The Blind Spot
in Black History Month
Black History Month began in America in 1925 as "Negro History Week." It was created by Dr. Carter Woodson, who believed that blacks had become a 'blind spot' in the teaching of American history, that Americans were not learning of the historical contributions made by blacks.
Today, it seems, youth are a major blind spot in examinations of American history, and it is ironic that, even during Black History Month, there is little mention of the contributions youth made to the Civil Rights Movement.
Every February, we hear again the story of old Rosa Parks. We hear of the courage and dignity this black woman displayed when she refused to yield her bus seat to a white passenger. We hear how this sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. Yet we hear nothing of Claudette Colvin.
Claudette Colvin: Rosa Parks'
Several months before Parks, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same thing in the same city. One day in 1955, Colvin and three other black women sitting in the middle of a bus were asked to give up their seats to white passengers. Two did. Colvin and an elderly woman refused. When the bus driver called police, the elderly woman fled. Young Ms. Colvin, however, refused to run. She bravely waited for the cops to arrest her.
After police took Colvin away in handcuffs, some activists considered using this case as their catalyst to attack segregated seating on busses. Most of these activists ultimately decided to turn their backs. They feared the larger community would not support this teenager and therefore would not support her cause, ending segregation.
Later that same year, Rosa Parks followed Colvin's example of brave defiance, refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger, and got arrested just as Colvin did. This time, civil rights activists such as E.D. Nixon and Martin Luther King rallied behind Parks and finally launched the boycott they had considered launching over the Colvin arrest.
Today, Rosa Parks is a celebrated heroine and a household name, invoked by Presidents and sit-com characters, held up as a symbol of dignity and courage. Young Claudette Colvin, who displayed the same heroism, the same dignity and courage, is ignored and forgotten.
Every February, we hear as well about the famous legal case that ended segregation in schools, Brown v. Board of Education. We hear well-deserved praise for lawyer Thurgood Marshall, yet we hear nothing of the role played by 16-year-old Barbara Johns.
Barbara Johns: American hero
Since the older civil rights activists had failed to get better funding for the school, Johns announced, it was now up to the students to get the job done. They organized a student strike. They also asked the NAACP to file a lawsuit to obtain better funding. Lawyers said they would not do that but would instead sue to desegregate the schools. Johns and her fellow students accepted the compromise, and that legal case merged with a few less dramatic cases to became, yes, Brown v. Board of Education.
Because Barbara Johns was a teenager, she got little fame then for her achievement and is all-but-forgotten today. As Taylor Branch put it in his Pulitzer-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63:
"[T]he case remained muffled in white consciousness, and the schoolchild origins of the lawsuit were lost as well on nearly all Negroes outside Prince Edward County. ... The idea that non-adults of any race might play a leading role in political events had simply failed to register on anyone — except perhaps the Klansmen who burned a cross in the Johns' yard one night, and even then people thought their target might not have been Barbara but her notorious firebrand uncle."Because she was young, her heroism is ignored and forgotten. This is why we need Youth History Month.
Next February, as teachers and advertisers and political leaders urge us to remember the contributions of blacks to history, it might be a good time to urge them to remember the contributions of youth to history, including black history.