MLK Day Lesson: The Montgomery Story

Students use a remarkable 1957 comic book to learn about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the real nature of the civil rights movement. 


By Marieke van Woerkom



(5 minutes)

Ask students what they know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. What role did Rosa Parks play? What role did Dr. Martin Luther King play?

Check agenda and objectives

(2 minutes)

Explain that in today's lesson, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we'll look at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which helped bring Dr. King into the public eye as a civil rights leader. We'll also look at the role Rosa Parks played and how the myths that surround her story persist today.

This lesson accompanies another lesson available on TeachableMoment, Dr. Martin Luther King: The power of nonviolent resistance.


Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story

(20 minutes)

Pull up the following link on the Smartboard or ask students to pull it up on their computers and view it in small groups:

If you can't access the comic book online, download the PDF version and print up copies for all of your students to read.

Read the comic book together, up to page 9.

Debrief the story, asking students some or all of the following questions.

About the comic book:

  • Why do you think the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was turned into a comic book (a.k.a. graphic novel) in 1957 and distributed across the South in the months following the boycott?
  • What was it like for you to be introduced to the story in this format?
  • What did you notice about the drawings and the language that told you this comic book was published long ago?
  • Would it surprise you to find out that the comic book has been reprinted in other languages, most recently in Arabic and Persian? What do you think the purpose of that is?

Explain to students that in 1957, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group that supported nonviolence and the civil rights movement, published this 14-page comic book, which has been described as one of the most influential teaching tools produced for the civil rights movement. It was circulated throughout the segregated South during the late 1950s and through the sixties as a way to inspire people to join the movement and to inform them about the power of nonviolence. It was recently translated into Arabic and Persian, and is being distributed among supporters of nonviolent change in the Middle East.

About the Montgomery bus boycott:

  • According to the story, what role did Rosa Parks play in the Montgomery bus boycott?
  • What role did the African American ministers and leaders of the civil rights movement play?
  • What role did ordinary people play?
  • Was there a strategy involved or did these events "just happen"?
  • How did people get around riding the buses? 
  • Was it easy to keep up the boycott? Why or why not?
  • How did Dr. King respond to the violence that was directed at his family? Why? 
  • Do you think this was easy? Why or why not?
  • How do you think this relates to the idea of leaders being role models and leaders "showing the way"?
  • In the story, the narrator quotes Reverend Ralph Abernathy: "Those arrests were last minute desperation measures on the part of those who knew that some day soon, right and justice would prevail..." What do you think of this statement? 


An Important Myth of the Civil Rights Movement 

(18 minutes)

If it has not yet come up, elicit and explain that although the comic book story we read is very accurate in many ways, it also contains one of the most persistent myths of the civil rights movement: that the boycott began after a humble African American seamstress, whose feet were tired, spontaneously decided that she would not give up her seat to a white man who boarded the bus after her. That woman, Rosa Parks, has been called the mother of the civil rights movement.

What is often left out of this story is that in addition to being a "humble seamstress," Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist long before that fateful bus ride. She was the secretary of her local NAACP chapter (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a leading civil rights organization). In the years leading up to the action that made her famous, she attended workshops on civil disobedience; she studied and practiced racial desegregation tactics and nonviolent resistance methods that informed her action. As for her tired feet, Parks is quoted as saying,"The only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

So while Rosa Parks was led from that bus alone, arrested and put in jail, there were many people backing her up as she boarded. Her decision to refuse to move to the back of the bus so that a white man could have her seat was strategically made in the context of a much larger community and a movement that was only just starting to gain momentum.

Ask students some or all of the following questions:

  • Did you know this about Rosa Parks? 
  • Why do you think that Rosa Parks is usually portrayed as an accidental hero? 
  • Why do you think that we often like our heroines, and sometimes our heroes, to be humble? 
  • What does the real story of Rosa Parks tell you about the movement that Dr. Martin Luther King helped lead?


(5 minutes)

Ask students to share one thing they learned today. Ask whether anything they learned today changes how they'll view the civil rights movement.

Alternatively, ask students to share something they think they'll be able do this Martin Luther King Day to honor such people as Dr. King and Rosa Parks.



This lesson was written for by Marieke van Woerkom. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: