Is it who someone is? Or what they do? The story of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, suggests that a hero is a combination of both.
Even at the age of 15, Claudette Colvin’s conviction that what was happening around her was inhumane led her to do something about it. She believed, as an African American teenager, that it was her constitutional right to remain seated on a segregated bus in 1955 Alabama (nine months before Rosa Parks took the same action), even if a white passenger was demanding her seat. Her act of courage began a chain of events that set off the Montgomery bus boycott.
Hoose begins the book with this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Claudette Colvin had seen adults complain about the injustices of segregation at home, but say and do nothing about them in public. She had watched her schoolmate condemned to death for a crime he did not commit. She called it, “the turning point of my life.” She could not stand by and watch unjust laws terrorize her friends and community. Her brave act of defiance against the segregation laws of the deep South came with a cost. She was not fully supported at the time of her bravery, and she lived “in voluntary exile” much of her life, according to Phillip Hoose when I had a chance to interview him. But she had to live with her conscience.
Struggling with one’s conscience is often challenging, but it can be especially difficult for teens. As a teenager, you do not yet have the rights an adult has; the opinion of one’s peers seems crucially important. And often it seems as if nothing you could do would make a difference anyway. But Claudette Colvin’s example suggests that there’s a great deal we can do as individuals, no matter whether we are adults or teenagers.
This book sets the record straight. It completes the history of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. It lets young people know that the history books do not always tell the full story. But more importantly, it makes clear that history is made up of individuals and singular events, that sweeping social changes begin with one person taking a stand. And, as Claudette Colvin’s story proves, young people are often at the heart of these sweeping social changes. If she can do what’s right in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, her story seems to say, we can, too.