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Unsung Heroes

Legislature building

How much black history do you actually remember? Do you think or even talk about it between March and January each year? With February 2023 now behind us, we must wait another year before the next iteration of Black History Month. The annual government-designated month long observance not only reminds us how easy it is to pay lip service to the remembrance of the people of the African diaspora; it also reminds us that, in our collective mind, not all heroes are created equal. That many stories are forgotten at the benefit of grand narratives. That many are the unsung heroes hidden behind the veil of the most popular stories. In our Canadian schools, for instance, we covered a great deal of American content. We played all the United States’s greatest hits—the Kings, the Parks, and the Obamas. Perhaps some secondary schools dug deeper and gave honourable mentions to Booker T. Washington, Dubois, and Douglass, but who knows?

It is an unfortunate Canadian fact that we forget our own heroes as we give the stage to those from the south of us. Think Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893), the first black woman to publish a newspaper in North America. She also established a racially integrated school in Windsor, Ontario. Remember her? What of Lincoln Alexander (1922-2012), the first black Member of Parliament? In 1985, he was appointed as Canada’s Lieutenant Governor and became the first visible minority to hold this position. Remember him? And what about Violet King (1929-1982), the first black woman lawyer in Canada? The list could go on, but I’ll keep it brief. Now, other than Viola Davis, whose face is now on the 10-dollar bill, how many of those names do you actually remember? Or even recognize?

Play with me for a moment and read the following passage I have dramatically recreated for you. Identify the person I am referring to (without reading ahead) and try to remember the first time you heard the story. You’ve definitely heard this story before as it is a commonly told American civil rights story. Come with me on this journey back through a prominent black history month story retold every year.

