Montgomery to the Supreme Court

by Kristal Cheek

Overview

Students will examine primary source documents and photographs to explain how local events lead to cases being presented before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upholds laws that protect the rights of all people and ensures equal opportunity.

Materials

Essential Question

How do Supreme Court decisions affect the lives of people living in the United States?

Background

Teachers will need to explain the importance of the basic principles of American democracy that unify us as a nation: our individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; responsibility for the common good; equality of opportunity and equal protection of the law; freedom of speech and religion; majority rule with protection for minority rights; and limitations on government, with power held by the people and delegated by them to their elected officials.

The Supreme Court, which was established by the Constitution, is responsible for managing conflicts over interpretations and applications of the law. For example, in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education that the doctrine of "separate but equal” had no place in public schools. Separate educational facilities for black and white students were deemed unequal and schools were required to desegregate. In December of 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. She was arrested for violating a city law requiring racial segregation on public buses. Five days later, on the day of Rosa Park’s trial, the Montgomery Improvement Association organized a boycott of the public buses. The Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted for 381 days, was a protest campaign intended to oppose the city’s policy of racial segregation on its public transportation system. On February 1, 1956, the federal class action suit of Browder v. Gayle was filed in the Alabama courts. The lawsuit claimed that the city of Montgomery, the state of Alabama, and the National City Bus Lines were operating city buses in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. On June 4, 1956, the federal district court ruled that Alabama’s racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional. While the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, segregation remained intact and the boycott continued. On November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the lower court and legally ended racial segregation on Alabama’s public buses.

Objective

  • Students will analyze primary source documents and photographs to sequence the events that led to the Supreme Court’s decision on racial segregation in Alabama’s public bus system.

Motivation

Ask your students to explain what they know about the United States Supreme Court.

Explain that the United States Supreme Court is the highest judicial court in the United States. The court consists of one chief justice and eight associate justices. Their job is to determine whether laws are in agreement with the United States Constitution or the law of the land. If the justices determine that laws are not in agreement with the Constitution or are unconstitutional, the law can no longer be in effect.

Ask students what topics or laws they feel the Supreme Court should make decisions about.

Procedure

Day 1

Divide your class into six groups.

Explain that each group will be investigating an event in Montgomery, Alabama, that lead to a United States Supreme Court case that affected the lives of Alabama citizens.

Assign each group one event and provide the related primary source documents and/or photographs.

  • Groups 1 & 2: Rosa Parks’s arrest
  • Groups 3 & 4: The Montgomery bus boycott
  • Groups 5 & 6: Browder v. Gayle court case

Review the questions on the Document and Photo Analysis Worksheets.

Using the Document and/or Photo Analysis Worksheet, have students look at each primary source and determine key facts that help them understand each event.

Closure

Ask each group to identify and share with the class two key facts they have learned about the event they are investigating.

Day 2

Have each group create a poster illustrating the event in Alabama using the information from the document and/or photo analysis worksheet and the primary sources.

Each poster should include a descriptive title of the event, date(s) of the event, and key facts regarding the event. The posters may include the primary sources.

Have each group orally rehearse their poster presentation. All students must participate in the oral presentation.

While each group presents their poster, students record information about the events on the Montgomery to the US Supreme Court sequence map.

Closure

Have students turn to their neighbor and share one fact about each event using their sequence map.

Day 3

Inform students that the defendants from the city of Montgomery decided to appeal the original ruling in the case, asking different judges to reconsider the lower court’s decision to desegregate the buses. The appeal went to the United States Supreme Court.

Have students predict which way the Supreme Court ruled. Did they uphold the decision to desegregate the buses or did they rule that segregation was allowed by the Constitution?

Divide students into groups of two or three.

Pass out the Supreme Court decision primary source documents and Document and/or Photo Analysis Worksheets.

Have each student in the group analyze a different primary source using the Analysis Worksheet.

Students share what they discover about the Supreme Court’s decision from the primary source with their group.

Have students complete the last section of the Montgomery to the US Supreme Court sequence map.

Closure/Discussion Question

Based on the primary sources we’ve investigated, how does the United States Supreme Court affect the lives of people living in the United States? Record your response on the bottom of the Montgomery to the Supreme Court sequence map.

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