SUBJECTS — U.S./1945 – 1991, Diversity & Alabama;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Female Role; Model Breaking Out;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Respect.

AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating — PG;

Drama; 1989; 95 minutes; Color. Available from

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.


Film Study Worksheet for Social Studies Classes for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


This is a film about the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott and its effect on inhabitants of the city. The focus is on a white middle-class family whose members have divergent views on the protest.


Selected Awards:



Featured Actors:

Sissy Spacek, Whoopi Goldberg, Dwight Schultz, Ving Rhames, Dylan Baker.



Richard Pearce.


This film can be used to reveal how nonviolent civil disobedience works on the mind of the public, including members of the oppressor class. In this case, a white woman becomes convinced that it is not fair to require blacks to sit at the back of the bus or to stand when there are seats available at the front. She stands up to the male power structure and all her friends in order to do the right thing and help the protestors. The movie gives us a glimpse of the lifestyles of middle-class whites and poor blacks in Alabama in 1955. The film also reveals some of the sacrifices endured by the black citizens of Montgomery during the boycott.


MINOR. A young black boy is beaten by a group of white boys and there is a fight between the two white men after one threatens to assault the heroine. These incidents are appropriate to the plot.


Talk to your child about how this movie provides an example of how non-violent civil disobedience works on the minds and unity of the oppressor class. See the Helpful Background section. Then ask the Quick Discussion Question and discuss the issues raised in the question with your child.


Non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful force when it shows the public, including those who benefit from the system, sought to be changed, that the status quo is inconsistent with their ethical principles and the way that they want their society to work. When the situation is presented to them in stark relief, in the media and glare of public opinion, the inconsistency becomes to much to bear. Thus, the lunch counter sit-ins, in which black college students asked to be served lunch at the same counters used by whites, placed in stark relief the unfairness of denying service to black patrons. The protests in front of courthouses seeking the right to vote made it crystal clear that denying the vote to blacks was inconsistent with democratic values. The prospect of black workers, too poor to own a car but too proud to sit at the back of the bus, walking to work or depending on rides from fellow protestors, awakened the nation to the injustice of unequal treatment of blacks. For more on non-violent civil disobedience see the Learning Guides to Gandhi and A Force More Powerful.

In 1955 Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, municipal bus to a white passenger. She was arrested. This incident sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the early galvanizing events of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. The Boycott lasted until the buses were officially desegregated in December of 1956 when a federal court ruled that segregation in municipal bus lines was unconstitutional. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was led by a little known young preacher, Martin Luther King.

Rosa Parks was not just a poor seamstress and housekeeper who got fed up one day and started this momentous event. She was also a Civil Rights activist, having served as secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP many years before. Rosa Parks remained active in the Civil Rights Movement after the boycott and established a foundation to offer guidance to black children. She won the NAACP’s Springman Medal in 1970 and the Martin Luther King Jr. Award in 1980.

The movie shows Mrs. Thompson driving Odessa, her maid, to and from work. Initially, Odessa sat in the back seat of the car. It was the custom in the South in the 1950s and 60s that when a white woman drove her black maid to and from work, the maid sat in the back seat of the car. The maids were usually too poor to own cars and there was inadequate public transportation. Therefore, many white women drove their maids to and from work. But it was not deemed appropriate for the maid to sit in the front seat along with her white employer because sitting together in the front seat of a car implied equality and close association.

This custom led to some interesting situations. One anecdote from Tallahassee, Florida, goes like this. An overweight white male newspaper reporter with a sense of humor was once slowly ambling across an intersection. The traffic light changed while he was still in the middle of the street. A white woman who was taking her maid home from work was stopped at the light. The maid was, per custom, in the back seat. When the light changed, the reporter was still in the intersection and the woman could not proceed without running him over. Frustrated, she honked at the reporter. The reporter, now walking a little faster, went over to the open rear window of the car and said to the maid, “Madam, please ask your chauffeur to be more patient!”

In reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, some segregationists who didn’t want to suffer the stigma of actually joining the Ku Klux Klan organized groups called “White Citizens Councils.” These organizations promoted a racist agenda similar to that of the Klan but claimed respectability. In the movie, Mr. Thompson, the heroine’s husband, joins one of these groups.

Another anecdote that circulated among liberal circles in the South during the late 1950s and early 1960s related to a Jewish businessman in Atlanta, Georgia who was active in the Atlanta White Citizens Council. He was elected to the Board of Directors. At one meeting, the Grand Dragon of the Klan was a guest Speaker. He was given a rousing reception. The Grand Dragon closed his speech with the cry: “And after we get the niggers, we’re gonna get the Jews and the Catholics!” The Jewish businessman had a heart attack, or so the story went.


1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

No Suggested Responses.


2. Why did Odessa’s son (when he was trying to stop the white boys from beating his sister) relax his hands and make no effort to defend himself when the white boys turned on him?

Suggested Response:

He knew that if he resisted, he was liable to be lynched. Black men who fought whites had been lynched in the past.



1. Would you consider Rosa Parks a role model?

Suggested Response:

Yes. She was a committed and courageous lady.


2. Would you consider the character of Mrs. Thompson in the film to be a female role model?

Suggested Response:

Yes. She was a person who kept growing and developing through adulthood. She was a compassionate person who could look beyond her own needs and her own group of friends and associates, to see the agony of other people. She was willing to stand up for her beliefs against her whole culture.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)


1. Why was it difficult for the blacks in Montgomery in 1955 to admit to their white employers that they supported and/or participated in the boycott? It was something more than fear of being fired. What else was it?

Suggested Response:

One of the means that the white community used to oppress the black community was to make it difficult for blacks to challenge white authority. It was difficult for blacks to do this and to admit to whites they were participating in such a challenge.



(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)


2. Did you notice that at the beginning of the movie, when Mrs. Thompson drove Odessa to work, Odessa sat in the back seat of the car? Later, Mrs. Thompson invited Odessa to sit in the front seat. What was the significance of this invitation?

Suggested Response:

The message of having the maids sit in the back of the car is that they were not worthy of friendship, which sitting in the front implied. Sitting in the front implied equal status.



Books suitable for middle school and junior high readers concerning this period include: Freedom’s Children edited by Ellen Levine (stories about 30 children who integrated schools, buses, and public facilities as part of the Civil Rights Movement). The Montgomery Bus Boycott by Richard C. Stein, Murder on the Highway: The Viola Liuzzo Story by Beatrice Siegel, and Black Like Me by John Howard Griffith (the story of a white journalist who takes drugs to darken the color of his skin and then travels in the South as a black man).



In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Past Imperfect, Mark C. Carnes, Ed., Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995.

This Learning Guide was last updated on December 10, 2009.

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