Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"Riding While Black 1955, Walking While Black 1999": An Historic Moment in Civil Rights Remembered

Civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin

Small children and teenagers dressed for church joined their families, political activists, and academics to see and hear civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin at San Francisco’s Main Public Library on Feb. 6 as part of Black History Month.

Colvin was a 15-year-old student on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 who refused to give up her seat to a white person, and she was kicked and dragged off the bus by police. A local law demanded that African Americans vacate their bus seats when a white person wanted them, but when she was arrested, handcuffed, and jailed there was a furious groundswell of outrage that ended up in the courts. Nine months later activist Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her bus seat and eventually the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned discriminatory bus riding laws nationwide.

Colvin was transformed from a schoolgirl, whose teachers told her that she had a constitutional right to sit on the bus seat she chose, into a civil rights activist who yelled that fact to the police as they arrested her. She still is assertive and knowing about some of the more disguised racism that occurs now. She smiled and said that she objects to the overly polite and lavish attention that she encounters from some Southern white people, and that drew nervous laughter from the audience.

Civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin, moderator Enid Lee, and performer Bryonn Bain

Storyteller Awele Makeba performed a striking scene from her show "I’m Not Getting On Until Jim Crow Gets Off" which told of the abuse faced by Colvin. Performer Bryonn Bain was so overwhelmed by Colvin’s presence that he canceled his show sequence and sat at a table with her and moderator Enid Lee to interact with the civil rights legend and discuss the prison experience. Bain spoke about prison for African American men and how it fits into the five categories of slavery, which noticeably shocked many audience members.

It was an historic afternoon that commemorated the turbulence and eventual victories of the civil rights movement that inspired the later LGBT, women’s, and anti-war movements.

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