Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

menuAmerican Social History Project  ·    Center for Media and Learning

Active Viewing: Eyes on the Prize "Awakenings"

In this activity students analyze the reasons why the Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted so long and was successful. Students watch a short clip from the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Then students analyze primary sources to determine who participated in the boycott, who organized it, and what challenges boycott supporters faced. The teacher will need access to the film Eyes on the Prize, which is widely available in school and public libraries.


  • Students will be able to identify who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott and who participated in it. 

  • Students will analyze the reasons why the bus boycott lasted so long and why it was successful. 

  • Students will evaluate the importance of political organization and participation by ordinary people to effect social change.  


Step 1: Tell students that they will be looking at how the black community of Montgomery, Alabama supported and organized a year-long boycott to protest unfair treatment of black riders in the Jim Crow South. Students will watch a film clip and then analyze primary source documents to determine why the boycott lasted as long as it did. 

Explain what has happened in the film before the clip:

  • From Brown vs. Board of Education to the case of Emmett Till, African Americans across the South grew outwardly discontented with segregation and the hostile (sometimes violent) attacks imposed upon them by white Americans.

  • Acts of personal courage had taken place on public transportation (i.e., Claudette Colvin, 15-year-old student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, refused to give up her seat 9 months before Rosa Parks, a secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP).

  • Organizing groups like the Women's Political Council of Montgomery had documented unfair treatment of blacks on busses. 

  • Activists had determined that a boycott of a city transportation system was a good opportunity to launch a campaign for fair and equal treatment in public spaces. 

Step 2: Pose to students the following preview question to listen for as they watch the clip:

  • Who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott? And how did they organize to meet the challenges of the boycott?  

Play clip (Chapter 6; 32:16-42:01). After viewing, share out responses to the preview questions and follow up by asking:

  • In what ways did group solidarity play a role in sustaining the bus boycott? 

Step 3: Divide students into mixed-ability groups of five. Pass out a packet of the five primary sources to each group and a copy of the graphic organizer to each student. In their groups, working independently or as a whole, students should analyze each source for evidence that helps us understand why the bus boycott lasts so long. (If students work independently on one document, they should then share their document and the evidence they found with their group members.) Students should categorize their evidence according to the graphic organizer: evidence of intolerable conditions on the busses, strong organization by activist leaders, and/or community support. 

After students have gathered evidence from all the documents, they should independently respond to the writing prompt, citing evidence from the graphic organizer to support their answers. 

  • Writing Prompt: Using evidence from the chart you filled in, write a paragraph explaining why the bus boycott lasted so long.



Step 4: (Optional) Have students share out responses from their essays. Conclude with discussion of the following:


  • What does the Montgomery Bus Boycott tell us about the ability of ordinary people to affect the political process? What are the opportunities and limitations for ordinary people to influence the political process? 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
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, “Active Viewing: Eyes on the Prize "Awakenings",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 8, 2023,

Print and Share