It’s March 2, 1955, the cooler months are ending, and the temperature rises steadily. Every day now we anticipate the heat, which only worsens as months go by here in the South. Today, my school, the Booker T. Washington School has let out, and the streets are getting busier. I stare down the road and consider my walk home. I look over my shoulder and the green and gold bus appears. Friends are waiting, and I think I will join them (1). We board the bus, which is almost full, and the four of us shuffle down the aisle—five, maybe six rows from the front. This is where we have to sit, that line, always that line, invisible yet clearly demarcated by our reality.
As the bus is about to leave, one last woman gets on, but there isn’t a seat available. She slowly walks down the aisle, past three rows then four, eyes narrowed, her pale white sullen face expressionless almost. She walks all the way to the line, that invisible line and there is no need to go further. What is beyond the line is of no importance to her; she turns back towards the driver, her options are in that direction, not the other. There is no need to look further.
I see the driver’s eyes in his rear-view mirror. The woman and he exchange glances, and he blinks slowly. I can’t hear the sound of the road anymore, nor can I feel the breeze through the window. That confined space feels smaller now, the contraction of space is familiar, almost like that part of a breath we are used to taking constantly yet somehow always feels tighter during the inhale. “I need those seats,” the driver’s voice bellowed from the front. (5) That was it, just four words, the same four words, heard countless times by countless people before. Nothing to process, the action and the reaction had been normalized, routinized; the script had been written a long time ago. You are supposed to follow the script; it is the normal order.
The two people sitting across the aisle and the one sitting beside me immediately rise from their seats. They walk further back and remain standing as the script dictates. My feet feel heavy, weighing me down like they are stuck to the floor of the bus. I don’t say a word, I don’t have a word to say, there is no word in the script. In my periphery, I can see the empty seats across the aisle from me, they are available, they are perfectly good seats. Those seats were vacated by two people so as to benefit the one person standing. Not an elderly person. Not someone who needed two seats. Just one person who walked up to the line, saw no room and expected the line to be moved.
Yes, that invisible line demarcated by our reality; it shifted while I sat in my seat. Now I was on the wrong side and I haven’t even moved. I hear rumbling voices, angry and confused, I cannot make out what they are saying, it is all happening so fast and yet somehow everything feels like it is moving in slow motion. My feet feel like they are in thick mud, the muscles in my legs are tense, my back is stiff and I am acutely aware of the bead of sweat rolling down from my hair line. Those open seats across from me are not yet good enough, they are not yet usable, because the line shifted below me while I sat in the same place and I am now in the wrong row. Under the twisted understanding and application of the Plessey doctrine (3,8) this is not separate because she would have to share the row with me if she sat down, that could not happen, she had to be closer to the front and I had to be behind the line (4).
A voice tells me to get up. I cannot tell if it’s coming from behind me, from in front of me or from within me. My body isn’t moving. It feels as though Harriet Tubman's hands are pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth's hands were pushing down on the other (1). I paid my fare, I should have rights, and she can sit on one of the available seats. I stay behind the line and the line moves. The bus doesn’t stop, but the air gets heavier. The space seems smaller; that confined space is closing in. Then the bus jerks and comes to a stop. The silence is deafening, although I am not entirely certain it is really silent on that bus. The driver is having an animated conversation with two policemen at the junction at which the bus had come to a stop.
Within a few minutes, which seem like an hour to me, the two policemen board the bus (1). The sound of their boots as they walk past the first few rows of the bus sound like an army marching towards me; it is all consuming as I stare down at the floor, afraid but defiant. I paid my fare, I should have rights. That is all I could focus on. How is this separate but equal. I do not feel equal, I am not equal, not in this moment or any other moment before this.
A commotion followed, I do not fully remember the conversation, although conversation is hardly a fair description of what transpired. My books went flying and I felt a strong hand grab my arm, I don’t know how I ended up off the bus, I was told later that it was an uncouth display as I was kicked and dragged backwards off the bus, the details of which are buried and recessed deep in my pained subconscious. I was in the back of the police car and I remember clearly when they asked me to stick my hands out the window (1). I felt the cold hard steel push against my wrist, my bones felt every vibration as the single strand of the handcuff pushed against my arm, the loud sound of the ratchets clicking as the handcuffs tightened.
After her arrest, the community rallied and a number of black leaders raised money for her defence. At the time, local black leaders believed that her case was an appropriate one to litigate all the way to the United States Supreme Court, as part of a broader effort to overturn segregation laws in the South. A little-known, twenty-six year-old preacher of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church made his political debut fighting her arrest (4). On December 5, 1955, forty thousand African-American bus passengers boycotted the Montgomery Alabama bus system, black leaders met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), electing the young pastor as their president. (1) On May 11, 1956, she testified in a Montgomery federal court hearing about her actions on the bus. Because the case challenged the constitutionality of a state statute, the case was brought before a three-judge U.S. District Court panel. On June 19, 1956, the panel ruled two-to-one that segregation on Alabama’s intrastate buses was unconstitutional, that Montgomery’s segregation codes “deny and deprive plaintiffs and other Negro citizens similarly situated of the equal protection of the laws and due process of law secured by the Fourteenth Amendment” (2).
On December 17, 1956, the Supreme Court rejected city and state appeals to reconsider their decision. Three days later, on the December 20, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on the buses must end and affirmed the June ruling (1). That same day, the young preacher and the MIA voted to end the three-hundred-and-eighty-one-day bus boycott. The Montgomery buses were integrated the following day. The pastor, in an address at a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, stated that “separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that the old Plessy Doctrine of separate but equal is no longer valid, either sociologically or legally.” (9) That then-defiant act was one of the most significant moments, even a watershed event in the American civil rights movement (2). Most of us can name the courageous woman who refused to yield her seat and the young preacher that led the way.

The passage above is a story I use in a diversity lecture I have delivered both for students on campus and in presentations for corporate clients. At the end of the story, I always ask the audience if they are familiar with it. The answers are always an emphatic, “yes of course!” I follow with, “who is the pastor?” Almost all of them in unison shout, "The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr!” And finally I ask, “who is the woman?” And the response is just as quick and confident, “Rosa Parks!” I usually pause until the room has settled into a quiet silence, a practice that I think is unsettling to the vast majority of my students and people in the general public who come to hear me speak. As I stand at the front of the room, I see people begin to shift and squirm in their seats.

At this point, they have a quizzical look on their face; some of them checking their schedules wondering if that they are, in fact, in the wrong room… Perhaps this is a civics class, not the course they were enrolled in or the presentation they had signed up for. Others wonder if something happened somewhere else in the room that has forced me to stop; there are always at least a couple of people who figure that the eccentric professor at the front of the room has forgotten his next line. What none of them seem to do, however, is wondering if there is something wrong with the responses they provided.

