Role Play: Montgomery Bus Boycott Organizing Strategies and Challenges

By Alanna D. Murray

The Montgomery Bus Boycott is a model for social movement organization and strategy because it had all the ingredients for success, including: 

  • drawing from preexisting social organizations and establishing a support base through the development of networks; 

  • having a catalytic leadership, who had the power to stimulate and encourage followers, and the ability to determine when and how to respond to events and circumstances; 

  • tapping outside resources in the immediate locale and developing and cultivating interest among those who may be or appear to be uninterested; 

  • employing a strategy rooted in confronting oppression, providing hope, challenging existing structures, and achieving relief from injustice; and 

  • defining a clear, ultimate goal of eliminating segregation. (This list is drawn from a course presentation by Julian Bond.)

Most textbooks and children’s books about the boycott emphasize the second ingredient— the catalytic leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks—leaving out not only the other critical elements, but, most importantly, the role of the thousands of Montgomery residents who boycotted public transportation for over a year.

In this activity, students will act as organizers and learn about many of the challenges faced by a group who sustained a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, for 381 days. The activity typically takes five to seven class periods. While it is designed for middle school students, high school teachers can successfully modify this lesson for the upper grades by making the decisionmaking process less structured.