On March 2, 1955, a black, 15-year-old girl boarded a Montgomery, Ala. city bus, and when told to surrender her seat to a white passenger, refused.
That teenager, Claudette Colvin, became the first of several women arrested for refusing to abide by the state's segregation laws and social codes of racial deference. Nine months later, Rosa Parks did the same. But today, mention the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the work of integrating public facilities, to anyone — regardless of their politics — and two names are likely to come up. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr. That is all.
To be clear, King, then a young and little-known Atlanta-born minister filled with fire about social injustice and the power of nonviolent protest that he, his wife and circle of friends had spent so much time reading about, discussing and contemplating, had a monumental impact on American life. As did Parks, then an NAACP secretary and sometimes investigator. She was a committed supporter of social justice causes. That theirs are the names and stories that most Americans know, and very likely will be the only names mentioned when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addresses a National Bar Association gathering examining the role of lawyers in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Tuesday, is not, in and of itself, remarkable. Colvin and other people who took the same stance before Parks are rarely mentioned. Most don't even know they exist (Colvin is still alive).
But the absence of Colvin and others in our national collective memory or understanding of the Civil Rights Movement does speak to the facile way that we often opt to think about activism, the actual work of creating or forcing political and legal change. And, it highlights the way that even those who consider themselves great champions of racial justice and women's equality have come to think about this same work and, at some level, to embrace the very ideas they claim to reject. It provides a ready example of the way that some degree of error, and hubris, strategy, planning, disruption and disdain is actually a part of most reform movements. It illuminates how with the sanitizing distance of time, success and lasting change, those details are all too often excluded or forgotten.
Activism is, in most instances disruptive. It is often messy. And activists themselves are often imperfect, saddled with enough idealism and naiveté to do something but sometimes do it in less than ideal ways. Even in the United States, where people are free to peaceably express their ideas, to protest and to organize, their ideas are often rejected, ridiculed or demonized. Then, with the passage of time, if their ideas manage to become widely accepted, part of the mainstream and the movement itself is successful, a kind of collective, selective amnesia about the aforementioned sets in.
During his lifetime, King was often called a communist, and jailed and banned from cities. People — white and black — considered him disruptive, impertinent, impatient, a fame-seeker and more. He was tailed and surveilled by the FBI and, of course, ultimately murdered because of his activism and ideas.
Parks was not simply a woman who showed up on the bus one day while going about her daily business, refused to move, got arrested and immediately changed America. She was a committed activist and civil-rights warrior who over the course of her lifetime had grown used to fighting (sometimes physically). In the months leading to the moment Parks was arrested and taken off that Montgomery bus, she had processed letters written by people around the country lauding Colvin for her actions. She had participated in strategy sessions and discussions about challenging segregation laws and social codes. Parks, a married woman, part of a highly respected (in black Birmingham) crowd, was at least aware of discussions about why Colvin was not the "right" protester around which to build the movement that became the bus boycott. And, she was something else.
In a rare 2009 interview with the New York Times after a children's book about Colvin won a National Book Award — one of only a few Colvin has given — she put it this way.
“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did,” Ms. Colvin recalled. “She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’ ”
Colvin was dark-skinned, part of a poor black family, and by the following year, a teen mother to the child of a much older and married man. Historians have found that people involved in the movement regarded her as too emotional, too "mouthy," all around too imperfect to put at the center of the cause. But, she was also one of the plaintiffs in the case that ultimately forced Alabama to change its law. She should be no one's footnote in history.
So what does any of this have to do with today? Think long and hard about the criticism circulating about college campus activists, the Black Lives Matter crowd, the calls for policing and other criminal justice reforms. Look hard at the fact that the men arrested in connection with shooting Black Lives Matter protesters near a Minneapolis Police Station are facing charges of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon and second-degree rioting while armed, not attempted murder or a hate crime. Contemplate the reticence to describe the mass shooting in a Charleston, S.C. church earlier this year as a racially motivated attack, much less discuss it as an incident of domestic terror.
The sanitized and simple version of how actual activism works, how change happens and the people involved ultimately serves none of us well and leaves us all a little less able to evaluate the political activism and conflicts that are with us today.