Nine months before Rosa Parks defied segregation laws in Montgomery by refusing to give up her seat to a White passenger on a bus, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had also refused to surrender her seat to a White passenger. Colvin was dragged out to the street, arrested, and jailed. She was convicted of assaulting a police officer and placed on probation but never received notice that she had finished the term and was on safe ground legally, according to NBC News.
Now, at age 82, Colvin is seeking to get her conviction expunged. Her legal team filed a motion on Tuesday asking the juvenile courts to seal, destroy and expunge her records. “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.
On March 2, 1955, Colvin and her friends closed from school and were riding home on a city bus when a bus driver told her to give up her seat to a White passenger.
“The white people were always seated at the front of the bus and the black people were seated at the back of the bus. The bus driver had the authority to assign the seats, so when more white passengers got on the bus, he asked for the seats,” she recalled in an interview with the BBC. At this moment, all the seats on the bus were taken.
“Colvin and her friends were sitting in a row a little more than half way down the bus – two were on the right side of the bus and two on the left – and a white passenger was standing in the aisle between them. The driver wanted all of them to move to the back and stand so that the white passenger could sit,” the BBC described the scene.
Three of the students reluctantly got up from their seats but Colvin refused. “If she sat down in the same row as me, it meant I was as good as her,” Colvin told The New York Times. Standing her ground, Colvin told the driver she had paid her fare and that it was her constitutional right to stay where she was. After her arrest, the police report said Colvin “put up a struggle as officers removed her from the bus, kicking and scratching an officer,” NBC News reported. She was convicted of violating the city’s segregation law, disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer, but only the assault charge remained after she appealed.
Due to her age, the case was sent to juvenile court, where a judge found her delinquent and placed her on probation “as a ward of the state pending good behavior”, according to NBC News. After, no court official ever told her she had completed probation. Hence, her family lived with fear as they worried that police were out to get her, NBC News reported.
Colvin left Montgomery for New York soon after her arrest in search of anonymity. In New York, she didn’t make it known to people about her role in the civil rights movement, but she would later return to her home city to testify in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that found bus segregation to be unconstitutional.
Colvin’s case came nine months before Parks, but Parks’ case received more attention. She became that powerful symbol of the civil rights movement. Colvin was apparently passed over because she was a teenager who also became pregnant out of wedlock. Her skin color might also have prevented her from being the face to challenge segregation laws.
Today, the civil rights trailblazer is asking a Montgomery court to expunge and erase her record as she plans to move to Texas with her family soon, her lawyers told CNN. The Montgomery County district attorney will also file a motion in support of her expungement, CNN added.