• Wed. Dec 1st, 2021


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Claudette Colvin, Civil Rights Pioneer, Seeks to Have Her Record Cleared

Minutes before the white bus driver told Claudette Colvin in 1955 to give her seat to a white woman, she had been looking out the window, thinking of a Black boy from her neighborhood in Montgomery, Ala., who had been sentenced to death. She remembers thinking of her English teacher’s lesson about understanding and taking pride in her history.

Get off, several white passengers told her. Ms. Colvin, who was 15, stayed put, and was promptly arrested.

“History had me glued to the seat,” she recalled six decades later.

Ms. Colvin, who refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus on March 2, 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks, filed a petition on Tuesday to have her juvenile arrest record expunged, saying in an affidavit that justice from the court system was overdue.

“I’m not doing it for me, I’m 82 years old,” Ms. Colvin said in an interview on Tuesday. “But I wanted my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to understand that their grandmother stood up for something very important, and that it changed our lives a lot, changed attitudes.”

While Mrs. Parks’s story is well known, Ms. Colvin’s role in the Montgomery bus boycott and the broader civil rights movement has been overlooked. And yet the significance of her defiance that day was widely recognized among the emerging leaders of the movement, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who met with city and bus company officials after her arrest. Ms. Colvin would later serve as the star witness in the landmark case that effectively ended bus segregation.

Ms. Colvin filed her petition in family court in Montgomery County, where her case was processed in 1955. The petition says that clearing Ms. Colvin’s record “serves in the interest of justice and further, acknowledges her integral role in the civil rights movement.”

Credit…AP Photo/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

She was initially convicted of violating the city’s segregation law and of disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer. But she appealed and was sentenced to probation only on the assault charge, which may have been for “something as small as accidentally stepping on an officer’s toes,” said her lawyer, Phillip Ensler.

One police officer kicked her while another dragged her backward off the bus and handcuffed her, according to “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice” by Phillip Hoose, which won a National Book Award in 2009. On the way to the police station, the officers took turns guessing her bra size, Mr. Hoose wrote.

“We were treated like second-class citizens,” she said on Tuesday.

Ms. Colvin moved to the Bronx after her conviction, but returned to Montgomery at the peak of the bus boycott that Mrs. Parks had subsequently sparked. Black leaders at the time believed that since Mrs. Parks had lighter skin, she would be a better face of the movement and more likely win sympathy from white people.

“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did,” Ms. Colvin told The New York Times in 2009. “She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’”

Mrs. Parks and Ms. Colvin weren’t the only ones who made waves in Montgomery in 1955. Lucille Times’s altercation with a white bus driver in June of that year led to a one-woman boycott of the city’s public transportation system, helping to inspire the mass boycott that came after Mrs. Parks was charged with defying the same driver.

Ms. Colvin has said that she came to terms with her “raw feelings” about her place in history a long time ago. “I know in my heart that she was the right person,” she told The Times in 2009, referring to Mrs. Parks.

Ms. Colvin would end up testifying in federal court in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that effectively ended bus segregation in 1956. The lawsuit was filed by Fred D. Gray, a legal force during the civil rights movement.

Mr. Gray was once again by Ms. Colvin’s side on Tuesday. He said in an interview on Monday that “there should never have been a record in the first place.”

“In her case and in all these other persons that I have represented, the records should be expunged in all of them,” Mr. Gray said.

Ka-Santa Sanders, who lives in the King Hill neighborhood in Montgomery, where Ms. Colvin grew up, and has led the efforts to protect Ms. Colvin’s legacy, asked the city earlier this year if anything could be done to honor her and the pivotal role she played in the fight for civil rights.

“Immediately, we started reaching out to people to try to figure out how we could get her record cleaned,” Ms. Sanders said.

But there was one skeptic: Ms. Colvin herself.

Gloria Laster, Ms. Colvin’s sister, said their distrust of the judicial system led them to believe that their efforts would be in vain.

Still, knowing that she would be moving at the end of October to live with her son and grandchildren in Texas, and that this was her last chance at correcting the record for history, Ms. Colvin agreed to proceed. She went to an office in Birmingham, Ala., where she lives in an assisted living center, and filled out the petition.

Ms. Colvin smiled as she signed the affidavit. She wore a pink collared shirt, her eyes behind large rectangular glasses, just as they were in 1955. She was doing it, she said, to “show the generation growing up now that progress is possible and things do get better.”

“The struggle continues,” Ms. Colvin said on Tuesday. “I just don’t want us to regress as a race, as a minority group, and give up hope. Keep the faith, keep on going and keep on fighting.”

The judge who is handling her case, Calvin L. Williams, said in an interview on Monday that he was aware of its historical significance. He is the first Black judge to serve in Alabama’s 15th Judicial Circuit Court.

“It’s somewhat of a full circle, historically, that an African American judge such as myself can sit in judgment of a request such as this to give Ms. Claudette Colvin really the justice that she so long deserved,” he said.

Judge Williams will issue a ruling in the coming weeks, but he already knows what it will say.

“We will order those records destroyed,” he said.