On March 22, 1955, Claudette Colvin was riding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, dutifully sitting in the “colored” section that separated Black passengers from their white counterparts. But the bus was crowded, and the driver told 15-year-old Colvin to yield her seat to a white woman. The teenager, who had recently learned about the 14th Amendment in school, refused.
“I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’” Colvin told Eliza Gray of Newsweek in 2009. “I was glued to my seat.”
Colvin was dragged off the bus by police officers while shouting “It’s my constitutional right!” She was convicted on two counts of violating Montgomery’s segregation laws and one count of assaulting an officer—though the first two convictions were overturned after Colvin appealed, according to CNN’s Devon M. Sayers and Maria Cartaya.
Nine months after Colvin refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger, Rosa Parks did the same on a crowded bus in Montgomery. Parks’ act of resistance became a landmark moment in the civil rights movement, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which represented the first large-scale protest against segregation. But Colvin’s pioneering contributions to the fight for civil rights have long been overlooked.
Now 82, Colvin is seeking to expunge her arrest record, reports Jay Reeves for the Associated Press (AP). She and her lawyers filed the request with a juvenile court at a clerk’s office this week, flanked by supporters who clapped and sang civil rights anthems.
“I guess you can say that now I am no longer a juvenile delinquent,” Colvin told the crowd, per the AP.
Colvin’s assault charge may have been for “something as small as accidentally stepping on an officer’s toes,” her lawyer, Phillip Ensler, tells Eduardo Medina of the New York Times. But the conviction loomed over Colvin, even after she moved to New York City at the age of 20. She had been placed on probation “as a ward of the state pending good behavior,” according to the AP, but never received official notice that her probation had ended. For years, her relatives worried that she would be arrested by the police, for any possible reason, whenever she visited Alabama.
“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,’” Colvin says to the AP.
Now living in Birmingham, Alabama, Colvin was initially skeptical of supporters’ push to clear her legal record; her sister, Gloria Laster, tells the Times that Colvin distrusts the legal system and suspected that the effort would be futile. Because she plans to move to Texas to stay with relatives at the end of October, however, this was her last chance to file an expungement request in Alabama. Colvin explains that she decided to proceed with the request in order to “show the generation growing up now that progress is possible and things do get better.”
Though Colvin’s legacy as a civil rights pioneer is not widely known today, her act of protest attracted the attention of leading figures within the movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was among those who met with city and bus officials following her arrest. But Parks was deemed a more suitable representative for the fight against segregation.
“Parks was a refined and grandmotherly seamstress completely above reproach,” Newsweek wrote in 2009. Colvin, in contrast, “became pregnant by an older, married man” in the summer of 1955.
The teenager continued to take a stand against discriminatory laws of the Jim Crow era, serving as a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the 1956 lawsuit that challenged Alabama statutes and Montgomery city laws requiring segregation on buses. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld a district court’s ruling that put an end to segregation on buses in Alabama.
According to Michele L. Norris of the Washington Post, Colvin moved to New York because she couldn’t find a job in Montgomery, where everyone “shunned her as a troublemaker.” She spent decades living and working in the city, only returning to Alabama during the summers to visit her family.
Colvin tells the Times that she has come to terms with “raw feelings” about the way her contributions to the civil rights movement were overshadowed by those of other activists. Now, she is looking forward, hoping to inspire and assure new generations of Black Americans.
“I am an old woman now,” she says in a sworn statement. “Having my records expunged will mean something to my grandchildren and great grandchildren. And it will mean something for other Black children.”