Fred Gray, 87, bespectacled and a bit hard of hearing, stood quietly over the archival box. His hands, though, were a twitching blur: flipping past some folders, opening others, rustling through records that dated back more than half a century.
“Some of these,” said Mr. Gray, who was a young lawyer during the height of the civil rights movement, “I’ve never seen.”
Here was an arrest warrant declaring that Rosa Parks, a client, “did refuse to take a seat assigned to her race.” ?Here was an appeal bond for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another client.
Here were court motions and bond documents and official papers connected to the prosecutions that swept up dozens of people who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott, which galvanized civil rights demonstrators in Alabama and beyond.
The fragile papers, filled in with sharp signatures and characters stamped out on manual typewriters, are part of what officials believe is the largest surviving trove of legal records from the boycott. Quietly discovered by a courthouse intern during a housecleaning project and now on loan to Alabama State University, the records will be made public online this summer.
Although historians do not believe these documents contain anything to alter the well-established story of the bus boycott, the new collection appears to hold some leads and fine-grained details for researchers studying what happened in Alabama’s capital.
And they collectively offer a demonstration of the boycott’s scope.
“A lot of times in our schools, when we teach about the movement, it’s all centered around one person, one figure, but what this does is open up that world to give the back story, to let them know that there were so many people that were involved,” said Quinton T. Ross Jr., the president of Alabama State, a historically black university, where a professor once used a mimeograph machine to run off thousands of fliers announcing the boycott.
Some records from that time, like booking photographs and the police report documenting Ms. Parks’s arrest, were made public long ago. But in recent weeks on the university’s campus, in a Montgomery neighborhood south of Interstate 85 and away from the major civil rights-related sites that draw visitors to the city, archivists have been poring over the trove of courthouse records.