From Barbershops in Champaign, IL to Bus Boycotts
in Montgomery, AL:
All’s Not Fair in 1954 -1955 America
AHTC Reflective Paper
Mary Anne Jusko
Who Made a Difference?
Who Can Make a Difference?
How Far Would You Be Willing to Go to Make a Difference?
As we travel through the journey of our Justice and Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement curriculum in 5th Grade, the questions from students invariably come up. Why should we care? Why do we need to know this? How does it affect us now? What is the Civil Rights Movement, who was involved, and why should we, as 5th graders today in Champaign, IL, care?
Great question, and one that I had time to reflect upon during AHTC’s summer institute on Reform, Reformers, and Reformation. Who are the people that make a difference? We seem to study the same names over and over again, in each grade. And those figures are important. But do you have to be famous to make a difference? Or can anyone, you or I, take a stand and make a difference? Can anyone be a change agent?
WHO MADE A DIFFERENCE?
The book talk at the summer institute by librarian Carol Inskeep helped me to find a concrete example for my students. There for the first time I met a young girl that made such a difference, you could even say she “changed the world.”
“In Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice young readers finally get to hear Claudette Colvin’s story in her own words, giving them a detailed look at segregated life in 1950’s Montgomery, and showing them how one teenager helped change the world.” -Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children’s Defense Fund (Hoose, 2009)
This book is filled with wonderful primary sources, including interviews of Claudette herself, newspaper clippings, letters, and photographs. Every page is filled with primary and secondary sources, which explain the timeline of the civil rights movement clearly and in a highly readable, can’t put it down style! Explaining exactly what Jim Crow means was done better in this book than in any source I have yet found. All key players, including E.D. Nixon, leader of the NAACP at this time; Jo Ann Robinson, English professor at Alabama State College and leader of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council; Fred Gray, Claudette’s lawyer; and Rosa Parks are intertwined into the story of this outspoken teenager who said “when my moment came, I was ready.” (Hoose, 2009)
When my new students come to class this fall, all hands will go up and most of the 5th graders will be able to tell me the story, with fair to excellent accuracy, of Rosa Parks. I look forward to introducing them to another individual, Claudette Colvin, and her courageous act of refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery (March 2, 1955) months before Rosa Parks’ arrest (December 1, 1955). This was Claudette’s first act of bravery. About a year later, she agreed to be a plaintiff in the landmark busing case of Browder vs. Gayle, and this was her second act of bravery. This is the story of young girl, living her life with her friends and family as usual, going to school every day, and as she became aware of injustice and inequality around her, she was willing to step up and put her beliefs into action.
“When it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You just have to take a stand and say, “That’s not right.”” -Claudette Colvin (Hoose, 2009).
Why does every 5th grader know the story of Rosa Parks, yet they have never heard of Claudette Colvin? Intriguing to me is that the Civil Rights leaders at that time, including E.D. Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr. agreed that Claudette Colvin would not be a good role model for the Civil Rights movement – she was too outspoken, shortly later became a teen mother, and would not be accepted by most of the conservative people living during this time period. Leaders would not ask for an all-town bus boycott using the injustice done to Claudette Colvin, who was dragged and kicked, feet first, to the police station, all while screaming that she had a constitutional right to sit in that seat. Rosa Parks was considered a much better role model, soft-spoken, attractive, and quietly working hard in the community with civil rights issues. One day she was so tired and didn’t want to get up from her bus seat, and she was reported. She walked quietly with the police, paid her fine, and went home, never intending to become the acclaimed figure and brave civil rights leader that she became! It seems ironic, yet leaders were now ready to put Rosa’s face on the bus boycott, to appeal to more people, which is understandable.
Also interesting is the court case that followed, in which Fred Gray, Claudette’s lawyer, took the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama to court. He rationalized that if segregated schools were already unconstitutional (Brown vs. Board of Education), then wouldn’t segregated buses be as well? The author makes a clear case here that yes, people can make a difference, and any of us can step up for what is right and make a difference, but it is the court cases that make the real change.
“All the boycotts and sit-ins and marches in themselves did not cure the illness of discrimination. It was the court decisions that did it. ” –Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. (Hoose, 2009)
Locally, around the same time period, on February 11th, 1954, Don Stokes, a black U of I student, would step into a situation in which he would become a change agent. He walked into John’s Barbershop on Green Street in Champaign, and, as he was waiting for his turn, the barber announced that he was closing. He left the shop, then Tom Rowan, also from the U of I, got up and refused to get his haircut, and left. This was a “test” to see if barbershops were in fact closing when black customers arrived.
