A Black teen defied segregation in '55. She wants a clean record.

Before Rosa Parks there was Claudette Colvin. Ms. Colvin was 15 years old when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated Alabama bus and placed on probation. She never received a notice that her probation ended, and she wants her records expunged.

Julie Jacobson/AP/File
Bronx resident Claudette Colvin talks about 1950 Alabama segregation laws in New York, Feb. 5, 2009. Ms. Colvin left Alabama for New York at age 20, but her family remained worried for her visits because she never received official notice that her probation had ended.

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, Ms. 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.

“Having my records expunged will mean something to my grandchildren and great grandchildren. And it will mean something for other Black children,” Ms. Colvin said in a sworn statement.

Her attorney, Phillip Ensler, said the statement will be filed Tuesday with legal documents to seal, destroy, and erase records of her case.

Ms. 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 Mr. 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, Ms. Colvin will make 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, Mr. 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.

Ms. 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, Ms. Colvin a few months before also got fed up and refused to move.

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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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, Mr. Ensler said, with Ms. 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.

Mr. Ensler said it’s “murky” as to whether Ms. 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, Ms. 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 Ms. Colvin’s request, and Mr. Ensler said it was uncertain when a judge might rule.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.