In this exercise, teachers examine two documents discussing the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, and the boycott of that system from December 1955 to December 1956. The documents are a letter written by activist Jo Ann Robinson in March 1954, and an excerpt from Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s Masters Thesis describing the first meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association, several days after Rosa Parks was arrested. While examining each source, teachers answer the following questions:
- What do you notice about the source?
- What questions do you want to ask about the source?
- Does anything surprise you about this source?
After discussing these questions, teachers learn more about the historical context surrounding Jim Crow in the South, the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, and Rosa Parks. They are then asked to discuss how these documents challenge or confirm their ideas about Rosa Parks’s involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After completing the activity, teachers discuss classroom applications.
- Distribute a copy of the letter to each person.
- Ask teachers to work in pairs and examine the letter closely, and write down observations, unfamiliar images or words, and a list of questions about the letter and the time period.
- Then, distribute the excerpts from Abernathy’s thesis to each person.
- Ask teachers to work in pairs and examine the excerpts closely, and write down observations, unfamiliar images or words, and a list of questions about the thesis and the time period.
- What did you notice about the letter?
- What is its purpose?
- What surprised you about the letter?
- What did you notice about the thesis excerpts?
- What surprised you about the thesis excerpts?
- What do you already know about these documents? About the time period in which they were written?
- What further information would you want to know (e.g., about the Jim Crow South, Civil Rights in the 1950s, the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama?)
- Do you think this activity would work with your students?
- Could you use this strategy with other resources?
- Would you do anything differently in your classroom?
Write three columns onto the whiteboard: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background.
Use the following questions to guide discussion:
Present this historical background to enhance the group’s knowledge of the time period, and as a basis for drawing conclusions in Step 5. Write the words in bold on the whiteboard, and use the rest of the text for guidance.
Civil Rights in the 1950s
By the early 1950s, a host of associations committed to organizing around civil rights issues had emerged in Alabama. Jo Ann Robinson, an educator at Alabama State College, had been President of the Women’s Political Council (WPC) since 1950. The organization, formed in Montgomery in the mid-1940s, aimed to help blacks pass the literacy tests designed to keep them from voting. In 1953, the WPC turned its focus to racism on Montgomery’s bussing system.
Ralph Abernathy had attended Alabama State College after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He became involved in political organizing around school-related civil rights issues. In 1951, he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, and spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott alongside Dr. Martin Luther King.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
By 1954, political activists in Montgomery were thinking seriously about organizing a protest surrounding the practices on the segregated Montgomery bus system. In March 1955, Claudette Colvin, a student at a Montgomery high school, was arrested for refusing to move from the white section of the bus. Colvin became pregnant within months of her arrest and dropped out of school. The Women’s Political Council and other organizations interested in addressing the problems with Montgomery’s bus system decided not to make Colvin’s arrest a rallying cry for the boycott for fear of alienating religious and conservative blacks.
Rosa Parks had been involved in NAACP-related organizing activity for some time before her arrest on December 1, 1955, including completing an organizer-led training course on race relations. When E.D. Nixon, the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, suggested that she become a test case to challenge segregation on city busses, she agreed.
After the arrest of Parks, Jo Ann Robinson and her students promptly organized a successful one-day bus boycott, based on a list of grievances similar to those outlined in the 1954 letter. Black leaders were not convinced that there was enough will in the community to sustain a long-term protest, but the boycott wore on. While the national spotlight focused on Montgomery, the federal district court ruled in June 1956 that all segregation on Montgomery’s busses was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in November 1956, and a Montgomery city ordinance codifying the Supreme Court decision marked the end of the boycott in December 1956.
Begin the discussion by asking: How do these documents portray Rosa Parks? How do they challenge or confirm your understanding of the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
Together, these documents serve to challenge common narratives about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Many textbooks present Rosa Parks as a “tired seamstress” who one day, in an unprecedented act of defiance, refused to give up her seat on the bus, thus sparking a spontaneous boycott of the Montgomery bus system.
The letter shows that plans, or at least threats, to hold a boycott had been in preparation for more than half a year before Rosa Parks was arrested in December 1955. The letter lists three primary grievances with the bussing system, indicating that organizers had thought carefully about this issue and the steps that could be taken to address it.
The excerpts from Abernathy’s thesis make it clear that after the arrest of Parks, prominent black community organizers did not see a wide-scale, long-term boycott of the Montgomery bus system as inevitable or sustainable.
In addition, Abernathy explicitly says that “Mrs. Rosa Parks was presented to the mass meeting because we wanted her to become symbolic of our protest movement.” Parks was chosen as a symbol because she was a married, Christian woman, someone who would seem sympathetic to a large constituency. Abernathy foresees the later fracturing of the movement—two ministers who left the boycott before its end in December 1956.