On March 2, 1955, a black girl boarded a bus in a mid-size city in Alabama. She took a seat toward the front, something she knew went against the laws of the Jim Crow South. She didn’t get up as more white people boarded the bus. When the driver told her to move to the back, she refused. She did the same when two police officers commanded her to move. As police officers forcibly removed her from the bus in handcuffs, she repeatedly exclaimed that she had constitutional rights. Still, she was later convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the state’s segregation law and assault.
Civil rights activists had long wanted to wage a campaign against segregation on public transit, but this girl— Claudette Colvin—wouldn’t serve as the public face. Although she was active in her NAACP’s youth council, the Birmingham native didn’t fit the bill. She was 15, visibly poor, and soon, visibly pregnant, qualities that some civil rights leaders saw as flaws. Nine months later Rosa Parks—a middle class, churchgoing 42-year-old who served as the secretary of her local NAACP and a mentor to Colvin—refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Colvin never became a household name, but Parks’ planned act of civil disobedience made her one of the most recognizable and admired black victims of white racism of the 20th century. “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” Colvin, who is dark-skinned, said 50 years later in an interview with NPR. “She fit that profile.”
In other words Parks was a perfect victim. Her morals were unassailed.
Today, if we are to believe law enforcement and personal responsibility-loving politicians such as President Obama, black victims of white racism must still, as Colvin put it, “fit the profile.” Their victimhood is only supposed to matter if their lives are pristine. That’s why St. Louis County law enforcement keeps trying to chip away at the popular image of Michael Brown as a college-bound gentle giant. Last Friday, while identifying the 18-year-old’s killer as Officer Darren Wilson, local police released surveillance footage from a convenience store that allegedlly shows Brown stealing cigars and assaulting a clerk. (Later that day, Police Chief Thomas Jackson admitted that Wilson didn’t know that Brown was a suspect.) On Monday, unnamed sources from the St. Louis County medical examiner’s office told The Washington Post that Brown had marijuana in his blood at the time of his killing.
And so does his killing.