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Claudette Colvin wins expungement of Alabama civil rights arrest

A December segment on "CBS This Morning" showed the first meeting between Judge Calvin Williams and Claudette Colvin. (contributed)

It took most of a lifetime, but now it’s official. Civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin is, in her own words, “no longer a juvenile delinquent.”

In March 1955 – nine months before Rosa Parks‘ refusal to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus launched the civil rights movement – the 15-year-old Colvin was arrested for the same offense. She was subjected to verbal abuse by city police officers and, rather than being confined in the city’s juvenile detention facility, placed in a cell in the adult jail until bail was posted by her mother and their minister.

Two of the three charges against Colvin were dropped, but she was wrongly convicted of assaulting a police officer. Colvin later was one of the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the U.S. Supreme Court case that desegregated buses, and she had a career as a nurse’s aide. But the arrest and conviction remained on her record.

In October 2021, with several dozen supporters there to cheer her on, Colvin, 82, filed a petition in Montgomery County Family Court to have her criminal record expunged. Among those urging the court to approve the petition were Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl D. Bailey and noted civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who represented Colvin in the 1955 case.

On Nov. 24, 2021, presiding Judge Calvin Williams issued an order granting the expungement. The judge called Colvin’s refusal to give up her bus seat “a courageous act on her behalf and on behalf of a community of affected people,” and said his action would bring “a measure of statutory right and fairness” to Colvin.

In a Jan. 5 interview, Williams discussed the importance of his order. He also reflected on meeting Colvin for the first time last December.

“Ms. Colvin made a sacrifice in the cause of freedom that has benefited people who were not even born at that time,” said Williams. “It was a humbling experience to meet an unsung hero who is only now getting the recognition she deserves.

“She helped give me the opportunity to hold the position I hold today. It’s ironic, but fitting, that an African American judge was able to give her a measure of the justice she was denied.”

Juvenile proceedings, including motions for expungement, typically are shielded from public view to protect the identity of the minors involved. Citing the unique interest and historical significance of her case, Colvin decided to make the order issued by Williams available to the public.

“I want us to move forward and be better,” Colvin said in a statement released on Dec. 16. “When I think about why I sought to have my name cleared by the state, it is because I believed if that happened, it would show the generation growing up now that progress is possible, and things do get better. It will inspire them to make the world better.”