Was Rosa Parks Convicted?

Published for NC Criminal Law on December 01, 2015.

Sixty years ago today, Rosa Parks was arrested for failing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus to a white passenger. Thinking about her courage, the arrest, and the changes that it helped bring about, I realized that I didn’t know what became of the charges against her. I was surprised by the answer, and thought I’d share it with others.

First trial. The original arrest report is here, and it states that on December 1, 1955, Parks was charged with violating “chapter 6, section 11 of the Montgomery City Code,” which concerned segregation on city buses. According to Wikipedia, she was tried on December 5, 1955, and was convicted of the ordinance violation and disorderly conduct. If Wikipedia is correct about the convictions, the disorderly conduct charge must have been added after her arrest. The trial took place in recorder’s court, a low-level local court. Parks was fined $10 plus $4 in court costs.

Trial de novo. The incident sparked a year-long boycott of the city buses and galvanized the young civil rights movement, but this post will stay focused on Parks’ court case. She appealed, apparently to a new bench trial in circuit court, where she was convicted again. If the disorderly conduct charge existed and was brought forward, she was convicted only of the ordinance violation. Parks v. City of Montgomery, 92 So.2d 683 (Ala. Ct. App. 1957) (reciting the procedural history of the case and making no mention of disorderly conduct).

Appellate courts. Parks appealed again, this time to the Court of Appeals of Alabama. While this appeal was pending, a three-judge federal district court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (M.D. Ala. 1956). The Supreme Court affirmed, and Montgomery’s buses were desegregated in December 1956.

The following February, the state appellate court ruled on Parks’ appeal. It concluded that her attorney had failed to make assignments of error, leaving “nothing before the court for review.” Her conviction of the ordinance violation, which the court deemed “statutory and quasi criminal in nature,” was therefore affirmed. Parks, supra. Whether this ruling was a correct application of the law at that time or was a pretext for dodging the merits of Parks’ appeal, I don’t know.

Westlaw has no documentation regarding any further appeal, but the Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law states that “[i]n November 1957, in a general settlement of the [bus] boycott cases, [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and Parks dropped their appeals to the state supreme court and paid their fines.” So, incredibly, Parks’ conviction seems to have stood despite the unconstitutionality of the ordinance she was convicted of violating. She is deceased, and I imagine that her death removed the possibility of any relief from the judgment.

Postscript. For those interested in how Montgomery’s history affects its present, this recent NPR story describes the training that Montgomery police officers receive in a mandatory course called Policing in a Historic City: Civil Rights and Wrongs in Montgomery.

The post Was Rosa Parks Convicted? appeared first on North Carolina Criminal Law.

Error | UNC School of Government


The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later.