Was Rosa Parks Convicted?

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.

5 thoughts on “Was Rosa Parks Convicted?”

  1. In the Huffingtonpost article cited by Mr. Welty, it states that Ralph Abbernathy III (son of the famous civil rights leader Ralph Abbernathy) intended to apply for a pardon for his father under the “Rosa Parks Act” but it was never made clear in this article whether he actually did. Abernathy III died in 2016 and I could find no record of a pardon being granted to his father.

    Its should be noted, according to the Associated Press on Aug. 15, 2009 “The bill’s sponsor, Representative Thad McClammy, Democrat of Montgomery, said that he hoped Mr. Abernathy’s application would spur others. “I hope this will help motivate a number of people who may have second thoughts that these pardons are for real,” Mr. McClammy said.”

    So, this begs the continued question: if only a limited amount of people remain alive and/or are eligible for this pardon, what legal effect has this Alabama State Bill offered (or will ever offer) to people who were wrongfully arrested for asserting their civil rights?


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