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Parks not seated alone in history

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to honor less

famous faces

of the historic Montgomery bus boycott

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Claudette Colvin has been all but lost to history in this quintessential Southern city where the modern civil rights movement began 50 years ago.

She was arrested for refusing to give her seat on a city bus to a white passenger -- nine months before Rosa Parks' same act of quiet defiance launched the Montgomery bus boycott in December 1955.

From here, the civil rights movement swept across the South, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. becoming its primary voice. Parks went on to become an icon, "mother of the civil rights movement" and the first woman to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol after her death in October. Colvin, who had flirted with immortality at age 15, faded into decades of obscurity.

Yet Colvin believes her actions on March 2, 1955, helped pave the way for Parks. That belief is shared by Fred Gray, the chief legal strategist of the bus boycott, which lasted 381 days until the city ended its policy of segregation on buses.

This week, Colvin, Gray and four other lesser-known but pivotal boycott figures will get a measure of recognition. They -- and all the ordinary Montgomery blacks who made the boycott succeed -- will be honored Thursday at a reception marking the opening of a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit on Rosa Parks and the bus boycott. The exhibit premieres Friday at the Alabama State Capitol.

As the boycott unfolded in the streets, Colvin and three other women who had been discriminated against on buses went to court. They sued, alleging that bus segregation ordinances denied them equal protection under the law. Their lawsuit led to a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Montgomery's segregated transportation was unconstitutional.

The women -- Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith -- and Gray will be feted Thursday along with Johnnie Carr, president since 1967 of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which led the boycott.

For Colvin, it's been a long time coming.

"Rosa got the recognition," says Colvin, now 66 and a retired nurse's assistant in New York. "I didn't even get any recognition. I was disappointed by that because maybe that would have opened a few doors. After the 381 days, I was not a part of things anymore. When I heard about stuff, it was like everybody else, on TV."

It's been 50 years since black people here struck down a system that denied them dignity and their rights as American citizens. Two generations of Southerners have grown up knowing legalized segregation only through history books.

But the memories of that ugly era are etched in the faces of those who lived it. Their recollections of what they endured, and how they hated it, still resonate.

A milestone arrest

Parks was arrested Dec. 1, 1955, for refusing to give her bus seat to a white passenger. Leaders of Montgomery's nascent civil rights movement called for a one-day boycott Dec. 5. Even they were astounded at its success: 50,000 black maids, janitors, yardmen, factory workers and students stayed off the buses.

"It seemed like they were ready," says Carr, 94. "We had put up with it for so long. You had to stand up over an empty seat because it was in the white section. They were really fed up with it."

For 381 days, most black people stayed off the buses. They formed car pools. They gave strangers rides. Whites arranged transportation for their maids and housekeepers.

The four-year traveling exhibit, "381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story," was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Troy University Rosa Parks Library and Museum here. It is financed by AARP, a lobbying group for people 50 and older.

Organizers say they hope the exhibit will bring the unvarnished reality of the bus boycott home to viewers. "In some ways, we've romanticized the civil rights movement," says Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution. "We often forget just how strong the walls of segregation were, just how close to the surface racial hatred was. This wasn't simply a walk in the park."

Attorney Gray, 74, says it's important to look back -- but also to look ahead. "My interest and my concern is not so much to ... commemorate what happened 50 years ago but to look at where we are now. We have to realize racism is not going to go away by itself."

A spontaneous act

In other circumstances, there might now be streets all over the South named for Claudette Colvin. She might have been awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and celebrated as an American heroine.

Her act of defiance was spontaneous. When Colvin got on a bus with three friends, she didn't intend to challenge the segregation law, which said black riders in certain seats had to give those seats to white riders who wanted them.

"It wasn't planned or anything," she says. "When the bus began to fill up, the driver told us he wanted our seats. Three of the girls got up. I remained seated."

The driver hailed police. Colvin "struggled when they dragged her off the bus and screamed when they put on the handcuffs," according to Parting the Waters, a 1988 account of the civil rights movement by Taylor Branch.

Black activists, who had been awaiting a case they could use to challenge the city's bus segregation laws, sprang to her defense. But they soon decided that Colvin would not make the ideal symbol.

She was just 15 and given to outbursts of profanity, Branch wrote: "Worse, she was pregnant. Even if Montgomery (blacks) were willing to rally behind an unwed pregnant teenager -- which they were not -- her circumstances would make her an extremely vulnerable standard-bearer." They would wait nine more months for Parks, whose reputation was without blemish.

Today, Colvin says adamantly that she wasn't pregnant when arrested: Her son was born in March 1956.

"I believe they used Rosa Parks because they felt she would appeal to the adults and to middle-class people because she's fair-skinned and I'm dark-skinned," she says. "If I was fair-skinned, it would have been a different story. They would have used me."

Nevertheless, Gray says, "Claudette was a very pivotal person. She really gave moral courage to Mrs. Parks and to me and other people who were involved in the movement."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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