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Claudette Colvin, arrested for not giving up her seat for a White woman in 1955, has record expunged

Civil Rights Pioneer - Probation
Posted at 11:04 AM, Dec 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-16 13:04:55-05

Claudette Colvin was 15 in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama — nine months before Rosa Parks' act of defiance. Colvin was arrested and charged.

Now 82, Colvin filed a petition to have the record of the incident wiped clean, and a judge in Montgomery has granted the request.

"My record was expunged," Colvin told "CBS Mornings" in an exclusive interview. "And my name was cleared. And I'm no longer a juvenile delinquent at 82."

Although she now has a clean record, she said she will be remembered as the girl who, on March 2, 1955, refused to give up her seat on a crowded city bus.

Colvin said she was with three classmates and "sitting in the section that was allowed for colored people" when a White woman boarded and moved to the back of the bus, hoping to take a seat. At that time, as Colvin explained, a Black person and a White person could not sit in the same row.

"In segregated law, a colored person couldn't sit across the aisle from a White person," she said. "They had to sit behind the White person to show that they were superior and the colored people was inferior."

The bus driver asked the school kids to move and three did — Colvin refused.

"I said I could not move because history had me glued to the seat," she recalled. "And they say, 'How is that?' I say, 'Well, it felt as though Harriet Tubman's hands were pushing me down on one shoulder, and Sojourner Truth hand was pushing me down on the other shoulder.'"

The driver flagged down a traffic patrolman.

"And he asked me why I was sitting there. And I was even more defiant. And I said, 'I paid my fare and it's my Constitutional rights.'"

A few stops later, another officer boarded the bus and "manhandled" her to get her off of it, she said. She spent only a few hours in the local jail, but she still has nightmares of her cell's mattress-less cot and the noise the door made as it clang shut.

She faced three charges. Those for disturbing the peace and breaking segregation law were dropped. But a charge for assaulting a police officer had stayed with her for more than 60 years.

"They said I clawed the policeman and I kicked the police. I didn't do all of that," Colvin said.

After the incident, she continued to fight for civil rights, and was one of four plaintiffs who successfully ended bus segregation in Alabama in the landmark Browder v. Gayle Supreme Court decision in 1956. Fred Gray was her attorney.

Gray, portrayed by Cuba Gooding in the film "Selma," went on to defend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Colvin moved to New York, where she worked as a nurse's aide for decades and became a mom.

On Friday, the man who expunged her record, Judge Calvin Williams, flew to Texas from Montgomery, Alabama, to surprise her. It was the first time the two met face-to-face.

"I want to, on behalf of myself and all the judges in Montgomery, offer my apology for the injustice that was perpetrated upon you," Williams told Colvin.

Colvin said her cleared record was important to her for the message it would send to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"Because when they go out into the world, the struggle of being African American is still going on," Colvin said. "So I want my grandchildren to know that their grandmother stood up for something when she realized that she was an American at a very early age, and she wanted equal rights, just as those other students and all of the other bus audience and all of the other people in Montgomery — that's what I want my grandchildren to know."