Note: This article originally appeared in Social Education with reproducible documents. This text-only version does not include those documents. Please contact the National Archives at the address within the article for information on document availability.

The Arrest Records of Rosa Parks

 

Stacey Bredhoff, Wynell Schamel, and Lee Ann Potter

On December 1, 1955, during a typical evening rush hour in Montgomery, Alabama, a 42-year-old woman took a seat on the bus on her way home from the Montgomery Fair department store where she worked as a seamstress. Before she reached her destination, she quietly set off a social revolution when the bus driver instructed her to move back, and she refused. Rosa Parks, an African American, was arrested that day for violating a city law requiring racial segregation of public buses.

On the city buses of Montgomery, Alabama, the front ten seats were permanently reserved for white passengers. The diagram on page 208 shows that Mrs. Parks was seated in the first row behind those ten seats. When the bus became crowded, the bus driver instructed Mrs. Parks and the other three passengers seated in that row, all African Americans, to vacate their seats for the white passengers boarding. Eventually, three of the passengers moved, while Mrs. Parks remained seated, arguing that she was not in a seat reserved for whites. Joseph Blake, the driver, believed he had the discretion to move the line separating black and white passengers. The law was actually somewhat murky on that point, but when Mrs. Parks defied his order, he called the police. Officers Day and Mixon came and promptly arrested her.

In police custody, Mrs. Parks was booked, fingerprinted, and briefly incarcerated. The police report (pages 210 and 211) shows that she was charged with “refusing to obey orders of bus driver.” For openly challenging the racial laws of her city, she remained at great physical risk while held by the police, and her family was terrified for her. When she called home, she spoke to her mother, whose initial question was, “Did they beat you?”

Mrs. Parks was not the first person to be prosecuted for violating segregation laws on city buses in Montgomery. She was, however, a woman of unchallenged character who was held in high esteem by all who knew her. At the time of her arrest, Mrs. Parks was active in the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as secretary to E. D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery chapter. Her arrest became a rallying point around which the African American community organized a bus boycott in protest of the discrimination they had endured for years. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 26-year-old minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, emerged as a leader during this well-coordinated and peaceful boycott, which lasted 381 days and captured the world’s attention. It was during this boycott that Reverend King first achieved national fame as the public became acquainted with his powerful oratory.

After Mrs. Parks was convicted under city law, her lawyer filed a notice of appeal. While her appeal was tied up in the state court of appeals, a panel of three judges in the U.S. District Court for the region ruled in another case that racial segregation of public buses was unconstitutional. That case, called Browder v. Gayle, was decided on June 4, 1956. The ruling was made by a three-judge panel that included Frank M. Johnson, Jr., and upheld by the United States Supreme Court on November 13, 1956.

For a quiet act of defiance that resonated throughout the world, Rosa Parks is known and revered as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

 

The documents shown here relating to Mrs. Parks’s arrest are copies that were submitted as evidence in the Browder v. Gayle case. They are preserved by the National Archives and Records Administration—Southeast Region in East Point, Georgia, in Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States, U.S. District Court for Middle District of Alabama, Northern (Montgomery) Division, Civil Case 1147, Browder, et al v. Gayle, et al.

 

Teaching Activities

Note: These activities are designed to accompany a unit on racial segregation in the South in the 1950s. Additional teaching activities related to civil rights are included in volumes 1 and 2 of Teaching With Documents. For information about these publications, visit www.nara.gov/education/publications on the web or call 202-501-6729.

 

1. Duplicate and distribute the featured documents. Ask students to study the documents and answer these questions:

> Who was arrested?

> Who arrested her?

> When and where was she arrested?

> Who signed the warrant for her arrest?

> What was the complaint?

> Does anything surprise you about the arrest? The arrest records?

> What else do you want to know about the arrest that the records don’t tell you?

2. Ask a student to look up the word “nationality” in a dictionary and read the definition aloud to the class. Direct the students to read again what was written on the police report for Rosa Parks’s nationality. Ask them to compare the dictionary definition with the answer written on the police report. How do they differ? What might explain this difference? What can you infer from this difference about the official view of black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, at the time of Rosa Parks’s arrest? Ask a volunteer to obtain a blank police report from a local police department. Allow time for the student to report to the class on any differences between the modern form and the report on Parks. Conclude this activity with a discussion of why they think information about race and nationality are collected on these and other forms. You might want to extend this discussion to the current controversy over ethnic data to be collected in the U.S. census for 2000.

3. Ask a student to read the charges against Parks to the class. Then invite students to tell the class about any experiences they have had in refusing to obey an order from someone in authority. Encourage any student who answers to explain what motivated his or her refusal, and what the consequences were for the student and perhaps for other people.

4. Assign students in groups to do one of the following activities:

> Write and perform a one-act play based on information in the documents and the readings suggested below. Videotape the best performances and make them available for other classes to view.

> Write interior monologues for Parks, the bus driver, a white passenger, a black passenger, or the police officer involved describing his or her thoughts and feelings during the incident that resulted in Rosa Parks’s arrest.

> Find out more about the life of Rosa Parks and try to determine what motivated her actions on the bus, and what the consequences were for her and others. Then write a brief essay on some aspect of this subject.

> Research the lives of other people—famous or obscure—involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s, and choose one person for a report in written or oral form.

5. Assign students to search their textbooks, reference books, and other books on the history of the period, and to fill in the data retrieval chart for this and succeeding events in the black civil rights movement between 1955 and 1968. Follow with a class discussion of the data collected. Students could do further research on the forms of protest used in the civil rights movement in terms of how they were chosen and how effective they were. This research should also be followed by class discussion.

 

Suggested Reading

Bass, Jack. Taming the Storm—The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. and the South’s Fight over Civil Rights. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1993.

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters—America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Parks, Rosa. Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth. New York: Lee and Low, 1996.

Parks, Rosa and Jim Haskins. Rosa Parks: My Story. New York: Dial Books, 1992.

Stevenson, Janet. “Rosa Parks Wouldn’t Budge,” American Heritage Vol XXIII, No. 2 (February 1972).

Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize—America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1987.

 

Stacey Bredhoff is an exhibit curator, and Wynell Schamel and Lee Ann Potter are education specialists, at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. Schamel serves as editor for “Teaching with Documents,” a regular department of Social Education. You may reproduce the documents shown here in any quantity. For more information, write, call, or e-mail the Education Staff at NARA, NWE-E, Washington, D.C. 20408; (202) 501-6729; education@arch1.nara.gov.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.