The Urbana Free Library archives houses five newspaper clips that tell the story of a Barbershop Boycott. The story begins with the article “Negro Enters; Shop Closes”, the story of Tom Rowan just mentioned. In a nutshell, barbershops began putting up closed signs in various forms when blacks wanted a haircut. As a result, the Student-Community Human Relations Council set up several “tests” of shops in the campus area to test the waters. The five articles cover topics such as mention of preliminary hearings in a discrimination suit, five barber shops closing on Feb. 19th, 1954, with meetings proposed for the YMCA racial equality committee, the barbers, and their lawyers, to hear all sides. The series of articles ends with agreements reached and barbershop picketing called off.
( see attachments)
(See also the attachment entitled “More Civil Rights Materials” for a brief list of available artifacts in the Champaign County Historical Archives)
WHO CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
This case of Gray’s, Browder vs. Gayle, in which Claudette was one of the plaintiffs, was proof any one of us, with the right timing and strength of character, can be a change agent. The case would not have been possible without people like Claudette, and the other four women acting as plaintiffs that had similar experiences as she did.
“Browder vs. Gayle changed relationships of blacks and whites in America and the world.” –Filmmaker and journalist William Dickerson-Warheed, Rivers of Change (Hoose, 2009).
Students need to know that they can make a difference; we all can make a difference. Studying these more unknown but just as important individuals to supplement our over teaching of the same few famous names in the Civil Rights movement provides the link to the students that they need to relate the people and events to their own lives.
HOW FAR WOULD YOU BE WILLING TO GO TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Claudette Colvin and Don Stokes are individuals that will help my students see that anyone can be a change agent. Revealing their stories through research, document analysis, rich discussions, and follow-up activities will help us realize that we all should care, we should all speak up, when injustice is done.
SUGGESTED CLASS ACTIVITIES
1. Read aloud the book “Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice” by Phillip Hoose
a. Investigate further any sub-topic from the book that interests the students – share in a report, speech, or poster.
b. 3-2-1 Activity: Write three things you learned from the book, write two questions you have about the book, and write one thing that you are still concerned about, wonder about, or are amazed about. Share.
c. Assign book for independent reading, or a guided reading group.
d. Pick any primary source from the book. Try to find that source on the Internet. Fill out a document analysis worksheet to see what you can learn from the document. (See website resources)
2. Investigate the court case of Browder vs. Gayle. Hold a mock trial.
3. Study the 5 newspaper clips of the Barbershop Boycott. Fill out a document analysis worksheet. (See website resources)
4. Write Readers’ Theatre scripts for scenes from the Civil Rights Movement.
a. Claudette Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat to a white woman
b. Scenes from the bus boycott in which people had to find alternate ways for months to get around to shop, work, school, etc. Include the taxi system that was set up.
c. The story of the life of Claudette Colvin
d. The story of when Don Stokes entered John’s Barbershop and was refused a haircut
5. Make a timeline showing the events of:
a. Claudette Colvin’s life (use book and/or sites listed below)
b. Bus Boycott
c. Barbershop Boycott in Champaign, IL (use newspaper clips attached)
d. Court cases during the Civil Rights Movement
e. A time you experienced an unfairness or a prejudice
6. Write essays
a. Write the biography of Claudette Colvin’s life
b. Explain what happened to Don Stokes, using information from the newspaper clip “Negro Enters; Shop Closes” 2-11-54 (attached). Include your reactions.
c. Pick an event from Claudette’s life, and write about it.
d. Persuade someone NOT TO ride the bus during the bus boycott, or NOT TO get his or her hair cut at a certain barbershop
e. Persuade someone to picket a barbershop or a restaurant that refuses service to blacks.
f. Tell about a time that you witnessed or experienced an event that was not fair, or that was not right, that was unjust. How did it make you feel? What did you do, if anything, about it?
g. How far would YOU be willing to go if you lived in 1954 in Montgomery and had to give up your seat? OR if you lived in Champaign and the barber told you he was closed, when you knew he wasn’t? Tell what you would do.
h. How far would YOU be willing to go NOW, living where you do, if you witnessed an injustice? Describe the injustice, and what you would be willing to do as a change agent.
Browder v. Gayle: The Women Before Rosa Parks on the Teaching Tolerance Website
Unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement (court cases)
March 6, 2009 Newsweek article about Claudette Colvin
Website for all graphic organizers
Hoose, P. (2009). Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. New York, New York, USA: Farrar Straus Giroux.