Montgomery, Alabama, is ready to do the right thing. For starters, the city finally renamed Jefferson Davis Avenue on Tuesday. Mayor Steven Reed, who is Montgomery’s first Black mayor, was on hand to celebrate the street now named after Fred. D. Gray, the legendary civil rights lawyer who worked directly with Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon, representing leaders like Rosa Parks and King.
Shortly after the street dedication, Gray joined a former client as well as city and state leaders in front of the Montgomery juvenile courthouse. The reason? Claudette Colvin, who Gray represented in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, was trying to get her record expunged.
“I’m happy for what the city is doing,” Gray said in reference to support from Reed, Montgomery city council, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office, and state lawmakers like Rep. Merika Coleman, who lauded Colvin for activism. “She sat so I could stand. She sat so we could stand,” Coleman said.
(The presser begins at the 10:15 mark.)
Colvin was just 15 years old when she boarded a packed bus and sat in a “colored” section designated for Black people. The bus soon became overcrowded and the driver started forcing any Black passengers who were seated to move in order to let white passengers sit down. The driver told Colvin and three other Black women to move; all three did except for Colvin. Another Black female passenger, Ruth Hamilton, got on the bus and sat next to Colvin.
The driver eventually called the police, who convinced a Black man to give his seat to Hamilton, who was pregnant at the time. Still, Colvin did not move. She was charged with disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws, and assaulting an officer and convicted of all three counts. Two of those convictions were eventually overturned, but the assault conviction remained. Colvin was placed on indefinite probation.
Colvin’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white woman happened nine months before Rosa Parks staged a similar protest. Colvin, who was an unwed mother at the time of her trial, was essentially dropped by civil rights activists as a face of the movement. Parks, however, was a 42-year-old seamstress who served as secretary for Montgomery’s NAACP chapter.
“I knew why they chose Rosa,” Colvin told NPR in a 2015 interview. “They thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa.”
Colvin is much less well-known than Parks, but her impact is monumental. In 1956, Colvin was named as one of five plaintiffs and served as a witness in the landmark Browder vs. Gayle case that put an end to segregation on Alabama public transit. “Claudette is as much a party to that lawsuit as Mrs. Browder,” Gray said on Tuesday.
The now-82-year-old Colvin’s life was upended following her conviction, however. Her parents were fearful of extremist groups like the KKK attacking their house and she lost friends at school, who viewed her activism as extremism. Throughout that time and to this day, Colvin’s indefinite probation has hung over her.
Getting a record expunged is an unnecessarily difficult task. Reed expressed disappointment that he was unable to formally expunge Colvin’s record and that city council lacked the authority to do so as well. Colvin has instead had to jump through the many hoops that stand between those with misdemeanor and certain felony charges and an expunged record.
In Alabama, the requirements for an expungement include a certified arrest history as well as documents pertaining to the charges in question. Colvin’s current attorney, Phillip Ensler, worked with Gray and others to obtain records that are now more than half a century old. Gray thanked the Johnson Institute for helping them obtain the right items.
From there, Colvin must fill out criminal history forms, get fingerprinted by an authorized law enforcement agency, and pay $25 in fees. Besides the hassle of tracking down documents, getting fingerprinted can be nearly impossible for those with mobility issues who may require transportation or for those working full-time who are unable to get off work during the limited hours many sheriff’s offices and police stations offer for fingerprinting. A $25 fee is yet another deterrent.
Colvin has allies the state over willing to do everything in their power to support her, though. On Wednesday, Coleman plans to file a resolution during a special session for the Alabama legislature urging the juvenile court in Montgomery to expunge Colvin’s record.
“Not only do that but tell her that we’re sorry from the state of Alabama for putting her and her family what they’ve been going through,” Coleman said.
The Montgomery County District Attorney’s office also offered its support. DA Daryl Bailey said he was honored to support Colvin, praising her bravery and sense of justice. “She has become a role model to her grandchildren, great grandchildren and to all young people who choose to fight for what’s right,” Bailey said. “This is her legacy.”