How Rosa Parks Sparked Change

Rosa Parks proves that one person, no matter her race, can make a difference.

By Cathy Neushul

black hand holding a white hand

When Rosa Parks chose to remain in her seat on that Montgomery bus in 1955, she had no idea that her decision would change history. When she refused to move to accommodate a white passenger, she didn’t have a long-term goal in mind, nor was she particularly angry. Parks said, “I don’t remember feeling that anger, but I did feel determined to take this as an opportunity to let it be known that I did not want to be treated in that manner and that people have endured it far too long." Here is a link to an interview with Rosa Parks in which she describes how she felt that day.

Parks wasn’t the first woman to refuse to give up her seat for a white passenger. Other people had balked at following a law they found unfair. However, she was the first well-known and well-respected woman to refuse to cede her spot. Civil rights leaders saw in Parks a person who could be the face of this battle.


The Montgomery Improvement Association

Soon after Rosa Parks was arrested—you can see a copy of Parks’ arrest report, fingerprints, a diagram of the seating arrangement on the Montgomery bus, and other information on the National Archives website—civil rights leaders founded the Montgomery Improvement Association to battle for racial equality. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was put in charge, and members decided to participate in a bus boycott. Since 75% of the bus riders in Montgomery, Alabama were African American, this boycott had a serious financial impact. For 381 days, African Americans refused to ride the local buses.

When discussing this development with your class, it’s important to emphasize how this affected both the owners of the bus lines and those who used them. African Americans relied on the bus system to get to their jobs, doctor’s appointments, and anywhere else they needed to go. Buses were a necessity for these people. They weren’t giving up a luxury, they were making their lives much more difficult. In the end, the United States Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was illegal, and the boycott ended.

Putting a Spin on Events

The boycott presents a great opportunity for your class to discuss objectivity. Assign your students the task of finding newspaper articles and other information about the boycott that were published in 1955 and 1956. Then use each news item to compare the coverage, identify what is emphasized, what is omitted, and the language used. It’s a great way to discuss objectivity in news coverage.

Why Rosa Parks' Life and Work Is Relevant Today

While students may believe that racial inequality is a thing of the past, take some time to discuss the ways that people of all different nationalities face prejudice and unfair treatment, even today. You can have your class talk about what they know about this issue and then list all the ways that people are still fighting for equality. This can be part of a year-long project in which your class discusses examples of inequality, and what people are doing to combat them.

Your pupils can learn many things from discussing Rosa Parks’ life. Have them research life in Alabama in the 1950s. Be sure they research what life was like for African Americans, whites, and people of other nationalities. You can also discuss the Jim Crow laws, learn about segregation, and read first-hand accounts of those who lived during this time period. Finally, make sure to touch on how civil rights leaders brought about change in this volatile environment.

Lesson Plans:

The Power of Protest

Here is a great way to kick off a discussion of Rosa Parks. Learners discuss the vocabulary of civil disobedience and find out what Alabama was like at the time of the protests. They discuss the social climate in the South.

An Act of Courage: The Arrest Records of Rosa Parks

By taking a look at primary documents, students learn about Rosa Parks. This is a good way to delve into the importance of using primary documents to learn about history.  

Montgomery to the Supreme Court

The boycott in Montgomery, Alabama led to a Supreme Court decision that made bus segregation illegal. This lesson has learners discuss Supreme Court decisions that involved civil rights issues. Your class can read what the court had to say about these issues.

Role of Citizens in Montgomery Bus Boycott

While Rosa Parks and civil rights leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr., were at the forefront of the boycott, this lesson focuses on the multitude of regular African Americans that were instrumental to this movement’s success. It provides a great way to show your class that individual people can bring about change.