You've probably never heard of Claudette Colvin. And yet, had history twisted in a slightly different direction, she might loom as large in American memory as Rosa Parks does now while Parks herself would be a little-remembered seamstress.
Colvin, you see, did what Parks did, nine months before Parks did it. In March of 1955, the African-American high school girl refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. Local civil rights leaders had been seeking a test case around which to build their fight against segregation on the buses and briefly considered rallying around her.
But it turned out Colvin had used some pungent language in defending her right to her seat. She cried and struggled against the police who arrested her. Worse, the 15-year-old was pregnant. Knowing white Montgomery would seize upon these things to attack her, civil rights leaders passed on Colvin and bided their time.
Their patience paid off in December when bus driver J.F. Blake demanded the dignified and reserved Parks, 42, give up her seat. She said, "No," then submitted quietly to arrest. Still, most of us would agree Colvin's pregnancy and behavior had no bearing upon the only salient question: Was segregation wrong? Although civil-rights leaders had no practical choice but to take those issues into account, they were nevertheless irrelevant to the issue at hand.
Much as many of the questions being asked about Michael Brown are now. In the days since the unarmed 18-year-old black man was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, some of us have acted as if the important questions here are: Did he shoplift cigars from a convenience store? Did he strong-arm the proprietor? Was he a bad kid?
Here's a blanket answer: Who cares?
Not to deny those things are newsworthy. But they are also useless in answering or even framing the one question that really matters: Was Brown, as witnesses say he was, standing with hands raised in surrender when he was killed? If the answer to any of those other questions is yes, they justify him ending that fateful day in jail -- not lying face-down on a street.
We've seen this before. The national dialogue on the shooting of Trayvon Martin came to be dominated by arguments over how he was dressed, his suspension from school and his marijuana use instead of the central question of whether George Zimmerman was justified in following and shooting him.
Now here's one Linda Chavez writing in the New York Post that it is somehow misleading -- too sympathetic, perhaps -- to describe Brown as an "unarmed ... teenager," although he was, in fact, exactly that. Meantime, The New York Times observes that Brown "was no angel." But do you need to be an angel not to deserve getting shot while unarmed?
Some of us, it seems, need Brown to be the personification of hulking, menacing black manhood. Others, it must be said, need him to be a harmless teddy bear. But he was, by most accounts, just a middling man of both flaws and promise, challenges and hope who was yet in the process of becoming -- not unlike many kids his age, black and white. Not unlike Claudette Colvin.
Has nothing changed since 1955? Must we await the coming of the Rosa-Parks-of-getting-shot-while-unarmed before we can address how the nation's perception of young black men as somehow inherently dangerous too often leads to undeserved suspensions, dismissals, incarceration and death?
Shame on us if that's what it takes. Human rights are not contingent upon character reference and background check. So it is immaterial whether Michael Brown was a bad kid. Or, for that matter, a good one.
He was a kid who may not have deserved what he got. And that's the only thing that matters.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.