MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Yellowing court records from the arrests of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and others at the dawn of the modern civil rights era are being preserved and digitized after being discovered, folded and wrapped in rubber bands, in a courthouse box.
Archivists at historically black Alabama State University are cataloguing and flattening dozens of documents found at the Montgomery County Courthouse, and Circuit Clerk Tiffany McCord hopes electronic versions will be available for viewing as early as late June.
Once the records are added to Alabama's online court system, historians and others will be able to read the original pleadings filed by Parks' attorneys following her refusal to give her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus on Dec. 1, 1955.
Parks' arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched a young King to prominence as a civil rights leader while the Atlanta-born pastor was working at his first church in downtown Montgomery.
The records being preserved include a bail document signed in black ink by King, who was arrested in March 1956 with Parks and more than 100 others on charges of boycotting the city bus system in protest of Parks' treatment.
"I think the public ought to be able to see that," said McCord. "It's exciting that it's happening."
Alabama State archivist Howard Robinson said the records are important because they provide texture and depth to the story of the early days of the movement.
Rather than just containing the familiar names of Parks and King, Robinson said, the records include the names of lesser-known people like witnesses who saw Parks' arrest; bus boycott participants; attorneys; and those who put up bond to free people from jail.
"These papers allow us to understand who those folks were," said Robinson.
Parks was convicted of violating the city's segregation laws; a federal court deciding another case outlawed segregation on public buses while her case was being appealed. That same ruling effectively ended King's appeal after he was convicted with others of violating an anti-boycott law.
McCord said she found documents from the cases, which include records from trial and appeals courts, after taking office in 2013.
"They were in an envelope box. They were all bent and folded with rubber bands on them probably dating back to the 1950s. The bands were sort of disintegrating into them," she said.
After looking at options, including feeding the papers through a scanner that sometimes jams, McCord said she decided to provide them on a 10-year loan for scanning and research by Alabama State, where fliers announcing the boycott were made more than 60 years ago.
Some records and photos relating to Parks' arrest already are on display at Montgomery City Hall, and school officials sounded skeptical when first contacted about the boxful of court records, McCord said.
"When they came over and saw what it was their mouths dropped open," she said.
Robinson said he hopes to locate some of the people mentioned in the documents.
"In order to understand the past and all the events that have occurred, particularly as part of the modern civil rights movement, we reduce the bus boycott to Rosa Parks refusing to relinquish her seat and Martin Luther King leading the bus boycott," he said. "But these records sort of indicate that it was much more ... than that, that there were far more people involved and that the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama mounted a pitched battle to maintain segregation."