Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Life

Claudette Colvin: Making Trouble Then and Now [Transcript]

Joe Richman: From PRX is Radiotopia. This is Radio Diaries. I’m Joe Richman. We’re proud to be part of a network of some of the most unique boundary-pushing independent podcasts out there. And every year we ask for your support to continue the work we do. But this year we all wanted to do something a little different.


And this episode is part of a special Radiotopia wide project. Shows across the network are releasing episodes tied together by one theme, making trouble. You can learn more and donate to support our work at Radiotopia [dot] fm. And here’s our take on making trouble.


Rosa Parks is one of the most well-known names of the civil rights movement. Most school kids in America can tell you that she was the one who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus. Her arrest mugshot made her the face of the Montgomery bus boycott. But the boycott could have had a different face. On March 2nd, 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded Montgomery bus.


Colvin was arrested. She was 15 years old at the time. For decades after a few people knew of Colvin’s story. In recent years, her name has become a bit more recognized as efforts are made to remember the unsung heroes of Black history. And because she has recently returned to court to fight her original arrest charge six decades later.


We’ll tell you more about that later, but first let’s go back to 1955 today on the show, the teenage Rosa Parks.


Claudette Colvin: My name is Claudette Colvin, and I was 15-years-old when I was arrested for violating the Montgomery segregation law. Well, that was the kind of teenager that wore my hair in braids. Everybody else was battling with the straightener comb and pomade. I didn’t mind being different.


Montgomery is a nice little Southern town, but everything was segregated. This is for color folks, and this was for white folks. Couldn’t try on clothes in the store, couldn’t go to the movie theater, but a good movie come in town. You know, things that teenagers like to do. So, I knew that this was a double standard. This was unfair. 


Phillip Hoose: My name is Phillip Hoose,  and I wrote a book titled Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. March 2nd, 1955 was a Wednesday Claudette got onto the bus with three other students, and they all settled themselves into a row in the middle of the bus. The rule back in Montgomery at that time was 10 seats in the front of the bus were for whites only. And the whites always had to be in front. 


Claudette Colvin: I knew that rule by heart. I was sitting near the window, the last seat that was allowed for colored people. And so, as the bus proceeded on downtown, more white people got on the bus. Eventually, the bus got to full capacity and a young white lady was standing near the four of us. She was expecting me to get up. 


Phillip Hoose: The bus driver looked in the mirror and saw the situation and said, “I need those seats.” And three of the girls got up and walked to the back of the bus and Claudette didn’t.


Claudette Colvin: I just couldn’t move. History had me glued to the seat. 


Phillip Hoose: And people started yelling on the bus. “Come on, let’s go. Let’s move.” 


Claudette Colvin: Hear those white people complaining to each other, talking, talking, talking, talking, talking. I could see their mouths moving and talking to each other. I didn’t know what was going to happen. 


Phillip Hoose: The bus driver called for a police officer and a police officer boarded the bus and confronted Claudette. 


Claudette Colvin: “Girl, why are you sitting there? You didn’t know the law. And I said, “I paid my fare. It is my constitutional right.” 


I remember they dragged me off the bus because I refused to walk. They handcuffed me and they took me to an adult jail. I had three charges, assaulted battery, disorderly conduct, and going against the segregation law. 


My mom and dad got me out of jail, and my dad said, “Claudette, you know, you put us in a lot of danger, in a lot of danger.”

He was worried about some repercussions from the KKK, and so that night he didn’t sleep. He sat in the corner with his shotgun fully loaded. 


Phillip Hoose: When she got to school the following Monday after the arrest, it was a very divisive thing. On one hand, some students were impressed by her courage. On the other hand, there were many students who thought Claudette had made things tougher for them now, and they didn’t appreciate it one bit.


Claudette Colvin: Everything changed. I lost most of my friends. Their parents told them to stay away from me because they said that, uh, I was crazy. I was an extremist. 


Phillip Hoose: There was precedent for African-Americans refusing to surrender their seats to white passengers. What was without precedent though, is she wanted to get a lawyer and she wanted to fight. 


Fred Gray: My name is Fred Gray. Claudette Colvin was my first civil rights case. I received a phone call from her parents telling me about the incident. I was prepared to file a federal lawsuit to desegregate the buses, but because she had not had the age experience, the maturity, nor the training and civil rights activities, when we discussed it with other persons in the community, they felt that we should not do it at that time. 


Claudette Colvin: My parents wasn’t connected to the elite Black people. Later, I had a child born out of wedlock. I became pregnant when I was 16, and I didn’t fit the image either someone that they would want to show off.


Archival: Just the other day, one of the fine citizens of our community, Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested because she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. 


Phillip Hoose: Nine months after Claudia took her bus stand. Rosa Parks did the same. 42 years old, she was a professional, an officer in the NAACP and at last African-American Montgomery had its symbol. 


