In recorded history, Rosa Parks is largely credited with the act of resistance that prompted the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama on December 1, 1955—which, in turn, became a catalytic event in the broader civil rights movement of the last century. But nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for doing the same when she refused to relinquish her seat—already in the “colored” section—to a white woman on an overcrowded, segregated Montgomery bus.
“It’s my constitutional right!” Colvin yelled as she was pulled from the bus, emboldened by recently learning about the 14th Amendment in school, according to a 2009 article by Newsweek. “It just so happens they picked me at the wrong time—it was Negro History Month, and I was filled up like a computer,” she told the magazine at the time. “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.”
As revolutionary as her stance was at that young age, as we know, Colvin never got the credit. Later that year, Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, mounted a similar protest with very different results, kicking off a yearlong boycott in Montgomery. By that time, Colvin was pregnant by an older man, and, already scrutinized as an unsuitable face for the burgeoning movement, faded into obscurity.
“The people in Montgomery, they didn’t try to find me,” said Colvin, who, after being convicted of assaulting a police officer while being arrested, relocated to New York in 1958 amid a then-energized movement. She was never notified whether the probation she was placed on for the incident had expired, amounting to a lifetime of possible probation in her home state. “I didn’t look for them and they didn’t look for me,” she said.
Still, said Colvin’s then-attorney, Fred Gray, in 2009: “Claudette gave all of us moral courage. If she had not done what she did, I am not sure that we would have been able to mount the support for Mrs. Parks.”
She may never get the glory, but now, an 82-year-old Colvin would at least like her record fully expunged, a motion which will be filed by her current attorney Phillip Ensler before a juvenile court judge (given Colvin’s adolescence at the time) on Tuesday. “She wants a court in Montgomery to wipe away a record that her lawyer said has cast a shadow over the life of a largely unsung hero of the civil rights era,” reports NBC News.
“I am an old woman now. Having my records expunged will mean something to my grandchildren and great grandchildren. And it will mean something for other Black children,” Colvin, who has since returned to Alabama and lives in Birmingham, said in a sworn statement.
“For all the recognition of recent years and the attempts to tell her story, there wasn’t anything done to clear her record,” Ensler added.
It’s uncertain when a judge will rule on the case, but for Colvin, clearing her record will also will end nearly a lifetime of stigma and uncertainty. “My conviction for standing up for my constitutional right terrorized my family and relatives who knew only that they were not to talk about my arrest and conviction because people in town knew me as ‘that girl from the bus,’” she said.