Civil rights pioneer, 82, tries to get her 1955 record for refusing to give up her seat on a bus expunged

Claudette Colvin has largely remained an unsung hero

Sravasti Dasgupta
Wednesday 27 October 2021 11:26
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Civil rights pioneer, 82, wants her 1955 record for refusing to give up her seat on a bus expunged

Civil rights activist Claudette Colvin has moved court to expunge a 1955 record that has cast a shadow over her reputation as a hero of the era.

Ms Colvin, 82, filed legal documents through her lawyer Phillip Ensler in a Montgomery juvenile court on Tuesday to “seal, destroy and erase records of her case”.

“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,” she said in a statement.

In 1955, Ms Colvin, who was 15 at that time, refused to move from her seat on a segregated bus, several months before civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks.

Montgomery in Alabama, like the rest of the deep south at the time, had city bus systems that were segregated on racial lines: Black residents were allowed only at the back of buses, while white people could sit in the front rows. Black people were also required to use separate water fountains.

Police records show that the bus driver had called the police after Ms Colvin and another black girl chose to sit near the front of the bus near two white girls on 2 March 1955. While the other black girl moved out of her seat when asked by police officials, Ms Colvin refused. She put up a fight and kicked and scratched officers as they arrested her and removed her from the bus, according to police records.

“My mindset was on freedom. So I was not going to move that day. I told them that history had me glued to the seat,” Ms Colvin said while recalling her arrest.

She was charged with violation of segregation laws, disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer. After she appealed against the charges in a juvenile court, the court struck down all but the one for assault. It is still on her record.

The case had been sent to a juvenile court where a judge placed her on probation pending good behaviour.

Mr Ensler said that it is still unclear whether her probation ended though she has no history of any other run-ins with the law.

Though Ms Colvin’s refusal to budge from her bus seat came nine months before Ms Parks’ similar action, the 82-year-old has largely remained an unsung hero.

Ms Parks, on the other hand, became the face of the civil rights movement after she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in December 1955. Her treatment is often touted as the beginning of the civil rights movement in the US as it inspired Martin Luther King Jr to lead the Montgomery bus boycott movement.

The next year, the US Supreme Court struck down the law allowing segregation in Montgomery buses based on the statements of four plaintiffs, one of whom was Ms Colvin.

In 2009, Phillip Hoose chronicled her experience for the first time in his book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.

Yet, “for all the recognition of recent years and the attempts to tell her story, there wasn’t anything done to clear her record” Mr Ensler told NPR. He added that it was uncertain when a judge might rule on Ms Colvin’s request.

Ms Colvin left Alabama in 1960 and moved to New York, where she stayed for decades. She now lives in Birmingham.

Additional reporting by agencies

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