The more I dig around history, the more I realize how little I know. In the case of the American Civil Rights Movement, I feel like my knowledge just barely scratches the surface. I had planned to blog here about Claudette Colvin, an unsung woman who, as a teen, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and got arrested for it – before Rosa Parks did. As I read up a little, I came across other women who displayed similar guts and whose names are attached to incredibly important Supreme Court rulings leading up to the more familiar civil rights work of the 1960s. Amazing American stories. So I’m sharing them, hope you’ll like them.
One is Irene Morgan Kirkaldy. Way back in 1944- more than ten years before Rosa Parks – Morgan was on an interestate Greyhound bus in Virginia, and refused to give her seat up to a white guy.
A mother of 2, the 27yr old , was arrested – and resisted- and was jailed. She paid the $100 fine for assaulting the sheriff but refused to pay the much lower fine related to not giving up her seat. The case – taken up by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall – went all the way to the Supreme Court. She won her case and segregation of transportion across state lines became illegal- though the court didn’t rule on “separate but equal– only on the fact different segregation laws caused problems that effected commerce negatively. But it was a start- because Irene Morgan took a stand. This ruling was in 1947.
(Morgan in 1949)
Enforcement of the anti-segregation ruling, however, was another issue. Private bus companies stopped relying on these “illegal” state laws, and invoked their own segregation codes, creating a kind of loophole. The Interstate Commerce Commission also went light on enforcement, following a kind of “well, as long as it’s separate but equal” perspective.
A movement – which I’d never heard of – called The Journey Of Reconcilation – proved this. African American and white men with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), rode busses to see if the law banning segregation would be upheld. Often, it wasn’t. Plenty of the men testing the ruling were arrested; noted civil rights activist and Journey organizer Bayard Rustin, even served 22 days on a road gang because he broke this illegal law. The country had a long way to go. But Irene Morgan got the ball rolling – what guts to stand up – and physically fight off- white cops as a black woman in the 1940s south. And the Journey Of Reconciliation ? A true precursuor to the famed Freedom Riders of the early 1960s. (I can’t believe I never heard of this.)
Sarah Keys is another woman who stood her ground. She was a WAC and despite the fact she was serving her country, she was – as was often the case for African Americans in the Jim Crow South- was still required to put up with second-class treatment. She was told to give up her seat on an interstate bus (for a Marine, apparently.) She refused. Arrest and fines ensued.
A new case – eventually – wound its way through the system to the Supreme Court. It took several years- and the new verdict in the Brown Vs The Board of Education case – for the verdict to fall in Keys’ favor. But the Court ruled that the Jim Crow methods of bus companies, and in fact “separate but equal” – violated the “non-discrimination language” of the ICC and thus were illegal. ( I think I’ve got that right.)
(Pvt S. Keys)
So “separate but equal” was no longer acceptable on interestate transportation – trains and buses. Again, it would take the civil right movement push of the early 60s to get this enforced, but Keys and her supporters got the law on the books . It’s worth nothing one of her lawyers was groundbreaking African American attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree. Roundtree, too, had refused to give up her bus seat, several years before.
Then there’s Claudette Colvin. Never heard of her? Neither had I til late last year when I happened to see something online about her. In Montgomery Alabama, 1955 – nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested for refuseing to give up her seat on a bus, Claudette- only fifteen years old- was arrested for doing the same thing herself. You can read her recollection of the event here. It’s something, considering she was only a kid at the time.
However, because she was a teenager and because not much later became pregnant by a married man – Colvin wasn’t made into the “test case”. Local civil rights activists decided she would not make a sympathetic character in a courtroom legal challenge to segregation. Parks, in her 40s, middle-class, was deemed a better candidate. You can read about the politics behind that decision here.
Eventually Colvin moved to New York City and spent her adult life as a nurse’s assistant. Colvin’s decision to ignore segregation laws – and take the consequences – had largely faded into history. Strange, the difference between how her life went and how Parks’ did. She was “rediscovered” by an author in the last few years and her story has gained more attention. Here’s the NYTimes article on her re-emergence that clued me in to her existence.
One thing I found so moving about her story was that she mentioned she was studying Black History that month in school- and when it came time to keep her seat or not, she said: “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.” That’s a really powerful example, to me, of how history, knowing about the people who came before you, can effect your life and be a source of inspirtation and strength.
Some amazing stories about the people behind laws that – slowly but surely- led to the transformation of our society.
You may also want to look into Browder vs Gayle, where the NAACP took on segregation in busses in Alabama using the case of three young women who, like Colvin, had faced discrimination on the bus system. They were Aurelia Browder, Susie Macdonald and Mary Louise Smith. They also preceded Rosa Parks, who, in her own right, was amazing and courageous. She said she wasn’t tired from work on that bus- she was just tired of giving in.