Reexamining the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Toward an Empathetic Pedagogy of the Civil Rights Movement

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

mode - bus, place - north america, policy - equity


Civil Rights Movement, empathy, geographic education, mobility, psychoanalysis.


Geographers have assessed the success and failure of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in terms of the African American struggle for justice, social identity, and economic survival. Conspicuously absent from the geographic literature are pedagogically oriented studies of the historical geography of the Civil Rights era. The Movement’s popular image has congealed into a celebratory collection of names and dates, the sum of which is a vague, nearly mythic retelling that students might recognize but not necessarily care about. As a result, the Movement is at once contemptuously familiar yet bewilderingly strange for our students. This article offers a sympathetic critique of conventional Movement narratives, introducing the notion of empathetic pedagogy and presenting a case study of theMontgomery bus boycott. Our pedagogical approach stresses the role of empathy, both as a factor in shaping the actual sociospatial development of the Movement, as well as a strategy for encouraging students to appreciate the everyday courage and sacrifice that animated so many of its participants. Our study brings together two burgeoning literatures that have the potential to cultivate empathy among students: the critical reevaluation of mobility and explorations of subjectivity from a psychoanalytic perspective. Here mobility is understood in both its literal and figurative sense: in the case of the bus boycott, the intricate network established to literally move African Americans around the city, as well as the figurative movement of sympathy and solidarity that “moved” people to support their efforts and now informs popular, selective understandings of the protest.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by Taylor&Francis, copyright remains with them.