Teaching About the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Teach the Montgomery Bus Boycott in all its complexity and resist telling a simple story. This article is part of a series on Teaching the Civil Rights Movement and complements the curriculum framework of the same name.
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AP Photo/Gene Herrick

The Montgomery Bus Boycott is one of the most famous events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, featuring one of the movement’s most iconic figures, Rosa Parks. However, the boycott’s historical context and organizing strategies are often erased or glossed over in textbooks and classroom teaching. And when events are removed from context, there is an increased risk of distortion or suppression of information necessary for honest and accurate historical analysis.

Rosa Parks wasn’t simply tired, and she wasn’t merely protesting one single injustice or instance of discrimination. She and other civil rights activists were strategically challenging a system of Jim Crow laws and segregation policies that restricted Black Americans’ rights and relegated them to second-class citizenship. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was an organized protest and part of a broader movement for equality, a movement that reaches back to Reconstruction and earlier—and continues into the present day. The boycott’s strategies, goals and successes were shaped by the context and activism that came before it, just as this historic boycott and its participants influenced the activism that came afterward (and is still ongoing). It is essential to resist telling a simple story about this pivotal moment in the Black freedom movement.

Learning for Justice’s curriculum framework Teaching the Civil Rights Movement provides strategies, essential knowledge and historical context for teaching about the movement for equality and civil rights for Black Americans, from Reconstruction to the present. Learning about the Montgomery Bus Boycott is an opportunity for young people to situate this historical event within the narrative of a larger movement. As the framework’s introduction points out, “By engaging young people in a more inclusive history and activist pedagogy, students can make connections between past and present, recognizing the relevance of history to today’s justice and civil rights movements.”

The following guiding principles, essential knowledge and resources for teaching about the Montgomery Bus Boycott are excerpted and adapted from Teaching the Civil Rights Movement. The complete curriculum framework is available as an online resource and as a PDF that you can download.

Guiding Principles for Teaching About the Civil Rights Movement

Being reflective and intentional about how we teach the honest history and activist pedagogy of the Black movement for equality and civil rights is essential for engaging young people in this history and its connections to their lives. The following is an overview of recommended practices; more details can be found in the Guiding Principles section of Teaching the Civil Rights Movement.

Practice 1: Connect to the present.

  • Build bridges between current events and the long history of the Black movement for equality and civil rights.
  • Encourage young people to make connections between the history—especially the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s—and justice and civil rights movements today.
  • Address goals of the Black movement for equality and civil rights that remain unmet.
  • Make the history and today’s justice and civil rights movements relevant to young people’s lives by drawing on local issues and community struggles.
  • Use project-based learning and performance tasks to assess learning and its application in young people’s own lives.

Practice 2: Know how to talk about race and racism.

  • Recognize how our identities and experiences can affect our feelings about topics of race and racism. Take time to consider your own identities and relationships to this history.
  • Dispel ideas about a biological basis for race and help young people understand race as a social construction.
  • Help young people understand the social and legal constructions surrounding race and how race has been used as a means of control throughout history.
  • Be conscious and curious about the ways race is important in your students’ lives.
  • Allow opportunities for young people to discuss, in a supportive environment, their experiences with race and racism.
  • Avoid race-neutral language and acknowledge contemporary racial disparities.

Practice 3: Educate to realize power.

  • Challenge young people to question the assumptions and historical narratives they have been taught by developing their critical thinking and questioning skills.
  • Prepare young people today to be change agents and participants in history by emphasizing the importance of young people in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Introduce young people to role models in their schools and communities who can serve as strong examples of change-makers.
  • Provide experiential learning opportunities that allow young people to apply what they learn.
  • Teach the tactics and strategies of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and encourage young people to think creatively about how they can address injustice today.

Practice 4: Reveal the unseen.

  • Teach the wider Black freedom struggle that took place across the country (not just in the South) and in daily life (not only in the political sphere).
  • Shift the focus from familiar heroes and villains to lesser-known individuals.
  • Offer broader viewpoints of history by drawing upon original sources and personal narratives and testimonies.
  • Be conscious of (and encourage young people’s awareness of) bias, language and context in source documents.
  • Promote a model of learning as discovery in which young people are producers of knowledge and meaning rather than passive receptacles.

