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The African American Saga From Enslavement To Life in a Color Blind Society (Or Racism Without Race)*

December 9, 2016

Yolanda Abel, Ed.D. and LeRoy Johnson


Intended Audience: High School Students

Overview: To examine primary and secondary documents (The Emancipation Proclamation, 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) to better understand the voting controversy and subsequent succession efforts surrounding the 2012 presidential election.

Objectives: Students will compare historical documents related to the development of rights of African-Americans and evaluate the impact of historical documents on contemporary American Society.

Connections to High School: High school teachers help students develop and refine dispositions and beliefs that form the bulwark for adult values and participation in civic life. For example, we have designed this lesson to highlight the need for continued diligence to the rights and advancements of African-Americans in the US. The more things change, the more they remain the same; especially if one has no understanding of history. Our students must understand the history of the Civil Rights Movement; if they do not, others who would deny the rights of full citizenship to African-Americans and other people of color in this society will willingly negate the continuing nefarious effects of racism in this society.

National Council of Social Studies Standards

  1. History: Guide learners in practicing skills of historical analysis and interpretation, such as compare and contrast, differentiate between historical facts and interpretations, consider multiple perspectives, analyze cause and effect relationships, compare competing historical narratives, recognize the tentative nature of historical interpretations, and hypothesize the influence of the past.
  2. Civics and Government: Assist learners in developing an understanding of citizenship, its rights and responsibilities, and in developing the abilities and dispositions to participate effectively in civic life.

Lesson Plan

Warm Up (Anticipatory Set)

  1. Brainstorming: Ask students what they remember about the 2012 presidential election. Accept all answers. Record responses. Highlight the responses that refer to states’ attempts to institute voter requirements and/or the secession efforts after President Obama was re-elected. If no one generates related responses direct the class to prompts: (As Election Day nears, voter ID laws still worry some, election nears; Voter ID lawsuits could delay election results again; Is secession bid more than a cry of rage?; Obama’s Re-Election Inspires Secessionists)

Activity (Instruction Input)

  1. Jigsaw: Create 4 groups: a) The Emancipation Proclamation , b) 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments, c) the Civil Rights Act of 1964 , and d) the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  2. Give each expert group copies of their identified topic. Have them read their respective documents and identify key points. Students can use a WWWWWH Organizer (Who, What, When Where, Why, How) or any other graphic organizer you use to help students identify main ideas and supporting information.
  3. After the groups have established their expertise. Create new groups; one expert from each group will form new working groups. Two groups will focus on news items related to voter requirements and two groups will focus on secession related news items. You may begin the groups with the news item from the brainstorming activity.
  4. Depending on classroom resources the groups can use in-school computers or personal PDAs to retrieve the information directly or the teacher will need to compile a variety of sources (newspaper, magazine, election copies of articles, etc.) for the students to use.
  5. Two working groups will generate a rationale for why states attempted to institute voter requirements, which states and why, and how, if at all, it aligns back to the original documents. Explain the level of effectiveness and potential impact for the 2016 election.
  6. The other two groups will examine the role of secession during the Civil War and compare and contrast conditions then and at the time of the 2012 election. What made secession less possible in 2012 than during Civil War times? The group will make recommendations to promote a unified and equal opportunity climate in the United States and then compare and contrast their document with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Acts.
  7. This lesson is designed to be at least two class periods. If your scheduling allows you can have all four groups do both activities (8e and 8f) to allow for more in-depth engagement with the materials and contact.
  8. Have the groups share their information and evaluate the quality of the arguments presented in their work. Use your existing rubric criteria for oral presentations and/or content.


  1. Design a poster, Power Point or other display option that contains four of the following items:
    1. A list of states that attempted or implemented voter requirements for the 2012 presidential election.
    2. The state’s rationale for the voter requirements.
    3. At least ten points that align back to the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act.
    4. A short explanation of the effectiveness of the states’ efforts at instituting voter requirements and at least two potential items of impact for the 2016 presidential election.
    5. A diagram that compares and contrast at least five of the conditions present at the time of the Civil War and the 2012 presidential election. At least 5 conditions for each time period.
    6. A list of recommendations (at least 5) to promote a unified and equal climate in the U.S.
    7. A diagram that compares and contrasts your list of recommendations with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Background Information

In early 21st century America, discussions about past, present, and future race relations- especially those between Black and White Americans, but increasingly those between White and Latinos(as) in our society- are charged with passion, lack of historical analysis, and, of course, are loaded with fears about the results of the evolving demographic makeup of this society. In order to understand the increasingly complex and mutable nature of our society’s racial landscape, we must examine and analyze the genesis and evolution of the African-American protracted struggle to obtain full citizenship rights in the United States1.

