gary younge on class & colour in the civil rights movement

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"On 2 March 1955, Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year old, described as ‘an “A” student, quiet, well-mannered, neat, clean, intelligent, pretty and deeply religious’, was dragged off a bus after she refused to give up her seat at the back to a white woman. She was pushed into a police car and charged with misconduct, resisting arrest and violating the city segregation laws and put in jail until her pastor came to bail her out.

But the civil rights activists did not trumpet her case. Why not? The common belief was that it was because Colvin was pregnant, and as an unmarried teen, she would have been a liability. But [Dr. Gwendolen] Patton claimed that Colvin did not become pregnant until the summer after her arrest, and Colvin herself believes it was because she was poor. Her father mowed lawns for a living. She lived in the King Hill area, the poor part of town even for blacks. ‘We weren’t in the inner circle,’ Colvin said in an interview with USA Today. ’The middle-class blacks didn’t want us as a role model … I figured [the boycott] was a middle-class thing, I let it go.’ […]

Colvin’s story blurred my rose-tinted vision of the civil rights era. Whether they dropped Colvin because she was pregnant or because she was poor [or because she was dark-skinned as activist Gwen Patton suggests], my image of this struggle as a clear-cut battle between right and wrong had been shattered. It was guided by a political pragmatism and informed by prejudice within the black community. Then, as now, the South was a socially conservative place where an unmarried pregnant teen was probably not the ideal figurehead for a movement. But it was not just the white establishment who felt that. The civil rights learders clearly did, too.

Dropping Colvin felt like a slap in the face for all the unmarried black mothers who walked for thirteen months during the boycott and made so many other sacrifices during the civil rights years. It said, we need you to follow us, but if it ever looks like you might lead us we will drop you like a hot brick.”

Extract from Gary Younge’s No Place Like Home: A Black Briton’s Jouney Through the American South (1999), pp.225-6

click here for Colvin in interview, 2010. Highlight: “It felt like, Harriet Tubman was pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth was pushing me down on the other shoulder. I was embraced spiritually by the struggle and bravery of these two women.”