Document Deep Dive: Rosa Parks’ Arrest Records
William Pretzer was five years old when Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested. It was December 1, 1955. The 42-year-old seamstress was on a city bus, en route home after a day’s work, and she refused to give her seat to a white passenger.
The full import of the event did not register with Pretzer, so young and living more than 2,000 miles away in Sacramento, California. To be honest, it would take time for most people to gain enough perspective to see the protest for what it was, the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States, and Parks as the movement’s so-called “mother.”
Even now, as he looks over Parks’ police report and fingerprints, Pretzer, a senior curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is struck by the banality of the documents. “There is nothing that makes this event look extraordinary,” he says. “It is being treated as a typical misdemeanor violation of the city code. In fact, that is exactly what it was.”
Yet, while police dealt with the situation just like any other altercation on the city’s segregated buses, Parks, her attorneys and NAACP leaders organized. “Within the African American community, it is seen as an opportunity for progress to be made, for attention and pressure to be brought to bear on the white power structure,” says Pretzer.