By Marlene Lenthang, NBC News
The juvenile record of civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin has been expunged, 66 years after she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus to a white woman.
Colvin was just 15 when a bus driver asked her and other students to give up their seats on March 2, 1955. The act of defiance was nine months before Rosa Parks’ similar bus protest.
After Colvin refused to budge, she was arrested and charged violating the city’s segregation law, disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer, Associated Press reported. The first two charges were dropped, but the assault charge remained on her record.
Colvin, now 82, filed a petition in October to have the record of the arrest cleared. Montgomery County Juvenile Judge Calvin Williams signed the order to expunge her records on Nov. 24, his office confirmed to NBC News.
Williams granted the petition for good cause “for what has since been recognized as a courageous act on her behalf and on behalf of a community of affected people,” he wrote in the order.
Speaking on the decision, Williams told NBC News: “It’s really a full circle moment for me to sit on the bench, when there were no judges of African American descent on the bench to right a wrong that was perpetrated on her at the time.”
“I appreciate the Judge’s decision to do it and that means that, I’m no longer, at 82, a juvenile delinquent,” Colvin said in a press conference Tuesday.
“My reason for doing it is because I get a chance to tell my grandchildren, my great grandchildren what life was like in segregated America … The hardship and intimidation that took place in those years and the reason I took a stand to defy the segregated law,” she said.
In an affidavit attached to the petition to clear her records, Colvin revealed why she refused to move on that fateful day. “History had me glued to the seat,” she said in the affidavit. “Sitting there, it felt to me as though Harriet Tubman’s hand was on one shoulder pushing me down and Sojourner Truth’s hand was on the other.”
Colvin revealed that she took that city bus by chance that day because school was let out early. She normally took a special bus designated only for Black children, according to the affidavit. She also said she was thinking of Black History Month and what she learned in class when she refused to give up her seat in the colored section of the bus.
Colvin was sentenced to probation pending good behavior, but was never told when her probation ended, the affidavit said. Her notorious bus arrest changed her life — but also besmirched her name in Montgomery. She said she was fired from jobs “over and over again” after her bosses “found out that I was ‘that girl’ who had sat on the bus,” she said in the affidavit. “I was notorious and employing me was a liability,” she said.
Her arrest also left her family terrorized. Even after she moved to New York, her family would worry when she came home to visit because “they were afraid of the consequences of having her there,” she said in the affidavit.
Colvin continued to fight for civil rights throughout her life. She was one of four plaintiffs, along with Rosa Parks, in the landmark Browder V. Gayle Supreme Court decision in 1956 that ended bus segregation in Alabama.
“A measure of justice was served. And it’s important to note that it’s a very late measure of justice,” Leah Nelson, an investigator in Colvin’s case for expungement, told NBC News. “There’s no way to give Ms. Colvin back what was taken from her. But it matters that the Court is holding itself accountable publicly. And I hope we’ll see more of that in Alabama.”