In Plain Sight: The Best Way to See People
Claudette Colvin’s Her-story From the Background to the Foreground
Right at chest level is where I held the sign with also a wide and welcoming smile. The sign between my hands read, “MS. CLAUDETTE COLVIN.” To meet her was a big deal to me.
While arranging her travel, I hadn’t talked to her directly. There was a gatekeeper who screened and handled her affairs. So, as I stood near baggage claim, far away from the gates, I had no idea if Claudette Colvin would show.
Soon enough, a lady in a black coat and a black hat walked up to me and shook my hand.
It was a few days before MLK Day in January 2007. I was in Buffalo, NY as a part of my job to support MLK Day volunteer projects.
That year, the Buffalo, NY affiliate of the HandsOn Network organization decided to replicate a public art project for their MLK Day of Service.
The public art project, A Seat for Social Justice, used salvaged bus seats as canvases for social justice art.
Claudette Colvin had accepted our invitation to do a Q&A session as the highlight of the MLK Day of Service.
Everyone knows a bit about Dr. King. But in case you’re wondering about Claudette Colvin, she is one of the unsung heroines of the civil rights era.
I personally came to know about Claudette Colvin not from school but from self-study. When Rosa Parks died in October 2005, I dove into research about Rosa Parks for the A Seat for Social Justice public art project.
So, for me, the figure in the foreground, Rosa Parks, led me to the figures in the background like Claudette Colvin. And the background is absolutely critical to the facts and our understanding. The background gives us context and supports the foreground.
Claudette Colvin was a forerunner in the background. She was in the background in plain sight. Now, I choose to focus on the background.
And like Donald Trump said of Frederick Douglass, these days Claudette Colvin is getting more and more recognition. (And, she most definitely should get more recognition.)
Today, her contributions are clear and courageous. Ms. Colvin was a 15-year-old girl, slightly older than Emmett Till, when she refused to give up her bus seat.
And get this, she refused to move in Montgomery, Alabama — on the same bus route as Mrs. Parks — nine months earlier than Mrs. Parks on March 2, 1955.
Ms. Colvin was not the first ever in the nation to resist bus segregation. But when Ms. Colvin protested she yelled how she paid her fare and it was her constitutional right to remain in her seat.
Yet because Ms. Colvin was young, dark, considered a delinquent, and eventually became pregnant, the civil rights “leaders” did not make a case out of her.
Ms. Colvin wasn’t the desired model to move people. Any outrage over her would be turned against her. Ms. Colvin was premature and cursed. Although she was a precursor, she was crossed out at the time.
The civil rights leaders decided not to strike the match over her head and so they waited.
Meanwhile, Ms. Colvin was slandered and her story sank and sat in the sea of shadows. Then on December 1, 1955, four months after Emmett Till was killed in a nearby state, the bus boycott around Mrs. Parks birthed a movement and created icons.
Mrs. Parks, if indeed the “mother of the civil rights movement,” had her own illegitimate children in Ms. Colvin and others who mothered her.
Others like Mary Louise Smith, another teenager in Montgomery, Alabama who also refused to give up her seat before Mrs. Parks.
Ms. Colvin, for her part, served as a plaintiff in the case which ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional in Montgomery. The success in Montgomery was pivotal to the profile and recognition of Dr. King.
Ms. Colvin was a change agent but she was also largely overlooked.
And, as history tells us, Mrs. Parks went on to be and get everything in life.
But by the time Mrs. Parks decided to remain seated in her 40s, she was a grown woman. She was grown and trailing teens whose tracks she’d cover with her own for a long time.
There’s no doubt Mrs. Parks won the lottery of the movement by doing the right things and being the right person at the right time.
But Ms. Colvin had a mostly unknown life as a foot soldier in the footnotes. In the messages about Black history and the civil rights movement, she’s been a name stuck in the BCC field. Hidden from the senders and the recipients of the messages about the Movement — Ms. Colvin was pushed to the back — by society and social justice leaders.
Looking through the eyes of Ms. Colvin, it could seem like a sad history and a forgotten future. But looking in the eyes of Ms. Colvin, she doesn’t see it that way. She indicated to me how she is not bitter.
Ms. Colvin is civil and not in the forced to be kind of way. Instead, she’s objective about how it all unfolded. She knows firsthand that movements have strategies.
She also knows the truth and the role she played. Ms. Colvin’s civility embodies two definitions of the word civil: relating to an ordinary person, and being polite.
She mentioned how she knew Mrs. Parks as a leader in the Black community of Montgomery. Ms. Colvin looked up to Mrs. Parks too.
But Ms. Colvin is no less a real-life heroine. She was brave when no one had her back. By the age of 15, she had had enough of what other people had tolerated for a lifetime.
Here are two quick aspects of her story that stand out to me:
#1. History isn’t always told to us accurately or even fully.
Even the sacred civil rights movement, which is a model for movements, should be viewed with skepticism to see the shadows.
We can’t settle for partial stories. The partial telling of stories is not harmless. Partial stories can have the same effect as lies. And if we are to learn from history then partial and inaccurate stories do us little good.
We have a responsibility to share what we know and to tell the whole truth. And, people have a basic right to know.
Often, what and who has been emphasized are just the abstracts.
That means a do-nothing can become a darling and a Johnny-come-lately can get the first and the last word.
A full look at history means we are always students, and students must always be a little cynical. This viewpoint about movements and history must be worn like eyeglasses, even for our movements and moments today.
Otherwise, we become nearsighted. And seeing people in plain sight doesn’t mean we only see those up close and in our faces.
Because, the fact is, people in plain sight get passed over — and overlooked — in the present tense and tension.
#2. We never know who’s walking by us.
Taking Ms. Colvin back to the airport it dawned on me how there wasn’t any hype for history. The people around had no idea who she was by looking at her.
And I was stunned because greatness was breathing and walking.
A person who had changed a mode of transportation in a different time and place was now boarding. There was a class act in the coach class, worthy of an upgrade, and entitled to class action.
I imagine that scene from the airport happens to Ms. Colvin every day. People pass unaware of her story. It’s likely she doesn’t care much for the day-to-day attention.
And there are more like Ms. Colvin, they are hidden figures.
The civil rights era required innumerable people to act bravely, most of whom we will never know.
They are unnamed sources on background by omission and oversight. They bore witness. They have firsthand accounts. They were even captured by clicks at the scenes and sights. But no captions reveal their names.
And every day, there are people we too pass with greatness unrecognized.
Maybe you’re familiar with the news stories about world-famous musicians who perform in public spaces during rush hour for mere coins? Many people during these social experiments don’t recognize the musical virtuoso right before their eyes.
Those who do, stop, and get the best concert of their lives.
But there are other types of virtuosi besides the musical ones. Do we see them or notice them?
To miss a musical genius in plain sight may be a matter of knowledge and taste.
But it may be harder to see the invisible virtues in one person. We may need to take time to get to know people and slow down.
There are Claudette Colvins all around us.
Since everyday people can be incredible, we should try to make everyone feel special and seen just for being. Why not be civil to everyone possible and try to be as polite as we can muster?
That’s good foresight because civil is the right thing to be in life.
And maybe you are a Claudette Colvin yourself?
You’re in plain sight and being overlooked. Or, maybe you’re a plain sight that’s been slighted.
Well, in any case, you know what to do. Be civil and keep being you.
The “woke” generation is still awakening. New and fresh eyes open daily. And, as they open, they’ll have the best view of you in plain sight.
“It’s an important reminder that crucial change is often ignited by very plain, unremarkable people who then disappear,” said David J. Garrow, a biographer of Dr. King and a Pulitzer Prize winner, New York Times.