The Civil Rights Movement for the purpose of this paper has been divided into two parts: (1) the first phase of the Civil Rights Movement or the period of Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877 and (2) the second phase of the Movement or the period of Brown vs. the Board of Education from 1954 to 19652. Secondly, this short review is designed to be a practical guide for those who would like to teach about the Civil Rights Movement. Placing the development of African-Americans’ quest for equal rights in its historical context is the only way to make rhyme and reason of this historic movement. If one attempts to teach such a topic without placing it in its proper historical context, one presents a facile rendition of one of the most important socio-political, legal, and economic developments in our history. In addition, and perhaps of most import, our primary pupils and secondary students will have little chance of grasping the monumental progress- though we still live in a very racially pernicious society-which had taken place from the Civil War (1861-1865) to the 1970s, when the reactionary forces opposing the Civil Rights Movement gathered enough political momentum to organize a formidable political and legal challenge to this movement. Moreover, and of capital importance, our students- and even their teachers- will view this movement as simply a bygone period in our history, whereas, it is still part and parcel of the American socio-political, economic, and legal landscape.

Both the opposition to Affirmative Action and the treacherous concept of a color blind society are nothing more than racism without mentioning the color and history of the victims of centuries’ old racial oppression. In short, without a historical analysis of the civil rights saga of African-Americans, our young people will relax their political and intellectual guard, thus becoming unable- and also unwilling- to understand dialectical connections between past and contemporary racism in our society. Our students- and teachers, too- must understand the history of the Civil Rights Movement; if not, others who would like to deny the rights of full citizenship to African-Americans and other people of color in this society will willingly negate the continuing nefarious effects of racism in this society.

During this first period (Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877) a number of important changes made to the Constitution of the United States improved the political, if not the social and economic, situation of African Americans. Already, and prior to the beginning of Reconstruction, President Lincoln had decreed the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), an act that freed slaves in the rebellious states. It is true that the act left slavery intact in the states loyal to the Union and in the localities of southern states in which the authorities remained loyal to the Federal Government, i.e., the forty-eight counties of Virginia which eventually became West Virginia, seven counties in eastern Virginia, including the cities of Portsmouth and Norfolk, and thirteen parishes in Louisiana of which the city of New Orleans was included3. Nonetheless, the Emancipation Proclamation, intended more to cripple the economy of the South, freed all but eight hundred thousand of the four million slaves in the United States (1860 census).

However, it was during Reconstruction, (the historical term used to describe the process undertaken by the Federal Government in order to literally reconstruct the political and socio-economic institutions of the states that rebelled against the Federal Government) that laws were passed to protect the humanity of African Americans4. Congress passed the 13th Amendment (January 1865), while the Civil War was nearing its end, outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude (except for punishment for the conviction of crimes) in the United States. The passage of said Amendment was an important victory for the Republic, yet we should not overlook the fact that the Amendment passed by a vote of 119 to 56 in the House of Representatives- it had been defeated in an earlier vote in the same chamber by 93 to 655. This fact is important because it attests to the protracted struggle of the Civil Rights Movement from its very genesis.

In spite of the naysayers against the Civil Rights Movement, it continued. In 1868, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all those born in the United States (except Native Americans, who were not granted citizenship until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 19246. Furthermore, in seven states of the Union, Native Americans were denied the right to vote until 1947. And it was not until 1948, when the Euro-American populations of Arizona and New Mexico finally granted voting rights to the first Americans!) The 14th Amendment reversed the Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case (1857) that held that African-Americans were not and could not become citizens of the United States. And with the enactment of the 15th Amendment, state governments were prohibited from denying citizenship to people base on race, color, or previous condition of servitude (slavery).

These three Amendments, 13th, 14th, and 15th, commonly referred to as the Reconstruction Amendments laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement. The enactment of laws, as we have learned, does not in itself ensure the rights of citizens. To illustrate this point, one only has to recall the passing of the Black Codes after the end of the Civil War in the defeated southern states. Attempting to make an end run around the federal edicts, every southern state passed laws to force African Americans back into servitude, deny them the right to vote, and to curtail their socio-economic opportunities7. After 1877, when Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States, agreed to withdraw Federal troops from the still occupied southern states and to allow southern democratic governments to establish their control in the South in order to resolve the dispute in the Electoral College surrounding his election, southern politicians set about to reestablish legal racial inequality. We witness this attempt in the rapid proliferation of the Black Codes. Then in 1896, the Plessy vs. Ferguson case argued before the Supreme Court, rendered segregation in public and private places and institutions the law of the land. This Supreme Court decision was a tremendous blow to the march of Civil Rights. In fact, it took over half a century before the Supreme Court struck down the laws of segregation in the United States. However, the Court finally did and a second phase of the Civil Rights Movement began.

