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Claudette Colvin, who refused to budge before Rosa Parks did, finally gets some justice

Rosa Parks’ more famous refusal that kicked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott followed Claudette Colvin's protest by nine months.
Photo illustration: Overlapping pieces of  paper show a portrait of a young Claudette Colvin from 1954, image of Rosa Parks sitting and a present day image of Colvin.
On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old Black girl on her way home from school was arrested when she refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Alabama bus.MSNBC / Alamy, Getty Images

On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old Black girl on her way home from school, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, when the white bus driver ordered her to move. Colvin was told to move after a white woman refused to sit in an open seat across the aisle from her. After the teenager’s bold refusal, the driver summoned police, who dragged the teenager off the bus and arrested her.

Colvin was one of several Black women and girls in Alabama’s capital who defied Jim Crow laws before Parks did.

Rosa Parks’ more famous refusal to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus came nine months later. Colvin was one of several Black women and girls in Alabama’s capital who defied Jim Crow laws before Parks did. She was also one of many subjected to the state-sanctioned violence that was required to sustain segregationist laws. Black women and girls were not only arrested but verbally insulted and physically attacked by bus drivers enforcing segregation.

Colvin was charged with assaulting a police officer by a juvenile judge who labeled her a delinquent and sentenced her to probation. Until this week, the court had never removed Colvin from probation. On Thursday, her record was finally expunged by the Montgomery County Juvenile Court, 66 years after she was wrongly labeled a delinquent for demanding to be treated with dignity.

The decision is long overdue and especially meaningful — and not just for Colvin. It represents a significant step in the state of Alabama’s acknowledgement of the egregious act of racial injustice that took place in 1955. The unfair assault charges underscored how the criminal justice system fails Black Americans and has imperiled the lives of Black women and girls for decades. Whether at the hands of police officers, bus drivers or private citizens, Black women and girls have long had to fear navigating public transportation and other public spaces.

Colvin reached that realization when she was charged with disturbing the peace, breaking the segregation law and assaulting an officer. A judge dismissed two of the charges but tried to convict her for assaulting an officer. As historian Jeanne Theoharis argues in her groundbreaking book, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” the dismissal of the charge against Colvin for breaking the segregation law was intentional. Her not being charged meant she couldn’t use a conviction as a basis for challenging the Jim Crow law in court.

Colvin’s life was forever changed in 1955, not only because she took a stand to defy racial injustice, but also because of the trauma that followed even after she left Montgomery. As her attorney, Phillip Ensler, told The Associated Press in October, her mistreatment caused “tremendous fear” for Colvin and her family whenever she returned home to visit.

Her painful experience was not an isolated event. The buses in Montgomery were contested spaces. Keeping African Americans relegated to the back of the bus was only part of a larger effort to maintain white supremacy in the segregated South.

Bus drivers — who were always white — were given the powers of police officers to enforce the city ordinances.

A review of the Montgomery City Code from 1952 makes this quite clear. According to the code, bus drivers — who were always white — were given the powers of police officers to enforce the city ordinances. Bus drivers were tasked with maintaining a clear divide between white and Black passengers on the bus. And they were not afraid to exercise their power on Black people — even before that particular code was put in place.

In 1944, Montgomery resident Viola White was beaten and arrested when she did not give up her seat. Her attempts to take the city to court were continually delayed, and the police resorted to intimidation and even more shocking violence. One officer raped White’s 16-year-old daughter, and when White reported the crime, the police only issued a warrant after repeated complaints. In the end, the officer who committed the act of sexual violence escaped justice by leaving town before an arrest could be made — after receiving a warning from Montgomery’s police chief.

In 1951, a Montgomery bus driver insulted Epsie Worthy, a Black woman, as she exited the bus. He followed her off the bus and hit her. When the police arrived, Worthy, and not the driver, was arrested.

In June 1955, three months after Colvin’s arrest and six months before Parks’ arrest, Lucille Times — who died this year — was driving her car when she had an altercation with the bus driver who would eventually have Parks arrested. After trying to run Times off the road, the driver exited his bus and proceeded to insult and physically attack her. The police officer who intervened knocked Times to the ground with a blow to her neck with his flashlight.

Times was assaulted by the two men, but the officer issued her the warning. With the assistance of her husband, Charlie, Times responded with a one-woman boycott. She drove to local bus stops and gave free rides to Black commuters while her husband collected donations for gas and took calls to schedule rides at the cafe they owned. Times and her husband kept their boycott going for six months until Parks’ arrest prompted the more famous Montgomery Bus Boycott. They then joined that community effort.

The experiences of Times, White, Colvin and countless others offer a glimpse into the challenges that Black people — and in this case, Black women and girls — endured in the Jim Crow South.

While the state’s recent decision to expunge Colvin’s records does not absolve the harm that she experienced, it is a welcome development that Colvin herself advocated. “I am an old woman now,” Colvin told NBC News in October 2020. “Having my records expunged will mean something to my grandchildren and great grandchildren. And it will mean something for other Black children.” Speaking to the press after that record was wiped clean, she said, "I appreciate the judge's decision to do it and that means that I'm no longer, at 82, a juvenile delinquent."

The truth is, she never was.