Why would they? They have heard this story many times before—from elementary to high school to post-secondary. In history classes and in civic classes. From social studies to black history month. It’s a defining story of the American Civil Rights movement. A story they can’t not know. Many remember watching the news when then-U.S. President Barrack Obama unveiled the Rosa Park statue on February 27, 2013. The New York Times wrote, “the statue of Rosa Parks captured her waiting to be arrested in 1955, after she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger on a crowded segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She is seated, clutching her purse as she looks out of an unseen window waiting for the police” (14).

After what I’m sure seems like an eternity to the audience, I begin my lecture again. I tell them they were half correct and, fortunately for them, this was not a graded activity because they would have all received a whopping fifty percent… Not quite an “F”, but a far cry from an “A+”. The pastor is none other than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, but the woman in the story is not Rosa Parks. I remind them of the very first line of the story I narrated” “It is March 2, 1955…” that would be a full nine months before the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955 (5).

As a point of fact, I could have told them a story about Aurelia Browder a thirty-six-year-old woman who was arrested in April of 1955 (10), or of Mary Louise Smith an eighteen-year-old woman arrested in October of 1955 (12), or of Susie McDonald commonly known as Miss Sue a woman in her seventies who was also arrested in October 1955 (11). Instead, I told them the story from March 2, 1955, about a fifteen-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin, the first person to be arrested for challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation policies (1). What all those women have in common is that they were all arrested for refusing to give up their seats on a Montgomery, Alabama bus before Rosa Parks.

It was these four women who we must call by name, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, who served as plaintiffs in the legal action challenging Montgomery's segregated public transportation system. It was their case known as Browder v. Gayle that the district court and, ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court, would use to strike down segregation on buses (6). So, why did no one in the audiences respond with Colvin’s name? It is not merely a matter of forgetting a lesson from primary of secondary school. Narratives are shaped by history, the contexts of their time and the inevitable myth and ideology building that occurs over time. The reality is the lesson about Colvin and the other plaintiffs in the Browder v Gayle is not generally taught.

You can draw a direct line from the decision-making and strategy from 1955 to our modern era. At that time, prominent members of her own community felt Colvin’s social station was not ideal for the launch of a social movement. Her father mowed lawns and her mother was a maid. They lived in King Hill, a very poor section Montgomery; she was a teenager considered “too young and too dark-skinned to be an effective symbol of injustice for the rest of the nation.”(2) When Claudette Colvin and her family members were asked about the incident more that forty years later, they would explain that her family never discussed the event much; Claudette’s mother believed they shouldn’t say anything that took away from Rosa Parks, who was already considered the mother of the civil rights movement (2).

Claudette’s position was fairly straight forward. She said, “let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation” (2). Colvin’s mother’s position demonstrates the lived understanding of people whose social position is routinely challenged, whose sense of identity is questioned. She pragmatically stated to her own daughter, “Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa - her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.” (4)

Rosa Parks was neither handcuffed nor jailed (5) and was released after being found guilty of disorderly conduct. She also had to pay a ten-dollar fine plus four dollars in court costs. (13) Parks was convicted under city law, and her lawyer filed a notice of appeal. While her appeal was tied up in the State Court of Appeals, the Browder v. Gayle case ruling was settled (7). In November 1957, in a general settlement of the bus boycott cases, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks dropped their appeals to the state Supreme Court and paid their fines (13). Rosa Parks, who died in 2005, received the highest civilian honours from the American White House and Congress. (14) Claudette Colvin, on her end, has a street named after her. (15) She also has her name on a granite marker along with the other plaintiffs in the Browder v Gayle case. The marker is placed near a life-sized statue of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama that was unveiled in 2019 by Mayor Steven Reed, the first African-American mayor of Montgomery. (16)

My intent has always been to get my audience to explore the benefits of being open-minded and willing to explore a variety of perspectives. Why? To grow our collective reservoir of available objective knowledge. Yet each time I discover that making people uncomfortable often is the leading cause of mental shutdown. Even though I utilize the same speech with audiences at different age and life stages, the consistency in reaction between college age students and the general public perplexes me. There seems to be a greater commonality and fondness for the myths and ideologies that shape our worldviews, sometimes with little regard for historical nuance.

Martin Luther King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, David J. Garrow famously said; “It’s an important reminder that crucial change is often ignited by very plain, unremarkable people who then disappear” (4). This article was written as a tribute to all those people our social icons are meant to represent. This one is for all the unsung heroes out there past, present and future.


















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