Claudette Colvin, civil rights pioneer, seeks to have her record erased

Minutes before the white bus driver told Claudette Colvin in 1955 to give way to a white woman, she looked out the window, thinking of a black boy from her neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama, who had been sentenced to death. . She remembers thinking about her English teacher’s lesson on understanding and taking pride in her story.

Get off, several white passengers told him. Ms Colvin, who was 15, remained behind and was quickly arrested.

“History stuck to me in the seat,” she recalls six decades later.

Ms Colvin, who refused to give up her seat on an isolated Montgomery bus on March 2, 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks, filed a motion on Tuesday to have her minor arrest record struck out, stating in an affidavit that justice court system was late.

“I’m not doing it for myself, I’m 82,” Ms. Colvin said in an interview Tuesday. “But I wanted my grandchildren and great grandchildren to understand that their grandmother stood up for something very important, and that it changed our lives a lot, changed attitudes.”

While Ms Parks’ story is well known, Ms Colvin’s role in the Montgomery bus boycott and the broader civil rights movement has been overlooked. And yet, the importance of his challenge that day was widely recognized among emerging leaders of the movement, including Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who met with city officials and bus companies after his arrest. Ms Colvin would later serve as a featured witness in the historical affair which effectively ended the segregation of buses.

Ms Colvin filed her petition in Montgomery County Family Court, where her case was dealt with in 1955. The petition states that erasure of Ms Colvin’s record “is in the interests of justice and further acknowledges its essential role in the civil rights movement. “

Credit…AP Photo / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

She was initially found guilty of breaking the city segregation law, disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer. But she appealed and was sentenced to probation only on the assault charge, which may have been for “something as small as accidentally stepping on an officer’s toes,” her lawyer said. , Phillip Ensler.

One policeman kicked her while another dragged her back from the bus and handcuffed her, according to “Claudette Colvin: twice towards justice“from Phillip Hoose, who won a National Book Award in 2009. On the way to the police station, officers took turns guessing his bra size, Mr. Hoose wrote.

“We were treated like second-class citizens,” she said on Tuesday.

Ms Colvin moved to the Bronx after her conviction, but returned to Montgomery at the height of the bus boycott Ms Parks subsequently unleashed. Black leaders at the time believed that since Ms. Parks had lighter skin she would be a better face of the movement and more likely to gain white sympathy.

“My mom told me to be quiet about what I was doing,” Ms. Colvin told the New York Times in 2009. “She said to me,“ Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa – her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.

Mrs. Parks and Mrs. Colvin weren’t the only ones making waves in Montgomery in 1955. Lucille timesAlexander’s altercation with a white bus driver in June of the same year led to a one-woman boycott of the city’s public transport system, helping to inspire the mass boycott that took place after Ms Parks was accused of challenging the same driver.

Ms Colvin said she had come to terms with her “raw feelings” about her place in history a long time ago. “I know in my heart that she was the right person,” she told The Times in 2009, referring to Ms. Parks.

Ms Colvin would end up testifying in federal court in Browder vs. Gayle, the landmark case that effectively ended segregation on buses in 1956. The lawsuit was filed by Fred D. Gray, a legal force during the civil rights movement.

Mr. Gray was with Ms. Colvin again on Tuesday. He said in an interview Monday that “there should never have been a record in the first place.”

“In his case and in all of these other people that I have represented, the records should be erased in all of them,” said Mr. Gray.

Ka-Santa Sanders, who lives in the King Hill neighborhood of Montgomery, where Ms Colvin grew up, and has led efforts to protect Ms Colvin’s legacy, asked the town earlier this year if anything could be done. made to honor her and the central role she played in the struggle for civil rights.

“Immediately we started contacting people to try to figure out how we could get her file cleaned up,” Ms. Sanders said.

But there was a skeptic: Ms. Colvin herself.

Ms Colvin’s sister Gloria Laster said their distrust of the justice system led them to believe their efforts would be in vain.

Yet knowing that she would be moving in late October to live with her son and grandchildren in Texas, and that this was her last chance to correct the record for the story, Colvin agreed to continue. She went to an office in Birmingham, Alabama, where she lives in an assisted living facility, and completed the petition.

Ms. Colvin smiled as she signed the affidavit. She wore a pink collared shirt, her eyes behind large rectangular glasses, as in 1955. She did so, she says, to “show the generation that is growing up now that progress is possible and that things are getting better.” .

“The fight continues,” Colvin said Tuesday. “I just don’t want us to regress as a race, as a minority group and lose hope. Keep the faith, keep going and keep fighting.

The judge who takes care of his case, Calvin L. Williams, said in an interview Monday that he was aware of its historical significance. He is the first black judge to sit on Alabama’s 15th Judicial Circuit Court.

“It’s sort of a closed circle, historically, that an African-American judge like me can judge a request like this to give Ms. Claudette Colvin the justice she has deserved for so long,” a- he declared.

Judge Williams will make a ruling in the coming weeks, but he already knows what she will say.

“We will order the destruction of these files,” he said.

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