By JAY REEVES, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Alabama (AP) – Months before Rosa Parks became the mother of the modern civil rights movement by refusing to ride in the back of a separate Alabama bus, black teenager Claudette Colvin did likewise. Convicted of assaulting a police officer during her arrest, she was placed on probation but was never informed that she had completed her sentence and was legally safe.
Now 82 and slowed down by age, Colvin asks a judge to close the case once and for all. She wants a Montgomery court to clear a record that her lawyer says has cast a shadow over the life of a largely unsung hero of the Civil Rights era.
âI am an old woman now. Deleting my records will mean something to my grandchildren and great grandchildren. And that will mean something to other black kids, âColvin said in an affidavit.
His attorney, Phillip Ensler, said the statement will be filed Tuesday along with legal documents to seal, destroy and clear the records of his case.
Colvin left Alabama at the age of 20 and spent decades in New York City, but relatives have always worried about what might happen when she returns for visits, as no court official has never said she had completed her probation, according to Ensler.
âSince then his family has lived with this terrible fear,â he said. “Despite all the recognition over the past few years and attempts to tell her story, nothing has been done to erase her record.”
Currently living in Birmingham before moving to relatives in Texas, the octogenarian Colvin will curiously make her request to a juvenile judge since it is there that she was found delinquent and placed on what, for all practical purposes, amounted to to a life of probation, Ensler said.
The city of Montgomery bus system, like the rest of public life in the Deep South, was strictly racially divided in the 1950s. Blacks had to use a water fountain while whites used one. other ; the front of a bus was for white people; Black runners were required by law to move backwards.
Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress and NAACP activist, gained worldwide fame after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955. Her treatment led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which propelled The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is in the national limelight and is often seen as the start of the modern civil rights movement.
A 15-year-old high school student at the time, Colvin got fed up and refused to move even before Parks.
A bus driver called the police on March 2, 1955, complaining that two black girls were sitting near two white girls and refused to come to the back of the bus. One of the black girls moved out when asked, according to a police report, but Colvin refused.
The police report says Colvin got into a fight when officers pulled her off the bus, kicking and scratching an officer. She was initially found guilty of breaking the city’s segregation law, disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer, but she appealed and only the assault charge remained.
The case went to juvenile court because of Colvin’s age, and records show a judge found her delinquent and placed her on probation “as a ward of the state in the expectation of good behavior “. And that’s where it ended, Ensler said, with Colvin never officially learning that she had completed her probation and her loved ones assuming the worst – that the police would arrest her for any reason.
Ensler said he was “murky” whether Colvin was still on probation, but she never had any other arrests or legal scratches. She even became a named plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit that outlawed racial segregation on Montgomery buses. Still, said Colvin, the trauma lasted, especially for loved ones who constantly feared the police would be there to pick her up.
“My conviction for defending my constitutional right terrorized my family and loved ones who only knew that they should not talk about my arrest and conviction because people in town knew me as ‘that girl on the bus’,” she declared.
The chief clerk of the Montgomery County Court did not return a phone message about Colvin’s claim, and Ensler said he was uncertain whether a judge could rule.
Reeves is a member of the AP Race and Ethnicity team.
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