Claudette Colvin.jpeg

Claudette Colvin

By Julie Jacobson/AP

MONTGOMERY — When Claudette Colvin was pulled off a bus by police and jailed for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman at age 15, she didn't care about the consequences that could follow.

She knew is was the right thing to do. 

Colvin was sentenced to indefinite probation for violating Alabama’s segregation laws and assaulting an officer while being removed from the bus 66 years ago. She went on with her life carrying the stigma in Montgomery of being "that girl.” 

“Over and over again, I was fired from those jobs after my bosses found out I was 'that girl' who had sat on the bus," 82-year-old Colvin said in her request to Montgomery County Juvenile Court to have her juvenile record expunged. "And back then they didn’t just say 'girl' they used the n-word. I was notorious and employing me was a liability."

Colvin recalled that day, March 2, 1956, shortly after the end of Black History Month—then called Negro History Month. She felt empowered by what she'd learned from her teachers about Black history. 

“I was also thinking of a Black boy, Jeremiah Rose, from my neighborhood who had recently been sentenced to death," Colvin said in the filing. "I was thinking of how unfair it was that there were two sets of standards, one for white people and one for African Americans. A white man would have never been sentenced to death for doing what my friend was convicted of. All of those things were on my mind that afternoon."  

Colvin said there were no more seats left on the white section of the city of Montgomery bus. Colvin and her friends were sitting in the front of what at that time was called the "colored section" and were asked by the bus driver to stand up so a white woman could have the row to herself. 

She felt that “history” had her glued to the seat. 

“My three seat mates got up, but I felt glued to the seat," Colvin said. "People think it was just about a seat on the bus but it was about so much more than that. It was about my constitutional right rights. It was about history. It was about injustices that I witnessed everyday.” 

Colvin recalled being dragged off the bus, handcuffed and taken to jail and was later sentenced to indefinite probation pending good behavior. She went on to receive her GED and stayed in Alabama almost five years after her arrest, trying to maintain employment. She ultimately moved to New York where she felt it was was safer, but remained fearful when visiting Alabama due to being on probation.  

"I never thought much about the fact that I was a fugitive from justice," Colvin said in court documents. "But I know my family thought about it. I know they were terrified every time I came home...and they were terrified of the consequences of having me there."

Now age 82 and 66 years after her arrest, Colvin filed a request to the court on Oct. 26 to have her juvenile record expunged of the arrest for refusing to comply with the Jim Crow era law that required Blacks to surrender their seats on public buses in favor of white bus riders, a law that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1956. 

Colvin's arrest came nine months before the arrest of Rosa Parks, who was infamously arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger. Parks's arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a year-long civil rights protest in which Blacks refused to ride city buses. That protest led to the Supreme Court's decision.  

Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey called it “an honor” to be in support of Colvin’s request to have her record expunged.

“Equally deserving of recognition for their heroism are countless ‘foot soldiers’ whose names are not in the history books, but are, in some cases preserved in legal documents accusing and convicting them of violating the unjust and unconstitutional laws that were in place during the Jim Crow Era,” Bailey said. 

“Her actions back in March of 1955 were conscientious, not criminal. Inspired, not illegal. They should have led to praise, not prosecution…This is her legacy. A legacy that moving forward, will have all traces of criminality expunged, so that Ms. Colvin can be solely recognized as a hero for justice, civil rights, and humanity."

Colvin said having her record expunged would mean something to her grand-and great-grand children. She also hopes it will pave a way for societal progress.

"When I think about who I'm seeking to have my name cleared by the state for, it is because I believe if that happened it would show the generation growing up now that process is possible and things do get better. It will inspire them to make the world better," she said.

As of Nov. 2, Colvin's case had not yet been scheduled to be heard by a judge.

In 2016, the Alabama legislature approved "The Rosa Parks Act" which set up a processes to pardon Parks and others arrested for violating segregation laws. However, arrests would still be public record, unless expunged, according to the bill. 

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