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Arrested for refusing to give up bus seat in 1955, she's fighting to clear her record

Months before Rosa Parks became the mother of the modern civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat and move to the back of a segregated Alabama bus, Claudette Colvin did the same.
Julie Jacobson
Months before Rosa Parks became the mother of the modern civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat and move to the back of a segregated Alabama bus, Claudette Colvin did the same.

Updated October 26, 2021 at 5:08 PM ET

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Months before Rosa Parks became the mother of the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a segregated Alabama bus, Black teenager Claudette Colvin did the same. Convicted of assaulting a police officer while being arrested, she was placed on probation yet never received notice that she'd finished the term and was on safe ground legally.

Now 82 and slowed by age, Colvin is asking a judge to end the matter once and for all. She wants a court in Montgomery to wipe away a record that her lawyer said has cast a shadow over the life of a largely unsung hero of the civil rights era.

"I am an old woman now. Having my records expunged will mean something to my grandchildren and great grandchildren. And it will mean something for other Black children," Colvin said in a sworn statement.

Her attorney, Phillip Ensler, said the statement was being filed with legal documents to seal, destroy and erase records of her case. Supporters sang civil rights anthems and clapped as she and her lawyers entered the clerk's office, where the expungement request was filed Tuesday.

Montgomery County's chief prosecutor later said he agreed with the request to clear Colvin's record, removing any doubt that it would be approved.

"I guess you can say that now I am no longer a juvenile delinquent," Colvin told a crowd that included relatives, well wishers and activists after filing the expungement request.

Recalling her arrest, Colvin said: "My mindset was on freedom."

"So I was not going to move that day," she said. "I told them that history had me glued to the seat." And the struggle isn't yet over, she said, adding, "We still have to continue to fight for our freedom and our rights."

Colvin left Alabama at age 20 and spent decades in New York, but relatives always worried what might happen when she returned for visits since no court official ever said she had finished probation, according to Ensler.

"Her family has lived with this tremendous fear ever since then," he said. "For all the recognition of recent years and the attempts to tell her story, there wasn't anything done to clear her record."

Currently living in Birmingham before a move to stay with relatives in Texas, the octogenarian Colvin made her request to a juvenile court judge oddly enough since that's where she was judged delinquent and placed on what, for all practical purposes, amounted to a lifetime of probation, Ensler said.

The city bus system in Montgomery, like the rest of public life across the Deep South, was strictly divided along racial lines in the 1950s. Blacks had to use one water fountain while whites used another; the front of a bus was for white people; Black riders were required by law to move to the back.

Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress and activist with the NAACP, gained worldwide fame after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man on Dec. 1, 1955. Her treatment led to the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott, which propelled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the national limelight and often is considered the start of the modern civil rights movement.

A 15-year-old high school student at the time, Colvin got fed up and refused to move even before Parks.

A bus driver called police on March 2, 1955, to complain that two Black girls were sitting near two white girls and refused to move to the back of the bus. One of the Black girls moved when asked, a police report said, but Colvin refused.

The police report said Colvin put up a struggle as officers removed her from the bus, kicking and scratching an officer. She was initially convicted of violating the city's segregation law, disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer, but she appealed and only the assault charge stuck.

The case was sent to juvenile court because of Colvin's age, and records show a judge found her delinquent and placed her on probation "as a ward of the state pending good behavior." And that's where it ended, Ensler said, with Colvin never getting official word that she'd completed probation and her relatives assuming the worst — that police would arrest her for any reason they could.

Ensler said it's "murky" as to whether Colvin is actually still on probation, but she never had any other arrests or legal scrapes. She even became a named plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit that outlawed racial segregation on Montgomery's buses. Still, Colvin said, the trauma endured, particularly for relatives who constantly worried that police were out to get her.

"My conviction for standing up for my constitutional right terrorized my family and relatives who knew only that they were not to talk about my arrest and conviction because people in town knew me as 'that girl from the bus,'" she said.

The chief court clerk in Montgomery County did not return a phone message about Colvin's request, and Ensler said it was uncertain when a judge might rule.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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