An Act of Courage: The Arrest Records of Rosa Parks

From the National Archives

In this resource students use original arrest records of famed Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks in order to understand how she openly challenged the racial laws of Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. This lesson plan provokes group discussion and creates a classroom environment where students must work together in order to fully understand what Rosa Parks did and how the records document the segregation laws of the period.

This lesson plan uses primary sources — in this case arrest documents — in a single historical case to illuminate legal segregation in the United States.  Through a pivotal Civil Rights figure from the 1950s and 60s, this resource allows a teacher to compare/contrast arrests then to the legal process today.  

Although students oftentimes find it tedious to go through official documents, that exercise works well here because students should already know some background about Rosa Parks and find her to be a heroic figure. The brief summary of her and the bus segregation case on the main page provides a background for those unfamiliar with her or those who need reminding.  A judge or other presenter could also put these records and the figure of Rosa Parks into a context for students who have not yet had much history about the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

The strongest part of this assignment is the document analysis worksheet where the students enter information gleaned from the primary source documents (they could also use the worksheet template to evaluate other resources not provided (e.g. legal documents pertaining to other historical or contemporary cases).  That discovery exercise forces students to consider where to find information, to think critically about what they are reading, and to make their own preliminary conclusions about historical justice and fairness in the United States and the steps taken to rectify the political, economic/social/cultural and legal discrimination.  

A presenter could help facilitate students' process of discovery by using the worksheet as a template for a class discussion, rather than as  an assignment that students are to complete individually.
Students unfamiliar with reading primary documents and who have trouble determining the main points from the documents may need more time and direction than more advanced students who have some experience with such resources. 

This resource could be used for middle school and older students:  the questions that are provided demand differing levels of sophistication.  As a result a judge or a teacher could choose questions depending on the age and backgrounds of the students. 

What other resources will complement this?

  1. Balancing Free Speech and Fair Trial  Lesson Plan from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (H)
  2. Courts in the Classroom  Videos from the Judicial Council of California and the Administrative Office (P, M, H)
  3. Dialogue on Youth and Justice  Lesson Plan from the American Bar Association (H, A)  
  4. Interactive Guide to the Sixth Amendment  Interactive document from the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics (M, H)
  5. Teen House Party Search  Lesson Plan from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (H, A)

Additional Recommended Resources Off-Site Links

  1. A Constitutional Timeline
    • Multi-aged audience timeline that highlights key dates in history of Constitution, with links to text, audio and video clips. From National Constitution Center's Constitution Day site. 
  2. Interactive Constitution
    • Multi-aged audience site that enables users to search Constitution by keyword or topic, with access to explanatory materials throughout. From National Constitution Center.   
  3. The Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution
    • Multi-aged audience site that lists the text of each section of every article in the Constitution, and provides explanation of what the text means in plain language.  From the Leonore Annenberg Institute of Civics. 
  4. Understanding the Federal Courts
    • Multi-aged online textbook-type document that includes sections on Article III, the Federal Court system and the geographical boundaries of the Courts of Appeal and the District Courts, the code of conduct for judges, juror qualifications, exemptions and terms of service, as well as categories of bankruptcy cases.  From the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.