Tools & Resources

Lessons for Organizing and Leadership from the Civil Rights Movement

Training & Strategy Reflections & Trainings

February 10, 2009 | Download Document

Training on Lessons for Organizing and Leadership from the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the actions of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson and Others

Themes from the Story
(see one account in pages 120-142 of Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch)

  1. Leaders who act--acts of leadership that involve risks can make change possible

  2. Relationships are key to leaders acting and acting successfully

a. Leaders act sometimes because of challenge/agitation inside of
relationships that have been built inside and between organizations

    b. When leaders act it is more likely successful if there's an organization to support it and organize next steps

  3. Organizing work by organizations matters-- planning meetings, strategy, tactics, actions, research actions, negotiations all are pieces that lead to a successful campaign.

   4. Actions get reactions
from members, allies, opponents that can build up the organization and move the campaign forward.

   5. Leaders need "followers" who will act with them around shared goals--
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and was arrested, E.D.Nixon challenged her to be a test case to organize around, Jo Ann Robinson and her group first devised the bus boycott strategy and publicized it, E.D. Nixon called a planning meeting of leaders to plan a mass meeting and the beginning of a campaign.  But, if 50,000 average Montgomery African-Americans hadn't decided to boycott the bus system for more than a year this victory would not have been won; leaders and motivated "followers" are needed for change.

  6. Myths around Rosa Parks--
that she acted as an individual person,  just tired at the end of day's work.  Yet, she was Secretary of the NAACP chapter and a respected leader. After her arrest, there was a strategic decision to ask her to make her case into a test case to test the segregation law and a mass boycott tactic was launched to protest this segregation practice that she challenged. She said she wasn't tired from work but tired of indignity. On her trip home that night on the bus when arrested, she was actually going home to prepare for a youth leadership workshop she was helping lead for the coming weekend.

I. Leaders who acted
Rosa Parks
  E.D. Nixon
  Clifford and Virginia Durr
  Rev. Martin Luther King
  Jo Ann Robinson
  Rufus Lewis

II. Relationships are key

  1. Rosa Parks
Her action to get arrested, Her responding to E.D. Nixon's agitation for her to make her case the first act of the campaign
Her relationships to E.D. Nixon, Virginia Durr, Rev. Graetz, Jo Ann Robinson, to organizations--NAACP Secretary, Highlander Center (went to leadership training session at the Highlander Center** in Tennessee the summer before her arrest)
   2. E.D. Nixon--Virginia and Clifford Durr, Ministers, Press, White officials, Union, NAACP, Parks, Jo Ann Robinson
   3. Rev. Martin Luther King--Other pastors, Nixon, Rufus Lewis, Jo Ann Robinson, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

III. Organizing work of leaders, organizers, organizations matters

1. E.D. Nixon--what's a good case to launch the campaign around, how to be a broad/cross class organization, Planning meeting and invitations to leaders to attend, Monday night Action Meeting, Developing demands, Press work
  2. Jo Ann Robinson--sets up midnight strategy meeting, tactic of the boycott, flier and distribution
  3. Rev. Dr. King--did research on best practices re previous Baton Rouge bus boycott and use of car pools
   4. Action gets reaction--Boycott tactic and many roles--mass meetings, tens of thousands make decision to boycott, car providers for car pools, etc.
IV. Actions get reactions from members, allies, opponents

1. Boycott gets police reactions which scares off some Blacks from buses and even increases the extent of the boycott
  2. Jo Ann Robinson and Women's Political Council launching call for Monday boycott
  3. Planning Meeting for the Monday night action meeting, invitations and agitation by E.D.Nixon for people to attend the planning meeting for the action,  why King was nominated to chair the campaign committee, and Rev. Dr. King's emergence with his speech at the Monday night action meeting.

V. Biblical Lesson to connect a present story to

   1. Book of Esther in the Old Testament

Mordecai challenges/agitates his cousin Esther to risk her life by using her access to the king to save the Jews (the King's Prime Minister was plotting to have all the Jews killed). "Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?", said Mordecai.
Esther says, "I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.'

  2. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

E.D. Nixon challenges/agitates Rosa Parks to be the test case that begins the campaign against segregated buses.
Rosa Park's husband Ray warns, "The white folks will kill you Rosa," he said pleading with her not to do it.
Rosa Parks says--"If you think it will mean something to Montgomery and do some good, I'll be happy to go along with it."

**In July 1955, Rosa Parks, came to the original Highlander Folk School located in Monteagle, Tennessee, for a workshop on school desegregation, one of many workshops that Highlander held for civil rights freedom fighters during that time.  She later spoke of that workshop as being the first time she had lived in "an atmosphere of equality with members of the other race."

Rosa Parks and other participants from Montgomery actually left that workshop saying they weren't sure that people in their community would stick together to fight segregation. But when she returned to Highlander in March of 1956, one hundred days into what would become a 381 day boycott, 50,000 people in Montgomery were sticking together, walking rather than riding the bus, launching the next phase of the civil rights movement.

In that meeting, Highlander founder Myles Horton asked about her decision that day, "What was on your mind, Rosa?"

She replied, "Well, in the first place I had been working all day on the job, not feeling too well after spending a hard day working. The job required I handle and work on clothing that white people would wear and that accidentally came into my mind. And this was what I wanted to know
- when, how would we ever determine our rights as human beings?"