A long-silent civil-rights heroine comes to Maine

Changing history
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 19, 2009

It's a writer's dream — to stumble across a story, a figure, or a moment in time, that influenced our history but remains relatively untouched by the hands of academia or pop culture. And that's exactly what happened to Portlander Phillip Hoose, whose new book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), introduces us to a feisty teenager and an overlooked civil-rights hero. 

Like Rosa Parks would do less than a year later, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white person on March 2, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested, jailed, and later sued the city. But unlike Parks, perhaps because she wasn't viewed as an acceptable figurehead for the civil-rights movement at the time, Colvin barely achieved notoriety — or even acknowledgement — until recently. Although Colvin admits today that "Rosa Parks was the right person to represent the movement at that time," her voice is certainly worth hearing now.

And in Twice Toward Justice, Hoose brings it to us. Hours of interviews (they did 14 interviews of an hour or more, Hoose says, in addition to countless shorter conversations) conducted in Colvin's current home in New York City, are condensed into an intelligent and thoughtful recounting of the incident on the bus, and the ensuing court case that helped change history. Even decades later, Colvin's voice is still spirited.

"Rebellion was on my mind that day," she says in the book. "All during February we'd been talking about people who had taken stands. We had been studying the Constitution in Miss Nesbitt's class. I knew I had rights. I had paid my fare the same as white passengers. I knew the rule — that you didn't have to get up for a white person if there were no empty seats on the bus — and there weren't. But it wasn't about that. I was thinking, Why should I have to get up just because a driver tells me to, or just because I'm black? Right then, I decided I wasn't gonna take it anymore. I hadn't planned it out, but my decision was built on a lifetime of nasty experiences."

The book is a fantastic intermix of Hoose's narrative and Colvin's first-person memories, a format that lends extra weight to the ostracization — by her peers, and by history books — that Colvin experienced after her act of civil disobedience. For multiple reasons — including the fact that at the time of the ordeal, she was pregnant with the son of a white man — Colvin was never celebrated as a civil-rights hero the way that some contemporaries were.

That's part of the reason her story is so fascinating. When Colvin and Hoose appear together at the University of Southern Maine's Glickman Library on Monday, February 23, it is sure to be an inspired (and inspiring) event. Hoose hopes that by shedding light on Colvin's story, he'll give young people another civil-rights figure to relate to. Indeed, we should all feel the way Claudette Colvin did: "When my moment came, I was ready."

Twice Toward Justice talk and book signing | February 23 at 6:30 pm | USM Glickman Library | 314 Forest Ave, Portland | Free | 207.780.4270

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