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Jim Crow On Wheels

In this role-play activity, students act out a scene on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama prior to the famous bus boycott to learn how segregation operated on public transportation.


Students will be able to understand the details of how legal segregation operated on public transportation in the South

Students will be able to personally identify with the unfair treatment suffered by black bus passengers because of racial segregation and understand what motivated the degree of organization and sacrifice that was necessary for the Montgomery bus boycott to succeed.


Step 1: Arrange seventeen chairs in a bus-like formation, with sixteen seats for passengers and one seat for the driver. Use masking tape and/or a sign to indicate where the white section (10 front seats) ends and the colored section (6 rear seats) begins.

Step 2: Ask for volunteer "passengers" and distribute one identity card to each volunteer. (Cards should be hole-punched and tied with string in advance so as to be worn around the neck. They should be clearly visible to the "driver.")

The roles include:

  • Front and rear door markers [1 or 2 students to stand where the front and rear doors to the bus would be]

  • African-American maid and white male child

  • White housewife

  • African-American female teacher

  • African-American female student

  • African-American male student

  • White male postal worker

  • African-American male janitor

  • African-American waiter/World War II Veteran

  • African-American female secretary

  • African-American male student visiting from New York City 

Each identity card identifies at which stop the passenger will board and what they should do. The teacher should adopt the role of bus driver. Students who do not have a role to play should be given the Note Taking Worksheet and instructed to choose three characters and take notes on what those characters do and how it might make them feel.

Step 3: Explain that this exercise is a role play to show how segregation operated on the Montgomery, Alabama bus system. Explain to "passengers" that the bus driver is the director of the bus, and has the final say on who occupies what seats.

Information for Bus Drivers: Black passengers had to pay their fare at the front of the bus, exit, and re-enter through the back door. African-American female domestic workers traveling with white children sat in the "whites only" section of the bus. If the bus boarded more African Americans than seats available, the black passengers had to stand regardless of how many seats were available in the white section of the bus. Many bus drivers were armed and were expected to call the police if segregation laws were not observed. There were rarely, if ever, consequences for a bus driver using threats or violence to force compliance by black passengers.

Step 4: The "driver" calls out each bus stop and the passengers for that stop board the bus. There are three stops total. The bus driver instructs passengers and makes comments as needed in order to enforce segregation rules.  

Step 5: Passengers disembark from the bus. As a class, discuss the role play using these questions:

  • What were the different roles?

  • What choices did these different people have?

  • What were the likely consequences of their choices?

  • What did it feel like to play these roles?

  • How do you think passengers at the time reacted to these segregation rules?

Historical Context

In December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the "whites only" section of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her action, along with widespread activism by the city's African-American community, launched the Montgomery bus boycott. For nearly a year, black residents refused to ride on Montgomery's buses, and by their actions forced the city to change its laws. Alabama, along with other southern states, had many laws that required the separation of African Americans and whites in public places such as restaurants, swimming pools, and public transportation. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights |

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, “Jim Crow On Wheels,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 23, 2021,

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