Justice for Unsung Civil Rights Pioneer: Claudette Colvin's Juvenile Court Record Finally ExpungedRoundup
tags: civil rights, Claudette Colvin, montgomery bus boycott
Keisha N. Blain is an award-winning historian and writer. She is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and has written extensively on race, gender and politics in national and global perspectives. Her most recent book is Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.
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.
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.