Educator Resources

Civil Rights: Montgomery Bus Boycott

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Background:

On December 1, 1955, during evening rush hour in Montgomery, Alabama, a 42-year-old woman took a seat on the bus on her way home from work. Before she reached her destination, the bus driver instructed her to move to the back of the bus. She refused. The arrest of Rosa Parks, an African American, for violating a city law requiring racial segregated public buses would have far-reaching consequences.

Reserved for white passengers, the front ten seats were off limits to African Americans on Montgomery, Alabama, city buses. Not seated in the first ten seats, Mrs. Parks sat in the row just behind those seats. When the bus became crowded, the bus driver instructed Mrs. Parks and three other passengers seated in that row, all African Americans, to vacate their seats for the white passengers boarding. The other three passengers moved but Mrs. Parks remained seated, stating that she was not in a seat reserved for whites. The bus driver believed that he had the authority to move the line separating black and white passengers. When Mrs. Parks refused to move, he called the police to arrest Rosa Parks.

Mrs. Parks was booked, fingerprinted, and briefly incarcerated. The police report states that she was charged with "refusing to obey orders of bus driver." Her arrest became a rallying point around which the African American community organized a bus boycott in protest of the discrimination they had endured for years. Twenty-six year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a leader during the peaceful boycott that lasted 381 days and captured the world’s attention.

Convicted under city law, Mrs. Parks’ attorney filed a notice of appeal with the Alabama State Court of Appeals. With Rosa Parks’ case tied up in the state system, a panel of three judges in the U.S. District Court ruled in a related case, called Browder v. Gayle, that racial segregation of public buses was unconstitutional. Decided on June 4, 1956, the United States Supreme Court quickly upheld the Browder v. Gayle verdict on November 13, 1956.

Documents:

Refer to CaptionDiagram of the Bus Showing Where Rosa Parks Was Seated National Archives Identifier 596069
Refer to CaptionPolice Report on Arrest of Rosa Parks National Archives Identifier 596074
  
Refer to Caption Fingerprint Card of Rosa Parks
Refer to Caption Judgment from Aurelia Browder et al. v. W. A. Gayle et al.: National Archives Identifier 279206

Classroom Activities:

For activities using the Police Report, the Fingerprint Card and the Bus Diagram, see NARA’s Teaching With Documents: An Act of Courage, The Arrest Records of Rosa Parks at http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/rosa-parks/.

Guiding Questions

Judgment from Browder v. Gayle

  • On what grounds was segregation on Montgomery, Alabama found to be unconstitutional?
  • What does the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution say?
  • When was the Fourteenth Amendment passed and why did it take so long to be enforced?
  • On page 2 of this document it states that the "defendants, their successors in office, assigns, agents, servants, employees, and persons acting on their behalf, be . . . restrained from enforcing . . . segregation in the use of bus transportation." Why do you think the writers of this document listed everyone instead of just saying "defendants?"

If a teacher finds unique and effective ways to use these documents in their classroom and would like to share them with other teachers, please contact joel.walker@nara.gov.

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