Beyond the traditional boycott narrative – time for change, action not words

In December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat when asked. All the other Black people on the bus complied but she did not. The image of a quiet respectable old lady sits comfortably in the collective popular imagination of the civil rights movement. This simple narrative fits neatly into a story of rights gained by leaders who stood their ground in the face of oppression to make a better world for us. “This day, I was especially tired,” are often the words attributed to Parks. Tired of injustice, tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. The traditional narrative ties Parks’s symbolic act of defiance to bus boycotts, sit-ins and marches and the timeless ideals of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.  

Beyond the Rosa Parks narrative 

Ask almost any British secondary school student and they will tell you who Rosa Parks was and what she did. Most won’t tell you that she was a seasoned civil rights campaigner long before she decided not to give up her seat that December day. They will be unfamiliar with her work for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and previous run-in with the bus driver who asked her to give up her seat. Most will not be aware of the radical determination she had to dismantle segregation and stand against racial injustice in all its forms. Yes, stand. As Jeanne Theoharis astutely observed, Rosa Parks has been trapped on the bus, frozen in popular memory sitting quietly and dignified in her protest. This reduces the contribution she made to the civil rights struggle and the very nature of that struggle. 

The example of Rosa Parks speaks directly to the theme of this year’s Black History Month – time for change, action not words.  Yet the full story of her actions, the complete picture of resistance to oppression that her life painted is rarely seen in school textbooks, not often included in the curriculum. 

The Bristol Bus Boycott key figures 

Though the face of Rosa Parks is instantly recognisable to British secondary school students, those of Rory Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown are often invisible. These men formed the West Indian Development Council after slow progress in combatting the racial discrimination evident in the employment practices of the Bristol Omnibus Company which ran the city’s buses.  Black people were employed in low-paid positions but were not allowed on the bus crews working as drivers or conductors. The bus company blamed the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) that represented the interests of white bus staff who feared that Black people would compete for their positions and lead to lower wages. 

Hackett and the others asked civil right activist and charismatic speaker, Paul Stephenson to lead a movement to protest the racist employment practices of the bus company. In 1963, he arranged for a job interview with the Omnibus company for a local Black man, Guy Bailey. When the receptionist saw the colour of Bailey’s skin, she promptly cancelled the interview. Stephenson called for a boycott of the buses and won support from university students and the future Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. He also lobbied the media to cover the boycott and as they did, so public opinion slowly turned against the bus company and the TGWU. On the same August day that Martin Luther King led the march on Washington that culminated with his iconic speech, the Omnibus company announced a change in policy. It would allow complete integration on the bus crews with no discrimination on account of race, colour or creed. Weeks later, Raghbir Singh, an Indian-born Sikh man, was employed as a conductor on the Bristol buses. 

Actions in the classroom 

The actions of Stephenson, Parks, Hackett and others need to provide the stories that we tell in the classroom. Our words must speak to the full scope of their actions. We should aim to explore the struggle for civil rights in all its nuanced complexity, moving beyond comfortable and familiar tales that reduce the radical actions of activists on both sides of the Atlantic. In so doing we give full voice to the reality that the movement to ensure civil rights for all continues, it is not frozen in a snapshot image of a tired old lady sitting on a bus. 

The actions that we as educators can take to make a change is to teach about a refusal to accept injustice both then and now. We must resist neat, easy narratives that are remembered one month a year as we celebrate sanitised stories of courage in the face of historic injustice. Rights are won, not given, and they must be defended through the actions of all of us. This begins with the words we use when presenting the actions of those in the past. Only by weaving the complex and unfinished story of the fight against racial discrimination throughout the curriculum, can we ensure that the actions of those in the past bring change in the present and future. 

Free lesson plan 

Find out more about The Bristol Bus Boycott and how to approach it with your KS3 students with this free lesson from Black British History KS3 Teacher Resource Pack, a customisable teacher pack to help you shine a light on the importance of Black British history. 

Download free lesson 


Dr Simon Henderson has been teaching history for twenty years with experience at all secondary key stages as well as undergraduate level. He has written widely on race relations and the Black freedom struggle and organised events for students to explore the history of race relations. He is also the co-author of Black British History KS3 Teacher Resource Pack 


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