Civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin getting long-overdue recognition

Civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin getting long-overdue recognition

Claudette Colvin has spent most of her 82 years as a convicted juvenile delinquent, who would go on to college, work as a nurse’s aid and raise two sons.

As a teenager, she was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a White person on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. That act of defiance was nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing, in what became a turning point in the civil rights movement.

“CBS Mornings” lead national correspondent David Begnaud first introduced us to Colvin last December, when a judge expunged her criminal record — finally clearing her name after more than six decades.

Begnaud recently talked with Colvin again for a new weeklong “CBS Mornings” series called “How Are You Now?” in which he is checking in with people he’s interviewed in the past few years. He learned that after many years of being overlooked, her struggle is finally being recognized by people across the country, including Vice President Kamala Harris.

When Begnaud first spoke to Colvin, she said she didn’t think of herself as an important figure in history.

“I think of myself as a survivor of the civil rights struggle,” she told him in a December interview.

Her place in the civil rights struggle began when she was 15 years old as she sat on a crowded Montgomery bus with three classmates after school.

Colvin said she was “sitting in the section that was allowed for colored people” when a White woman boarded the bus and moved to the back, hoping to take a seat. At that time, a Black person could not sit in the same row as a White person, she explained.

When the bus driver demanded those seats, she said, her three friends got up, but Colvin refused.

“I refused because this wasn’t an elderly White lady. This was a young White lady,” she told Begnaud last year.

A traffic patrolman eventually boarded the bus and confronted her, Colvin said.

“He asked me why was I sitting there,” she said. “And I was even more defiant. And I said, ‘I paid my fare and it’s my constitutional rights.’ And he said, ‘Constitutional rights? No, no.’ And they put me in the squad car. And they handcuffed me through the window.”

Colvin was jailed, charged with disturbing the peace and breaking segregation law, and later found guilty of assaulting police officers. That happened months before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, overshadowing for decades Colvin had also done.

At 16, Colvin made headlines again as one of four plaintiffs in the lawsuit that would end Alabama’s bus segregation in the landmark Supreme Court decision Browder v. Gayle. But the charge of assaulting police officers remained.

Decades later, when Judge Calvin Williams in Montgomery read her appeal, he expunged her 66-year-old record.

“I want to, on behalf of myself and all the judges in Montgomery, offer my apology for the injustice that was perpetrated upon you,” Williams told Colvin after surprising her during last year’s interview.

That was eight months ago.

Since the story aired, Colvin has been getting wide recognition for her role in the civil rights movement. She even got a call from Vice President Harris.

“You are such a role model of how at every stage of life we can be leaders in a way that, like you, make history at such an early stage of life,” Harris told her during the call, according to video provided by the White House.

In other good news, actor Saniyya Sidney is set to star in an upcoming movie about Colvin. Sidney joined Begnaud’s recent video call with Colvin to discuss the movie.

“I’m honored to tell your story and I’m just honored to be able to show the world who you were and what you did for us and the change you did. You were the first,” Sidney said.

The young actor also said she was “moved” by Colvin’s ability to “create great change” at such a young age.

And Colvin was not shy about offering some theatrical coaching.

“I want that role to show the passion when I testified in that courtroom amongst those segregationist judges,” she told Sidney. “I want you to have the passion and bring out the fire. I want you to feel the spirit. Get that passion to say, ‘I am American and this is my constitutional rights that I stood up for.'”

“Yes, I promise. You have my word,” Sidney said.

Judge Calvin Williams, who also joined the call, told Begnaud he’s received recognition and calls from throughout the country. It included this message from a viewer in Alabama:

“The graciousness, the intellect, the outright deep compassion that he showed Mrs. Colvin, touched my heart and I’m sitting here crying,” the caller said.

Williams, who is Black, said Colvin’s actions have also had an impact on him.

“I’m a beneficiary of what she did by not giving up her seat and really sparking a movement that has benefited me all these years later in so many ways,” he said. “And most importantly, as a judge, an African American judge, that could eventually right a wrong that was perpetrated upon her, that is very significant to me.”

David Begnaud

David Begnaud is the lead national correspondent for “CBS Mornings” based in New York City.