Archival: I didn’t feel that I was being treated as a human being. I refused to give up this seat. I said, no. I wouldn’t give it up. 


Claudette Colvin: I knew why they chose Rosa. They thought I would have been too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and gentile like Rosa. They didn’t want to use a teenager. 


Fred Gray: I represented Claudette Colvin in 1955 and also Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King. And what you have to realize is there are literally hundreds and probably thousands of individuals like Claudette Colvin, and many of them you never see the name, you never see the faces, but they laid the foundation so that we could honor the Dr. Kings in the Rosa Parks. 


Claudette Colvin: Well, today it’s good to see some of the fruit of my labor. To me, it doesn’t bother me not being named, as long as we have someone out there so we can tell a story.


Joe Richman: This story originally aired on NPR’s All Things Considered in 2015. A year after Colvin refused to give up her seat, her lawyer, Fred Gray filed a federal lawsuit Browder vs Gayle, which ended segregation on public transit in Alabama. Claudette Colvin was the star witness.


Over six decades, a lot has changed in Colvin’s life. She has raised two sons. She worked as a nurse’s aide for 30 years. She’s moved around the country from Alabama to New York to Texas. But one thing that hasn’t changed is she still has a criminal record. A charge of assaulting a police officer from when she was taken off that bus at age 15.


So now at 82 years old, Colvin is doing something about it. 

Archival: This is the CBS news. Civil rights icon, Claudette Colvin, known for her role in desegregating buses in Montgomery, went to court today looking to have her arrest record expunged.


Joe Richman: Recently Colvin and her lawyer filed to clear her record of all charges. One month later, the judge issued his ruling: motion to seal destroy and expunge juvenile records filed by Colvin, Claudette is hereby granted for what has since been recognized as a courageous act. 


Judge Calvin Williams: I’m Judge Calvin Williams and I’m the juvenile court judge in Montgomery, Alabama, that ruled in the Claudette Colvin expungement case.


Joe Richman: Judge Calvin Williams wasn’t even born at the time that Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat. Our producer, Mike, a Hazel spoke to judge Williams about what it means for a criminal charge to become a courageous act six decades later. 


Mycah Hazel: How did you first even hear who Claudette Colvin was? 


Judge Calvin Williams: So I learned of it when I was an adult.


You know, her story is not told as much as it should be. It certainly wasn’t told when I was growing up as a young boy coming up in Montgomery, Alabama, in elementary or junior middle school or high school. I think up to that point, everyone just thought that Rosa Parks was the first person to assert her rights on the bus.


Mycah Hazel: It’s been nearly 70 years since Ms. Colvin refused to give up her seat. You know, some people have said that perhaps getting her record clear, is kind of like symbolic, really. You know, it’s nothing more than just due diligence at that point. I’m wondering your thoughts on that. 


Judge Calvin Williams: I think it is symbolic, but more importantly, it means something to her and what she wants, and what she has expressed is that she wants her children, her grandchildren to see that you can get justice. You know, you can have fair judges to decide your cases. 


Mycah Hazel: In 1955, you know, there were no Black judges in Montgomery. How does it make you feel, personally? Like, what are your reflections on just going from that time period to now being a Black judge in Montgomery and having the authority to really confront this case?


Judge Calvin Williams: So when I received a call, I thought, wow, what an opportunity it is to correct an injustice that was perpetrated.  You know, as a child growing up in Montgomery, I had to ride the bus and fortunately, due to her stance and her assertion of her rights, I didn’t have to sit in the back. Now we have different perspectives, we have diversity on the court that can bring fairness into decisions that we give out. 


Mycah Hazel: Great! What were Ms. Colvin’s impressions when she realized that you, you know, a Black man growing up in Montgomery, was the judge on her case?


Judge Calvin Williams: She did not know that it was an African-American judge that was over the case. And so when we met for the first time, it was, uh, quite emotional for her, and consequently, it was emotional for me too. And she was proud not just to have her record expunged but proud of the fact that the byproduct for action was an African-American judge that could do that for her. 


Mycah Hazel: This is great talking, and I’m sure this is a very kind of, honorable case to have under your belt. 


Judge Calvin Williams: It is; it’s a blessing. Glad to be a part of it. 


Joe Richman: Our producer, Mycah Hazel, with Judge Calvin Williams, who recently cleared the record of Claudette Colvin. After the ruling, Colvin said, “At 82, I’m no longer a juvenile delinquent.”


Thanks for listening to this special episode, part of our annual network-wide fundraiser; make sure to check out making trouble-themed episodes from all of the shows this week. Your donation supports the research and travel, and production that goes into finding these stories and supports the talented producers that create them.


You can donate today at Radiotopia [dot] fm. The Radio Diaries team includes Nellie Gillis, Mycah Hazel, Alissa Escarce, Stephanie Rodriguez, Ben Shapiro, Deborah George, and myself. We’re supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and from listeners, just like you. I’m Joe Richman Thanks for listening.


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