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‘Progress Is Possible’: Civil Rights Pioneer Claudette Colvin Seeks to Expunge Record of 1955 Arrest and Conviction for Refusing to Give Up Her Bus Seat to White Woman

Nine months before Rosa Parks gained notoriety for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman, there was Claudette Colvin

“People said I was crazy because I was 15 years old and defiant and shouting, ‘It’s my constitutional right!’” said Colvin to CNN about the March 2, 1955, incident that took place in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Civil rights attorney Fred Gray, left, and Claudette Colvin, 82, listen during a press conference after Colvin petitioned for her juvenile record to be expunged at the Montgomery County Family Court on October 26, 2021, in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Julie Bennett/Getty Images)

Now, six decades later, Colvin and her legal team are hoping to have her criminal record expunged of a felony account of assault on an officer in connection to her arrest on that day, and end her indefinite term of probation.

The then teen was also charged, and convicted in juvenile court, of two counts of violating the city’s segregation ordinance; though those charges were later appealed and overturned. 

Colvin, 82, says the clearing of her record is long overdue and a chance to prove progress is a real act of evolution in this country. 

“I want us to move forward and be better,” she added. “When I think about why I’m seeking to have my name cleared by the state, it is because I believe if that happened it would show the generation growing up now that progress is possible and things do get better. It will inspire them to make the world better.”

Similarly in her sworn statement filed Oct. 26, Colvin said a clean record will “mean something for other Black children.”

Colvin knows firsthand that progress can be made. While she may not have had the same appeal as Parks, who was “acceptable to a White community” and used as one of the faces of the movement, Colvin still had a significant role to play.

In 1956 Colvin was one of several plaintiffs listed in the Browder v. Gayle suit filed to desegregate public transportation in the state of Alabama.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that having segregated seating on buses was unconstitutional in November of that year, just five months after a state federal district court made the same ruling.

For Colvin, those rulings were the first steps of many in righting wrongs. But something as simple as a judge not notifying her of completed probation was a cloud that continued to impact she and her family despite society turning over a new leaf. At the age of 20 Colvin moved from Alabama. She did not return home for decades.

“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 told NPR. Now seeking to relocate from Birmingham, Alabama, to live with family in Texas, Colvin is more than ready to remove this smudge from her and her family’s history.

“This is going to be her legacy to them,” said Colvin’s sister Gloria Laster. “I sat down on the bus so that you can stand up and take your rightful place as an American. And that’s what she wants for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. This is what she’s doing this for.”

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