Kid Lit Review of “Because Claudette” by Tracey Baptiste 

Claudette Colvin was born in 1939. Because, at age 15, in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 2, 1955, she refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person, she was arrested. Few people are aware of the role she played nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing in the same place.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted to organize a bus boycott, but chose Rosa Parks to be the face of the movement. Although the book doesn’t tell you this, Claudette was unmarried and pregnant, and civil rights campaigners feared, as Rosa Parks later stated: “If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have [had] a field day. They’d call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn’t have a chance.”

Rosa Parks, on the other hand, was deemed by the black leadership to be sufficiently respectable to serve as a rallying point for a boycott. In addition, the leadership thought she – humble yet dignified, would make a good impression on white judges.

Still, Claudette was one of the plaintiffs testifying in Browder v. Gayle, the first federal case to challenge bus segregation in the city. On June 5, 1956, the U.S. District Court panel ruled two-to-one that segregation on Alabama’s intrastate buses was unconstitutional, citing Brown v. Board of Education as precedent for the verdict. King applauded the victory but called for a continuation of the Montgomery bus boycott until the ruling was implemented.

The author reports that Claudette’s classmates shunned her for causing trouble, but in an important sense, Claudette didn’t consider herself to be alone:

“Because she had studied Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass at school, she learned how they worked hard and caused trouble so Black people would be treated fairly.”

The Alabama Supreme Court finally upheld rulings changing busing laws, and on December 20, 1956, the bus boycott ended. “On December 21, 1956,” Baptiste writes, “anyone could sit wherever they liked on the bus.” She adds: “And all of it happened because of Claudette.”

An Author’s Note and list for further reading follows.

Wonderful illustrations by Tonya Engel in acrylic and oil are vivid and colorful, and show appropriate period touches.

Not to gainsay Claudette’s initiative and courage, but in fact, a large number of people had been working to change Jim Crow laws in Montgomery Alabama. The planning for a bus boycott had been taking place since 1949. It required a significant investment of time and resources by the Civil Rights Movement. Word had to get out to the black community, leaflets printed and distributed, ministers asked to spread the word, negotiating demands drawn up, and most importantly, alternative transportation had to be put into place for all the blacks who relied on the bus to get to their jobs, doctor’s appointments, shopping, etc. Volunteer cars were needed, and volunteer drivers, for those who could not walk. It took a lot of bravery and sacrifice by many people to effect change, but Claudette’s story should certainly receive more attention.

As NPR reports, Claudette was the first to really challenge the busing law in Montgomery. And she was just a teenager, and scared. (Not reported in this book for children is the fact that on the ride to the police station the officers berated Colvin and made sexually inappropriate comments about her body. Colvin recounted that: “All ride long they swore at me and ridiculed me. They took turns trying to guess my bra size. They called me ‘nigger bitch’ and cracked jokes about part of my body.” A biography about her by Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice added that one of the police officers sat in the back seat with her. This made her very scared that they would sexually assault her because this happened frequently.)

The officers took Colvin to the city jail where bail was later posted by her pastor and aunt. She was not allowed a phone call but unbeknownst to her and the officers, her classmates on the bus called her mother to inform her of Claudette’s arrest. Colvin had been charged by police with violating the city’s segregation law, disturbing the peace, and assault.

She remembered when the jail door closed on her: “And then I got scared, and panic come over me, and I started crying. Then I started saying the Lord’s Prayer.”

Evaluation: This book for readers age 6 and over shows that brave, consequential acts can be taken by someone at any age.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2022

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