. Deeply offended, Marshall refused. The driver twice ordered the Johnsons to the back, but they stayed put. Why should things be different here than back home? The exasperated driver radioed police, who were waiting at the next stop to arrest them. When Edwina and Marshall's relatives were called, they hurried to the police station, paid the teenagers' fines, and got them out of jail. Soon the Johnsons, shaken, were on their way back to New Jersey.

It could get rougher. A driver showered insults upon a woman named Epsie Worthy when she refused to pay an extra fare at a transfer point. Ms. Worthy got off the bus rather than pay more, only to have the driver follow her outside and begin punching her. She fought back with her fists, exchanging a flurry of blows with the driver, who spat upon her as he struck her. Police separated the two and charged Ms. Worthy with disorderly conduct.

The most shocking incident of all happened in 1952, when a man named Brooks boarded a City Lines bus, dropped a dime in the fare box, and headed down the aisle toward the back. The driver shouted at Brooks to come back, get off, and reboard through the rear door. Brooks said he'd rather walk and asked for his dime back. The driver refused, an argument heated up, and the driver called police. An officer soon boarded the bus, ordering Brooks off. Brooks wouldn't budge until he got his dime back. The policeman shot him, and Brooks later died of his wounds. The coroner ruled his death justifiable homicide, justifiable because the officer said Brooks had been resisting arrest.

The few passengers who defied the drivers usually cooled off at the police station, paid their fines, and tried to put their humiliating experiences behind them. Why fight? The white judges, the intimidating police, the insulting drivers, and the crushing weight of all the years of custom and law were simply overwhelming.

But change was in the wind. On Monday, May 17, 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools. It was a solid punch to Jim Crow, one that produced powerful shock waves throughout the South. The ruling allowed black students to anticipate a different future and emboldened a few of them to try to make it happen.

One such student was fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin, whose school had been studying black history almost nonstop for a solid month. Around 3:30 on March 2, 1955, this slim, bespectacled high school junior boarded the Highland Gardens bus with a few of her friends and slid into a window seat on the left side, behind the white section. She piled her textbooks on her lap, smoothed her blue dress, and settled back for a five-block ride that not only would change the course of her life but would spark the most important social movement in U.S. history.



To me, God loved everyone. Why would He curse just us?

— Claudette Colvin

Claudette: I was born Claudette Austin, September 5, 1939, in Birmingham. My mom named me after Claudette Colbert, a movie star back then, supposedly because we both had high cheekbones. My biological father's name is C. P. Austin, and my birth mother's name is Mary Jane Gadson. C.P. left my mother to look for a job, stayed away for a year, and came back just long enough for my sister Delphine to be born. Then he took off again. When he came back a third time and wanted to stay, my mother finally said no.

When I was just a baby I went off to live with my great-aunt, Mary Ann Colvin, and my great-uncle, Q. P. Colvin, in a little country town called Pine Level, about thirty miles down Highway 231 from Montgomery.

Mary Ann and Q.P. are the ones I call Mom and Dad. They were a lot older than my birth parents, more like my grandparents' age, but I loved them both, and I was happy to be with them. I think the reason they took me is that their only child, Velma, was away teaching school most of the year, so they had plenty of room for me. Later Delphine came to live with us, too. So I grew up in a quartet — Mary Ann, Q.P., Delphine, and me. And our dog, Bell, and two horses and lots of chickens, cows, and pigs. Back then, while World War II was going on, whenever one of our hens would lay a bad egg we'd mark it with an "H" — for Hitler.

People always said I was smart. I don't know about that, but I was inquisitive for sure. I wondered about everything and asked about everything: Why don't the stars fall? Where is Japan? Is it different from China? How did God make the earth so fast, in six days? Did He make the stars, too? When Bell died would she go to heaven? Shouldn't Easter be on a Monday? Weren't there supposed to be three days after the Crucifixion — so it'd be Saturday, Sunday, Monday, right?

The biggest mystery of all was how the white man came to dominate us. In the South, it was taught that white people were better than blacks. Somehow, they were the masters and we were there to work for them. My mom said white people thought God made them special. My Sunday school teacher said we had been cursed by one of Noah's sons. I didn't buy that at all. To me, God loved everyone. Why would He curse just us? My mom thought she was as good as anyone else. So did I. One day I told my pastor, Reverend H. H. Johnson, "I don't want to serve a God that would have a cursed race." He seemed proud of me for saying that.

I was a tomboy, tall and skinny and very fast, and I loved to be outdoors. I could climb trees as well as anyone. My best friend, Annie Ruth Baines, and I knew every trail and shortcut from Pine Level to our homes. A No Trespassing sign meant nothing at all to us. In the summer we would count the insect tracks in the sand across the road and try to figure out what bug made which track. We were walking to school together the first time we ever got close to a skunk, right out in the middle of the road. We ran up to pet it and got sprayed. The teacher took one sniff and sent us home.

Pine Level didn't have much more than a few shacks for the sharecropper families, a schoolhouse, a church, and a general store, but I was at home in all of it. I floated free, and slept at the homes of my mom's friends as much as in my own bed. They all raised me together. Some nights I ended up at Baby Tell's house — she was my mom's best friend, plump and short and always happy to see me. She lived in an old farmhouse, the biggest house in Pine Level. White people used to own it, and we never knew exactly how Baby Tell's family got it. Her attic was full of paintings and an organ and an old spinning wheel. Annie and I used to look out the attic window and pretend the Yankee soldiers were about ready to come charging over the hill.

Other nights I slept at Mama Sweetie's, a tiny woman in her sixties who was the best reader in Pine Level. She had read the entire Bible many times. She had her own blue-covered Webster's dictionary. Mama Sweetie taught practically every child in Pine Level their ABCs and how to write their names and how to count to a hundred, using peanuts. She cooked for all the people when they came in from the fields. Baby Tell and Mama Sweetie were like sisters to my mom, and mothers to me. They loved me to keep them company. My nonstop talking and constant questions seemed to drive my mom crazy, but it didn't bother them at all: they loved that about me.

Our school was a one-room white wooden building with red trim. Annie and I walked there together every day, lunch sacks in one hand, book sacks in the other. It had a potbellied stove in the middle and a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the wall. One teacher taught all six elementary grades, and sat us in sections around the room, grade by grade, two to a desk. The room was rarely full because students kept getting pulled away to do farmwork. A farmer would just appear in the doorway and yell, "I need two boys to help with the cows," and they'd be out the door in a flash.

I loved school. I memorized the Dick and Jane reader so my teacher would think I could already read. One day she asked me to read aloud, but I got way out ahead of the text. She couldn't figure out what was going on. She told my parents to take me to Montgomery to get my eyes checked. I learned the entire second grade in advance just by listening to Annie — she was a year older than me — and by hearing Mama Sweetie read from her Bible and her Webster's dictionary. When it came time for me to start second grade I could already read and write and spell and even do some arithmetic. They tested me and told me to go sit with the third graders. After that, I was always younger than the other kids in my class.

I knew plenty of white people, and they knew me. You had to be very careful around them. They never called the adults "Mr." or "Miss" or "Mrs."; they used their first names instead. Or sometimes they made up little nicknames to dominate us. I was Coot. A doctor gave that name to me when I was little to distract me from the shot he was about to give. He sang, "Oh she's the cutest little thing," but it came out "coot" — and the name stuck.


Excerpted from Claudette Colvin Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose. Copyright © 2009 Phillip Hoose. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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