In Brown vs. the Board of Education (May 17, 1954), Thurgood Marshall, the brilliant and relentless soldier in the contemporary Civil Rights Movement, the great-grandson of slaves, and later the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, argued and won the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) case questioning the constitutionality of segregated schools8. The NAACP’s legal victory in the nation’s highest court would open the flood gates to the cleansing waters of racial justice in the nation’s public schools. A little over a decade later, beginning in the summer of 1964, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, there were three critical events that positioned the nation to once again take legislative action to protect the right to vote for African Americans9. The first was the murder of three civil rights workers i who had attempted to convince African-Americans to register to vote in Mississppi10. The second was the White supremacist led violence against participants in the Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Last, but not least, was when White segregationists again attacked the marchers again on March 21, killing the Rev. James Reeb, a twenty-four year old White Bostonian Unitarian minister. At the same time, President Johnson was working on persuading Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 196511. It was the second legislation action promulgated to protect the right to vote for African Americans in the 20th century. Included in this mosaic of laws enacted by the Federal Government to bridge the centuries old race divide, the actions taken by President Nixon in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, as well as the affirmative action policies adopted by the federal and various state governments, along with colleges, universities, industry, and professional organizations. For the purpose of this brief survey, Affirmative Action is defined as the “positive” steps taken by public and private institutions, including the military, federal, state, and local governments to increase the representation of African Americans, other people of color, and White women in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been legally and traditionally excluded12. In order to increase the numbers of African Americans, other minorities, and White women in these areas, a form of “preferential” selection was encouraged to ensure that qualified applicants were given an opportunity to apply and interview for positions that were historically unavailable to them.

Nonetheless, there has been a massive rejection of Affirmative Action policies in American society. Cries of reverse discrimination and a call for color blind policies to determine the access to colleges, universities, and professional promotions in industry, the military and all other public sectors (police and fire departments), are constantly heard over the airwaves, on the nightly television shows, and printed in newspapers and journals13. Clearly, there is a concerted challenge to undo the changes and advantages of the Civil Rights struggle. For this reason, teachers and students are asked to carefully study the stages, and historical details of this movement to learn about the past in an effort to understand the present civil rights fight, and prepare them to continue the Civil Rights Movement into the future. As we continue to make progress in the Civil Rights Movement, it is imperative to remember that it is complex, demands a sound knowledge of American history, and requires commitment to continuing analytic and passionate discussions in classrooms today.

Teacher Resources

The Role of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement

Little Rock Revisited: A Classroom Activity

Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Voices of Experience: Civil Rights through Oral History

Best of History Web Sites (an EdTech Teacher Resource)

Brown vs. Board of Education (National Park Service)

Civil Rights Movement in the US


Bell, Derrick. 1992. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. New York: Basic Books.

Branch, Taylor. 1989. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63.New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Kozol, Jonathan. 2012. Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years among the Poorest Children in America. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

Murray, Alana and Menkart, Deborah. 2004. Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching.  Washington, DC: Teaching for Change.

Patterson, J.T. 2002. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (Pivotal Moments in American History). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weatherford, C. B. 2009. The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans for Young Readers.


  1. The authors’ premise about why this is an important topic and that the way it is taught impacts a person’s dispositions and actions related to the issue of how and/or why African Americans are perceived in their historical and current role in the United States.
  2. In order to present the material in a useful manner, a diachronic approach was used.
  3. The Confederate states depended on slave labor. The Emancipation Proclamation disrupted and reduced slave labor in many southern states because a sizable number of enslaved African-American left their place of abode and attempted to reach the advancing Union forces. Thus, the South was deprived of a substantial part of its servile labor force. John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, From Slavery to Freedom (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000), 99, 214-15, 228-29.
  4. Prior to the War of Secession, although legislation had been promulgated to curtail the spread of chattel slavery in some of the western territories, none had been passed to end slavery or endow African-Americans with citizenship rights. A brief reading the Constitution of the United States reveals the lack of federal legislation promoting full citizenship for African-Americans before the Civil War. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were the first Federal legislation addressing citizenship for Black people in the United States. Nonetheless, one should point out that before the Civil War the law making bodies in various states enacted legislation to end slavery within their boundaries. John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, From Slavery to Freedom (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000), 214, 242-43.
  5. The fact that there have been no easy victories accounts for the constant vigilance of African American civil rights activists who rightfully are concerned about the attempts of those who reminisce about the “good old days” of White privileges and Black oppression to reverse the historical saga of civil rights in our society. Ibid, 213-14.
  6. Native American Citizenship 1924.” Nebraska Studies.Org. Accessed January 25.
  7. John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, From Slavery to Freedom (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000), 258-73.
  8. Thurgood Marshall,” In New World Encyclopedia
  9. Recess Reading” An Occasional Feature from the Judiciary Committee: The Civil     Rights Act of 1964, United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
  10. Civil Rights Martyrs. Southern Poverty Law Center
  11. John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, From Slavery to Freedom  (New York: McGraw Hill, 2000), 545.
  12. Affirmative Action” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed January 25.
  13. The experiences of the authors, persons in their professional and personal circles, as well as academic sources support this assertion.



*This lesson plan was originally published in the Association for the Study of African American Life & History‘s Black History Bulletin, v76, (2) and is reprinted here by permission of the authors.

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