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Gary Younge
She would not be moved (continued)

Robinson recalls: "She needed encouragement, for since her conviction as a law violator her head was not held so high. She did not look people straight in the eye as before." She received a scholarship to the local, historically black university, Alabama State, even though the college authorities were none too keen on having a "troublemaker" on campus.

The tears kept coming. She dropped out. She could not find work in Montgomery because as soon as white people found out what she had done, they fired her. "I just couldn't get a job. I'd change my name so that I could work in a restaurant, and they'd find out who I was and that was it. I ran out of identities." Even when she did get work, it was humiliating. "I had this baby of my own and yet I had to leave him with my mother so I could babysit for white people who hated me."

In the space of a few years, a confident A-grade student had passed through the eye of a political storm and emerged a bedraggled outcast. "It changed my life," she says. "I became aware of how the world is and how the white establishment plays black people against each other."

She believes, however, that they were right to choose someone such as Rosa Parks as a standard-bearer. "They picked the right person. They needed someone who could bring together all the classes. They wouldn't have followed me. They wanted someone who would shake hands and go to banquets. They wanted someone they could control, and they knew, as a teenager, they couldn't control me."

But she also believes that they were wrong not to support her in her time of need. "They weren't there for me when I tried to make a comeback. I thought maybe they would help me get a degree, or talk to someone about getting me work. I thought they could get me together with Rosa Parks and we could go out together and talk to children."

Similarly, Patton believes that the pragmatic decision not to put Colvin in the spotlight at first was probably correct, but that it does not excuse a wilful negligence to acknowledge her contribution afterwards. "I have no problem with them not lifting up Colvin in 1955. I have a problem with them not lifting her up in 1970. Rosa Parks could have said many times [in the intervening years. 'And there were others'."

Colvin's life after Montgomery is a metaphor for postwar black America. As the struggle moved from civil rights to economic rights, Colvin followed the route of the great migration and went north to a low-paid job and urban deprivation. She left Montgomery for New York in 1958 to work as a live-in domestic and soon became accustomed to the differences and similarities between north and south.

While the power relationship of maid and madam was the same, she encountered less petty racism and institutionalised indignity in the north. In the south, a live-in domestic would never dream of washing her own clothes with those of her employers. So when she came down one day to find her employer's laundry dumped on top of hers with a polite request to wash them at the same time, she was shocked. "That's when I knew I was out of the South. That could just never have happened there."

At the start, she occasionally travelled back to Montgomery by bus with baby Raymond to see her parents and look for work in a place where her family could lend support, but no one would employ her. A year later, she fell pregnant again, and in 1960 gave birth to Randy. The pressure of making ends meet in the urban north with two infants and no family became too much.

In what was a common arrangement at the time, she left Raymond and Randy with her mother in Montgomery as she sought work in the north. Things got tough. A couple of times she even considered going into prostitution. "The only thing that kept me out of it was the other things that go with it. Stealing, drugging people. I figured that after the first time the physical thing wouldn't matter so much, but I couldn't get involved in all the other stuff."

At one and the same time, she had become both more independent and more vulnerable, and looking for some evidence for the gains of the civil rights era in her own life. "What we got from that time was what was on the books anyhow. Working-class people were the foot soldiers, but where are they now - they haven't seen any progress. It was the middle classes who were able to take advantage of the laws."

Her two boys took wildly divergent paths. Like many African-American men, Raymond, the unborn child she was carrying during the heady days of 1955, joined the US army. Like all too many, he later became involved in drugs and died of an overdose in her apartment. Like many others, Randy emerged successful and moved back down south, to Atlanta, where he now works as an accountant. Colvin has five grandchildren.

Earlier this month, Troy State University opened a Rosa Parks museum in Montgomery to honour the small town's place in civil rights history on its 45th anniversary. Roy White, who was responsible for much of what went into the museum, called Colvin to ask if she would appear in a video to tell her story. She refused. "They've already called it the Rosa Parks museum, so they've already made up their minds what the story is."

He suggested that maybe she would achieve some closure by participating. "What closure can there be for me?" she asks with exasperation. "There is no closure. This does not belong in a museum, because this struggle is not over. We still don't have all that we should have. And, personally, there can be no closure. They took away my life. If they want closure, they should give it to my grandchildren."

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Stranger in a Strange Land – Encounters in the Disunited States
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