Out of Obscurity, Into History

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
by Philip Hoose
(Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2009, $19.95)

Most biographies describe a well-known figure’s path to fame and maturity. In Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Philip Hoose focuses on the adolescence of a brave woman history almost forgot.

Every American student knows Rosa Parks, the African-American seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, who refused to give up her seat for a white passenger in December 1955. Few study Claudette Colvin, the fifteen year old girl who took the same bold step six months earlier. Unlike Parks, who planned her civil disobedience with the full backing of the NAACP, Colvin acted spontaneously and alone. Later, she was a key witness in Browder vs. Gayle, the court case that ended bus segregation.

But despite Colvin’s courage, she was a working-class black girl in the Jim Crow south. Forgotten by adult civil rights leaders, discriminated against by whites, the bright, idealistic teenager faced poverty and single motherhood – and watched her dreams of law school evaporate.

Hoose tells Claudette Colvin’s story with the respect and nuance she deserves. In fact, Claudette’s words, gathered during multiple interviews, comprise much of the book. Interspersed with her moving first-person narrative is Hoose’s account of the personal and political events that led to bus desegregation. Period photographs, advertisements, and newspaper clippings illustrate both the cruel absurdity of segregation and the quiet strength of those who opposed it.

Fascinating and highly readable for both teens and adults, Claudette Colvin is a portrait of a thoughtful teenager who turned her anger into social action. Let’s hope Hoose’s book inspires a few more teens to social consciousness – and civil disobedience.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

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