Practice 5: Resist telling a simple story.

  • Avoid presenting sanitized accounts of history that obscure the realities of racial violence and systems of racial control.
  • Address the work that remains to be done, current inequalities and challenges to racial justice.
  • Shift young people’s thinking away from individuals and toward systems and institutions.
  • Dispel the “Malcolm X vs. MLK” dichotomy that casts the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as divided over nonviolent resistance.
  • Present the Black movement for equality and civil rights in the United States from a global perspective that reveals its international implications.

Teaching About the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement is organized into four chronological periods. The summary objectives and essential knowledge in the framework outline the concepts, analytical skills and historical information students should know. Multiple resources are provided to help plan and teach each essential knowledge.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott is addressed in the Teaching the Civil Rights Movement section “Important Gains and Work Unfinished: 1945-1980.” Summary Objective 4 sets the goal for young people to “evaluate the ways that a combination of legal, legislative and activist strategies in the late 1940s and 1950s for achieving political and social equality advanced the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.”

While all the essential knowledge (4.A to 4.E) for this summary objective emphasize what young people should know and provide the historical context of the time, 4.B focuses specifically on the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

4.B. Using direct action, local groups organized boycotts and protests. One of the most famous of these was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This yearlong protest, beginning in December 1955 and organized by a broad coalition, ultimately played a role in a Supreme Court decision mandating the desegregation of city buses.

The following resources listed in Teaching the Civil Rights Movement provide options for teaching about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

  • To better understand a story that’s often oversimplified, young people can research the roles that a broad coalition of activists and organizations played in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Educators can begin by listening to the Teaching Hard History podcast episode “The Real Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”
  • For more support teaching about Parks, you can explore the Zinn Education Project lesson “The Rebellious Lives of Mrs. Rosa Parks.”
  • The documentary The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, available on Peacock, provides a fuller, more honest retelling of civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ work. Along with archival footage of Parks’ interviews and speeches, family members, others who knew her and modern activists make appearances to shed light on her life. In addition, this film offers opportunities to examine how gender and class issues also affected the civil rights movement.
  • While the boycott thrust Martin Luther King Jr. onto a national stage, it was also the work of a coalition of activists. Black women played key roles in organizing some of the most famous protests of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott. To better understand this history, young people can review a 1954 “Letter Written From Jo Ann Robinson to Mayor W.A. Gayle,” in which the Montgomery Women’s Political Council president threatened the mayor with a bus boycott if African American riders did not receive fair treatment. And they can read or listen to the NPR story “Before Rosa Parks, There Was Claudette Colvin” to learn more about the 15-year-old girl who refused to vacate her seat nine months before the boycott.
  • For a better sense of the reality of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, young people should consider the sacrifice and the organization required for a community to forgo public transportation for over a year. Civil Rights Movement Photographs from the Civil Rights Movement Archive includes a number of images of the planning and execution of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Additional Resources

Browder v. Gayle
The most important civil rights case you’ve never heard of, explained in this article from LFJ magazine’s archive.

Dec. 5, 1955: Montgomery Bus Boycott Began
A brief overview of the genesis of the boycott, courtesy of the Zinn Education Project, that hinges on its very first day.

Expanding the Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
This lesson from the City University of New York’s Social History for Every Classroom initiative examines three documents to explore the role of local activists, especially women, in the boycott and the greater Civil Rights Movement.

Montgomery Bus Boycott (The King Institute)
This overview from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University includes a special focus on King’s role in the boycott.

Montgomery Bus Boycott (Stanford History Education Group)
The Stanford History Education Group offers free downloads of teacher and student materials (account required) for its lesson about the boycott.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Understanding the Organizing Tradition
This Zinn Education Project lesson focuses on how the tactics of activists—which evolved over time in response to mounting white resistance—helped secure the boycott’s victory.

Teaching the Montgomery Bus Boycott
A collection of resources from Civil Rights Teaching to help explore a more complete story of the boycott.

Teaching The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
This educator’s guide from the Zinn Education Project covers both the 2021 young adult book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the 2022 documentary based on it (available on Peacock).