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Civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin is pushing to get her record expunged

She believes it’s crucial for the next generation!

By BOTWC Staff

Claudette Colvin
Photo Credit/Cutline: Claudette Colvin

Colvin was only 15 years old on March 2, 1955, the day she decided not to give up her seat to accommodate a white woman. At the time, Colvin recalled that they were fresh out of “Negro History Month” and had been discussing racial injustices all week, something she was thinking about when the incident occurred. 

“History had me glued to the seat,” Colvin told reporters decades later. 

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

Nine months later, Rosa Parks was arrested for doing the same thing, in the same city, on the same bus system, and would later become a prominent face in the Civil Rights movement. While Colvin’s actions were largely recognized by leaders in the movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who met with city and bus officials after Colvin’s arrest, Parks at the time was a better fit for the movement’s campaign. Colvin left the city and moved to the Bronx but later returned to Montgomery at the height of the bus boycott and even served as the star witness in the landmark case that effectively ended bus segregation. 

“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. 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,” Colvin told The Times in 2009. 

Colvin said eventually she came to terms with her place in the movement and history, saying, “I know in my heart that [Rosa Parks] was the right person.”

Still, Colvin is fighting for her name to be cleared, saying she still has a juvenile record from the incident that happened nearly 70 years ago. Ka-Santa Sanders, who currently lives in the King Hill neighborhood of Montgomery where Colvin grew up, has been spearheading efforts to honor Colvin and her legacy, petitioning the city to recognize the crucial role she played in the struggle for civil rights. 

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

But Colvin was still suspicious and didn’t have much faith that the judicial systems would do the right thing and correct their wrong. Yet, she proceeded on, heading to an office in Birmingham, Alabama, where she lives in an assisted living facility, to file the petition to have her juvenile criminal record expunged. 

“I’m not doing it for me; I’m 82 years old. 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,” Colvin said. 

The judge presiding over her case, Calvin L. Williams, said he’s aware of the historical significance and doesn’t take it lightly. 

“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,” said Judge Williams. 

He’s set to issue the ruling in the coming weeks, but he’s already decided what he plans to do.

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

For Colvin, justice is a long time coming, and she hopes that she can be an example for other freedom fighters. 

“[I want to] show the generation growing up now that progress is possible and things do get better…The struggle continues. 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,” she said. 

Thank you for your contributions, Ms. Colvin. Because of you, we can!

Photo Courtesy of Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

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