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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Protest

Montgomery Advertiser, 6 December 1955, detail
- Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, memoir, 1987, Ch. 2, "The Boycott Begins" (PDF)

This reading and the two following illustrate how activists implemented non-violent strategies in different Southern settings—the city of Montgomery, Alabama; the small town of Monroe, North Carolina; and rural Mississippi. They demonstrate the extent to which the civil rights movement was essentially a series of local initiatives. They also invite discussion around several provocative contrasts—male and female, urban and rural, young and old, elite and mass. Suggestions for comparisons and contrasts appear in the discussion questions for the selection from Coming of Age in Mississippi in #7: Voting.

Black women in Montgomery, Alabama, unlocked a remarkable spirit in their city in late 1955. Sick of segregated public transportation, these women decided to wield their financial power against the city bus system and, led by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1912-1992), convinced Montgomery's African Americans to stop using public transportation. Robinson was born in Georgia and attended the segregated schools of Macon. After graduating from Fort Valley State College, she taught school in Macon and eventually went on to earn an M.A. in English at Atlanta University. In 1949 she took a faculty position at Alabama State College in Montgomery. There she joined the Women's Political Council. When a Montgomery bus driver insulted her, she vowed to end racial seating on the city's buses. Using her position as president of the Council, she mounted a boycott. She remained active in the civil rights movement in Montgomery until she left that city in 1960. Her story illustrates how the desire on the part of individuals to resist oppression—once it is organized, led, and aimed at a specific goal—can be transformed into a mass movement. (15 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did its urban setting shape the goals, tactics, and conduct of the boycott?
  2. How did the women of Montgomery obtain the support of the city's black ministers?
  3. What roles did the ministers play in the boycott?
  4. What roles did religion play in the boycott?
  5. What roles did publicity and the media play in the boycott?
  6. How did the response of the white community affect the boycott?
  7. What role did women play in the leadership of the boycott?
  8. What leadership qualities promoted the boycott's success?
  9. What effect did the boycott have on the black citizens of Montgomery?
  10. How does Robinson's narrative frame the civil rights struggle within traditional American political values?
  11. How does Robinson present herself in this excerpt?

Framing Questions
  •  What forms did African American protest take?
  •  How did protest strategies and goals evolve over time?
  •  In what ways was African American identity shaped in opposition to the larger American society?

Robinson: 15 pages
Supplemental Sites
They Changed the World: 1955-1956, The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, from the Montgomery Advertiser

The Montgomery Improvement Association, from the MIA Foundation

Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project, Stanford University

  - Montgomery bus boycott, Ch. 7-8 in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  - King's address to the Montgomery Improvement Association, 5 December 1955

MIA suggestions for riding integrated buses after the boycott, 1956, in Eyes on the Prize (PBS)

History of the boycott through documents and images, from the Illinois Institute of Technology Law Library

Unsung Heroes of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, NPR broadcast, 2005

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, DBQ with introduction and warm-up activity in Historical Thinking Matters, from George Mason University and Stanford University

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Montgomery Advertiser, 6 December 1955, detail; permission pending from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

1. Asking   2. Reasoning   3. Singing   4. Marching
  5. Boycotting   6. Arming   7. Voting   8. Separating
  9. Connecting   10. Writing   11. Poetry   12. Theater   13. Images

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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Revised: June 2009