Found: Rosa Parks’s Arrest Warrant, and More Traces of Civil Rights History

Tiffany B. McCord, the Montgomery County circuit clerk, viewed records stored in the courthouse basement.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Fred Gray, 87, bespectacled and a bit hard of hearing, stood quietly over the archival box. His hands, though, were a twitching blur: flipping past some folders, opening others, rustling through records that dated back more than half a century.

“Some of these,” said Mr. Gray, who was a young lawyer during the height of the civil rights movement, “I’ve never seen.”

Here was an arrest warrant declaring that Rosa Parks, a client, “did refuse to take a seat assigned to her race.” ​Here was an appeal bond for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another client.

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Credit...Alabama State University Archives; Montgomery Co. Circuit Court
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Here were court motions and bond documents and official papers connected to the prosecutions that swept up dozens of people who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott, which galvanized civil rights demonstrators in Alabama and beyond.

The fragile papers, filled in with sharp signatures and characters stamped out on manual typewriters, are part of what officials believe is the largest surviving trove of legal records from the boycott. Quietly discovered by a courthouse intern during a housecleaning project and now on loan to Alabama State University, the records will be made public online this summer.

Although historians do not believe these​ documents contain anything to alter the well-established story of the bus boycott, the new collection appears to hold some leads and fine-grained details for researchers studying what happened in Alabama’s capital.

And they collectively offer a demonstration of the boycott’s scope.

“A lot of times in our schools, when we teach about the movement, it’s all centered around one person, one figure, but what this does is open up that world to give the back story, to let them know that there were so many people that were involved,” said Quinton T. Ross Jr., the president of Alabama State, a historically black university, where a professor once used a mimeograph machine to run off thousands of fliers announcing the boycott.

Some records from that time, like booking photographs and the police report documenting Ms. Parks’s arrest, were made public long ago. But in recent weeks on the university’s campus, in a Montgomery neighborhood south of Interstate 85 and away from the major civil rights-related sites that draw visitors to the city, archivists have been poring over the trove of courthouse records.

By turns gawking at and working to preserve documents that illustrate both the systematic segregation of the time and the resistance that helped to erode it, they have been focused on cataloging and flattening the records before scanning them for publication.

Some will eventually be put on display as well. For now, though, they are being kept in an unremarkable box, with each document in its own folder bearing a simple printed label like “AL v. Dr. M.L. King #7399.”

Folder No. 2, for instance, holds a record of the proceedings in City of Montgomery v. Rosa Parks, including the names and addresses of 14 witnesses in the case. On the back, a court official filled in blanks indicating that Ms. Parks had been found guilty and sentenced to pay $10 or do hard labor.

In another folder, a court filing on behalf of Dr. King and three other defendants argues that the authorities were enforcing a statute in a way that “constitutes a denial of the equal protection of the laws.” And still another holds a King record that includes some long division.

Douglas G. Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University and a biographer of Ms. Parks, described the records as “astounding artifacts” that “will be brilliant under glass in a museum,” even if they do not yield any groundbreaking revelations.

The site of the preservation work — a glimmeringly modern complex that includes the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture — is near Alabama State’s football stadium, and at a striking remove from the aging Montgomery County courthouse, where Maya A. McKenzie found the records in a room-sized safe in 2013.

Ms. McKenzie, who was then an intern in the circuit clerk’s office, recalled that she had donned gloves to organize the safe because she was not sure what liquids or chemicals she might encounter. Beneath the room’s fluorescent lights, on the lowest of the gunmetal gray shelves, she found a turquoise cardboard box once used by an envelope manufacturer. Inside was a collection of folded papers held together by disintegrating rubber bands and rusting staples. She began to read them.

“I just thought, ‘we found some bus boycott papers, and this is really neat,’ but I didn’t really understand that these were documents we had never seen,” said Ms. McKenzie, who is now a lawyer in Atlanta. “Connecting that history that I learned sophomore year to the tangible object that represented all of that hard work — the fortitude and the foresight and the determination of those people to create a society that would be embracing of all — that was one of those full-circle moments that you can’t script.”

Ms. McKenzie’s find was the starting point of a protracted process to settle the fate of the new trove. The circuit clerk, Tiffany B. McCord, sequestered the documents in a safe in her own office until she could decide what should become of them, showing them only to a handful of courthouse denizens.

She said she considered loaning the collection to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, but concluded that the records ought to stay in Montgomery, and that her office would need to recruit outside experts to salvage them. She chose Alabama State, where she has been a trustee, over Troy University, the home of the Rosa Parks Museum.

“You don’t want to tear that and tape it back together and scan it again,” she said as she walked through the court’s archives, where some of the ceiling tiles had crumbled to the floor.

It is not clear when the records were gathered. Debra P. Hackett, who was circuit clerk from 1983 to 1999, said she did not recall such a collection existing during her tenure. Two of Ms. McCord’s other predecessors did not respond to messages.

“Someone knew to put them all together, but they didn’t go into a place of honor, and that’s what they really needed,” said Ms. McCord, whose office is allowing Alabama State to hold onto the records for ten years.

And so on a recent morning, Mr. Gray, who as a young man had vowed to “destroy everything segregated I could find,” surveyed the paper trail from a part of his career that had slipped deep into history before surfacing once more.

The stark simplicity of the records, filled in by court clerks and police desk sergeants on forms more often used for quotidian offenses long since forgotten, seemed to reflect how Mr. Gray remembered those turbulent months.

“We never thought about a civil rights movement,” he said. “We thought about solving a problem on the buses.”

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