I don't know about you, but, over the years, I have learned a lot during Black History Month. I have discovered stories of amazing heroes and scientists who have changed the tragectory of American life, as well as shameful episodes of exploitation and abuse in our history that have been buried and made invisible to most citizens.
What I have learned has also challenged me to become my best self. A few years ago, I went to the Durham Public library and picked up a book about a young girl who grew up in Alabama–Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose.
Nearly 65 years ago, a young 15-year-old African American girl got on the public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on her way home from school. Thirteen of her classmates were on the bus, too. Even though the Supreme Court had ruled that public schools would have to be integrated the year before (Brown V. Board of Education), nothing had changed in the city of Montgomery. Not in the schools and not on the buses.
The moment came on March 2nd. Fully nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Claudette Colvin, age 15, did the same. Claudette slid into a window seat on the left side, near the exit door and about halfway back. A schoolmate plopped down beside her, and two other Booker T. Washington High School students took the seats across the aisle in the same row.
After a while, the bus filled up and a white woman was standing in the aisle between the four seats in Claudette’s row. Clearly, the white woman expected Claudette and her 3 schoolmates to vacate the entire row so she could sit down in one of the seats. The bus driver looked up and told the girls to move. The other 3 moved but Claudette stayed put.
“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 [1900 city ordinance]—that you didn’t have to get up for a white person if there were no empty seats left 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.”
After the three seats opened, the white woman still wouldn’t sit down even across the aisle from Claudette. As Hoose points out, “That was the point of the segregation rules—it was symbolic—blacks had to be behind whites.” The bus driver and the passengers all started yelling at her to get up but Claudette stayed put. Eventually, two city policemen boarded the bus. When they yelled at her to get up, she said, “No sir, It is my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right!” She continued to shout that phrase, “It’s my constitutional right,” as the policeman jerked her off her seat, drug her off the bus, threw her in the police car, cuffed her and took her to jail and locked her in a cell—without a phone call. She was charged with three counts—violation of segregation bus ordinance, resisting arrest, and disturbing the peace. Eventually, Claudette’s mom and pastor came to the jail to bail her out and take her home.
Two things challenged me as I was reading. First, her courage at such a young age. It’s true that later in the year (December 1, 1955), Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat. As Hoose sees it, Claudette had lit the fuse to a powder keg of protest nine months earlier, but is was Rosa Parks who was embraced by a community ready for action. Claudette had given them the time to prepare. As Fred Gray (the main attorney handling the case) later said, “I don’t mean to take anything away from Mrs. Parks, but Claudette gave all of us the moral courage to do what we did.”
It challenged me to question what kind of courage I am exhibiting in my family, at work and in my community. I define courage as the movement we make in the direction of becoming our best selves.
Second, the shocking lack of encouragement and support she received for this action. For the first few weeks she was viewed as a hero, but as time marched on, she was shunned by her schoolmates and most adults in her life. Why? Mainly because she had rocked the boat and created uncertainty and fear for her community. Some adults shunned her because they were ashamed that it took a young teenage girl to act. One man wrote her these words,
“The wonderful thing which you have just done makes me feel like a craven coward. How encouraging it would be if more adults had your courage, self-respect, and integrity.”
This challenged me to consider how I am (or am not) becoming more of an encouraging event in the lives of the youth around me. I define encouragement as the space we make for another person to become his/her best self. When it comes to my own children, I’ve realized that fear is the biggest obstacle to being an encourager. When I am afraid, I am more rigid and set in my ways. I begin to hover. Urges to protect or swoop in and rescue dominate my mind. I am learning that I have to first manage my own emotions and reactions so that I can create that space for my sons to become their best selves. Just this week, a friend of mine called me because she was struggling with the idea of her college graduate going overseas for a year to do development work. She knew he needed to go and should go. It was her job to honor her son’s best self and rein in her anxiety.
In my work here at SAS, I meet some parents whose main narrative to their kids is, “life is scary and unpredictable and I have to watch out for you and protect you.” But consider another narrative...“Life is a great adventure, full of challenges (and, yes, risks). Let’s go for it!” What narrative are you living out of? What work do you need to do to become your best self? In what ways are you choosing to become an encouraging event in your child’s life?
Let Claudette’s story both challenge and encourage you to be your better self. It sure did that for me!
To hear more about Claudette’s story, check out this piece on NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101719889