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        Rosa Parks | Civil Rights Activist

        After the Civil War and through the Civil Rights era of the 1950s, racial segregation laws made life for many African Americans extremely difficult. Rosa Parks—long-standing civil rights activist and author—is best known for her refusal to give up her seat to a white bus passenger, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Through two primary source activities and a short video, students will learn about Parks’ lifelong commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. 

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students will get beyond the myths of Rosa Parks’ arrest on a Montgomery bus in December of 1955 in order to understand that she was a person of strong convictions about civil rights and fair treatment. After watching a short biographical video, they will examine a photograph of Parks and others at the Highlander School, a training ground for activists, and they will read the parts of the Montgomery City Code that led to her arrest. The lesson culminates with students developing a creative piece based on their new understanding of Rosa Parks.

        Time Allotment

        20 - 40 minutes



        • Seamstress - a woman who sews clothes for a living
        • Rampant - widespread


        NAACP - Founded in 1909 and still active today, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. Black and white intellectuals and activists banded together to form the organization during an era of race riots and widespread lynching. Attorneys working for the NAACP successfully argued for school desegregation in a series of cases that culminated in the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. The NAACP was among the organizations that planned the 1963 March on Washington and continues today as a grassroots advocacy group organized into chapters throughout the United States.

        Learn more about the NAACP:


        Browder v. Gayle - While the Montgomery Bus Boycott was underway, a court case was brought to the U.S. District Court by NAACP lawyers representing four African American women (Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith) who had experienced treatment on Montgomery buses similar to Rosa Parks. The defendant in the case was William Gayle, Mayor of Montgomery. The three-judge panel decided that bus segregation was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection and due process. This ruling meant that the Brown v. Board decision could be applied to transit. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in December, 1956, which led to the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

        Learn more about Browder v. Gayle:

        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        Ask students: Have you ever stood up for yourself when you thought you were being treated unfairly? What gave you the courage to do so?

        Introduce Rosa Parks:
        Rosa Parks, famous for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, had spent years preparing to take such a courageous action.

        Learning Activities

        Distribute Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Download Graphic Organizer [PDF]

        Play the Video

        Discussion questions after viewing:

        How might Rosa Parks’ childhood have influenced her to stand up for fair and equal treatment?

        How had Rosa Parks prepared for the fateful day when she refused to give up her seat?

        Other African Americans had been arrested for the same “crime” as Rosa Parks. Why do you think the NAACP chose her arrest as the right time to launch their planned boycott? Why would she be an appropriate symbol for the movement? (Note: she was an employed, married woman with no record of previous trouble with the law. Shortly before her arrest, the NAACP had decided to not launch the boycott following the arrest of 15-year-old Claudette Colvin once they discovered that she was pregnant.)

        People often think they know more about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott than they actually do. What is something you learned from the video?

        Write down and then share with a partner a single sentence that summarizes how Rosa Parks changed the United States.

        Examining Primary Sources

        Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        Project or make copies of the image to the right. This 1957 photograph was taken on Labor Day weekend at conference entitled, “The South Looking Ahead” that had been planned to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Highlander School, an adult education center in Monteagle, Tennessee where labor and civil rights activists, both black and white, gathered to share ideas and learn strategies for bringing about social change using nonviolent tactics. Founded in 1932 by labor activists Myles Horton and Don West, the school evolved from a focus on union organizing to concentrating on civil rights activism following the Brown v. Board decision of 1954.  

        Rosa Parks had attended a Highlander School seminar four months before the day she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. Pictured in the photograph (from left to right) are Martin Luther King, Jr., folk singer and civil rights activist Pete Seeger, Charis Horton--daughter of the school’s founder--Rosa Parks, and King’s close associate Ralph Abernathy.  Although other photographs were taken during the weekend’s events, this is the only photograph to include either Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King posed with a larger group. 

        A ten-minute silent film made by Ed Friend of the Georgia Commission on Education includes footage showing the photo’s subjects organizing to have their picture taken. Rosa Parks affectionately touches the arm of Charis Horton, something that would have been shocking in much of the South during this era. The film shows African American and white people of a wide range of ages leaving the Highlander School Library. It also captures scenes of black and white children swimming together in a lake, a taboo practice in much of the United States during that era.  (The footage of the photo session is one minute into the film.)

        Watch the video

        Friend, the amateur filmmaker, attended the conference under false pretenses. He used the content of this film as evidence that the Highlander School, a suspected communist training ground, should be closed. The state of Tennessee revoked the school’s charter in 1961, however, the school relocated and reopened the same year. Since 1971, the school has been located in New Market, Tennessee and continues to train activists. Recently, the work of the school has focused on LGBT rights, immigration issues, and economic inequality.


        1. What evidence do you have that the weather was quite warm when the photograph was taken? Notice how Rosa Parks is dressed. What does it say about her and how she chose to present herself publicly that she is in a long sleeve shirt buttoned to the top and long, dark skirt?
        2. The Highlander Folk School is the place where “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Although the origin of the song is unclear, folk singer Pete Seeger (standing behind Martin Luther King) is usually the person most closely associated with the song. Seeger, however, always indicated that he had first learned the song in 1947 from Zilphia Horton, the Music Director at Highlander Folk School; and he credited later Highlander Music Director Caraway with popularizing it among civil rights activists in the early 1960s. What role can music play in social movements? Do you know of other songs that are associated with particular causes?
        3. Ed Friend took mostly candid photographs during his time at Highlander School. How do you think the individuals pictured in this posed photograph were selected? Why do you think Charis Horton,  the school founder’s daughter dressed in shorts, was chosen to be part of this photograph?


        Written Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        Students will examine and answer questions about a page from the Montgomery, Alabama, City Code that was published in 1952 and in effect when the Bus Boycott began. 

        Download Written Primary Source Activity [PDF]

        Culminating Activity

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.

        To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.

        Many people think of Rosa Parks as an elderly seamstress who was simply too tired to stand up and leave her seat. Now that you know that she was a long-time, committed, and prepared activist, how can you share that information with others? Compose a rap, song, or poem about Parks that emphasizes her background in the struggle for civil rights that preceded her courageous choice to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus.


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