Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Expanding the Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

In this lesson students will examine three documents about the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) to determine the importance of local activists, especially women, in the civil rights movement. This lesson might serve as an introduction to a unit on the civil rights movement.


  • Students will determine the roles of ordinary people, especially women, in the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  

  • Students will compare and contrast their own narratives of the Montgomery Bus Boycott with the story of local issues and local activists that emerges from three primary sources.  


Step 1: Pass out "Expanding the Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott" worksheet. Ask students to take a moment and brainstorm their thoughts and impressions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This is an informal writing exercise, so they can create a concept map or write a paragraph.

Step 2: Tell students that we started out by looking at what they already know about the civil rights movement, and now they are going to see how asking questions about women, ordinary people, and local issues widens the picture of civil rights a bit.  Pass out three Montgomery Bus Boycott documents.  

Step 3: Have students read the documents and answer the questions.  Students can work individually or in small groups.  

Step 4: Go over students responses.  The main points are outlined below:

  • Women played a major role by organizing the Women's Political Council, by typing up and distributing the notices, by spreading the word in the community. Some of these actions reflected women's roles as secretaries (access to typewriters and mimeographs) and in phone tree networks. Women displayed impressive organization skills, persistence, and purposeful political goals, unlike some previous ideas about women and African Americans in the South in the time period.  

  • Yes, there is evidence of local issues. There is an organized network of the Women's Political Council, already in place after 1946, showing that problems with the buses had been an ongoing problem in Montgomery. Activists show that they know they have power, since they're 3/4 of ridership. They use their position in the community. They come up with a solution that makes sense in Montgomery.  

  • Montgomery's buses were desegregated.  Possible problems they still faced: segregated schools and other public facilities, lower wages and poorer housing...

Step 5: Ask students to reflect (in discussion or writing) about how these documents challenge their previous ideas about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the civil rights movement.  

Historical Context

The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) is usually remembered as one of the events that "kickstarted" the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., are usually recalled as the key players. However, this telling of the event leaves out the years-long work of local activists, particularly women, to protest unfair treatment of black riders prior to Parks' arrest; the role these activists played in organizing the boycott; and the universal participation of ordinary black citizens that led to the boycott's success. Traditional narratives of civil rights often focus on the leadership of men like King and Malcolm X and the roles of organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This narrative leaves out or obscures the local issues that led ordinary people, especially women, to work for change in their communities. Because the Montgomery Bus Boycott is a well known story, it is a good case study to draw out the less known story of how local activists were key to propelling the civil rights movement forward.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Expanding the Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 3, 2023,

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