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From Plessy to Brown: Examining the Ways We Worked to Overcome

January 25, 2017

Karsonya Wise Whitehead

Intended Audience: 3rd – 5th grades

Overview: In order to fully understand this lesson, students should have a broad understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and some familiarity with (some of) the leaders, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. If necessary, provide a brief overview of the history of the Civil Rights Movement to prepare them for this lesson.

Objectives: Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to identify three significant events that happened during the Civil Rights Movement; interpret data presented in a Civil Rights Movement time line; differentiate between historical facts and historical fiction; and, formulate historical questions.

Historical Thinking Standards (National Standards for U.S. History)

Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Level II (K-5th): Understand how people over the last 200 years have continued to struggle to bring all groups into the American society and the liberties and equality promised in the basic principles of American democracy (e.g. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks)

Grades 5th-12th

Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties. Standard 4a: The student understands the “Second Reconstruction” and its advancement of civil rights.

  • Explain the resistance to civil rights in the South between 1954 and 1965 [Identify issues and problems in the past]
  • Evaluate the Warren’s Court’s reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education and its significance in advancing civil rights [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

Essential Ideas:

  • Name and describe three significant events that happened during the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Name three Civil Rights Movement leaders and two of their accomplishments.
  • Discuss Linda Brown and some of the things that she accomplished.
  • Name three ways that the Civil Rights Movement has touched your life.

Lesson Plan (Note: this Lesson Plan may take 2-3 days)


  • Teacher’s Guide (which includes lesson plan and metacognitive components)
  • NVLP video clips and transcripts, Photographs: a) from the significant events and b) of the Visionaries (childhood photographs).
  • Post-it Chart Paper and Markers
  • CD of “We Shall Overcome”
  • Copies of the “We Shall Overcome” song lyrics
  • Classroom Dictionaries (at least five)
  • Technical Requirements: DVD player, VHS player, Television


Words & Names

Civil Rights “Big Six”: The “Big Six” were the leaders of the six major civil rights organizations who met with President Kennedy to organize and plan the 1963 March on Washington: James Farmer, the founder of the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) and the strategist behind the Freedom Rides; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); John Lewis, President of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and current U.S. Representative from Georgia; A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters Union; Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP; and Whitney Young, head of the National Urban League.  In addition, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), attended the meetings and helped to organize the March, but was not allowed to speak at it.

Coretta Scott King was the wife of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights and peace activist, an author, former president of the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia and a recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize.

Constance Baker Motley is a former lawyer who wrote the original brief for the Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka Kansas. She was the first female member of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the first African-American woman elected to the New York state senate (1964) and to the Manhattan borough presidency (1965), the first African-American woman on the federal bench; and, the first African-American (1982) woman to serve as chief judge.

Dorothy I. Height was the only female member of the Civil Rights “Big Six,” and served as the former president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority (an international organization) and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).

Joseph Lowry: served as the pastor of the Warren Street United Methodist Church, in Mobile, Alabama (1952-1961), helped to lead the Montgomery bus boycott and co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (with Dr. King).

Lerone Bennett, Jr. isa writer and social historian who served on the editorial board of Ebony magazine for over fifty years. His books include Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619-1962, What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Pioneers In Protest, Black Power U.S.A., The Human Side of Reconstruction 1867-1877, and Great Moments in Black History.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was originally conceived by A. Philip Randolph in 1941. The 1963 March was primarily organized by Randolph and Bayard Rustin, one of the founders of SCLC. Rustin originally wanted the March to focus on “pushing” the federal government to secure more jobs, housing, and education for Black people. The focus changed to more moderate political objectives in an effort to secure the participation of organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League (they were considered to be more moderate organizations).  The “Big Six,” which did not include Rustin, worked with President Kennedy to organize a peaceful gathering without any divisive or explosive speeches (John Lewis was asked and agreed to change his speech once it was deemed to racially “explosive”).  The result was a gathering of 250,000+ Black and white Americans on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial under the banner of “Jobs and Freedom Now.”

Oliver Brown et al v. The Board of Education, Topeka Kansas In 1950, Oliver Brown, a welder and a part-time assistant pastor at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church, attempted to enroll his daughter, Linda Brown, in Sumner School, a segregated elementary school in Topeka, Kansas.  When she was denied admission, he decided to join a lawsuit being prepared by NAACP lawyers. The case was originally filed at the U.S. District Court in Topeka on February 28, 1951. After the lower courts upheld the power of the Topeka school board under Kansas law to separate children by race, the case went on to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. Combining with four other cases: Belton (Bulah) v. Gebhart, Bolling v. Sharpe, Briggs v. Elliot, and Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, the Brown decision overturned the Plessy case and ended legalized segregation.

*May 17: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Oliver Brown, et al v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that “racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.” This decision reversed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision. One year later, the USSC, after hearing oral arguments from Thurgood Marshall, ruled that states should “integrate with all deliberate speed.”

*Response to Brown: Across the South, in an immediate response to the Brown decision, white segregationists established a number of resistance groups including the White American, Inc., the White Citizens’ Councils, the American States’ Rights Association and the Federation of Constitutional Government.



Plessy v. Ferguson: Homer Adolphe Plessy[1], a Black man from Louisiana, and his lawyer, Albion W. Tourgee, argued in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that segregation laws related to public carriers violated the Thirteen and Fourteenth Amendments. Tourgee argued that, “Justice is picture blind and her daughter, the Law, ought to be at least color blind.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in a now famous ruling, decided against Plessy and declared that the “separate but equal” doctrine was constitutional. This decision marked the unofficial beginning of institutionalized racism and Jim Crow laws.

Reconstruction Amendments (5th grade only): From 1865-1870, Congress passed three Amendments that impacted the lives of enslaved [9] and free Black Americans. These Amendments have collectively become known as the Reconstruction Amendments.

  • The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. (December 18, 1865)
  • The 14th Amendment declared that Black Americans were full citizens who were supposed to be accorded constitutional guarantees. (July 28, 1868)
  • The 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to vote. (March 30, 1870)

The United States Supreme Court: The highest court of law in the United States. The sitting Justices, nine in total, are nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate. Once confirmed, they serve for an indefinite amount of years, typically ending their careers through retirement. The goal of the Court is to interpret the “Constitutionality” of the law.

With All Deliberate Speed: The decision in the Brown v. Board case was released in two parts. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “inherently unequal” and violated the 14 th Amendment. One year later, the case was reargued in an effort to determine how the violation of the 14th Amendment should be fixed.   Instead of accepting the NAACP’s plan for immediate and total integration, the Court in the Brown II case decided to accept the Justice Department’s “go slow” integration approach. This decision severely undermined the push for total and instant desegregation by allowing states to integrate “with all deliberate speed” and set their own integration timelines.

Pre-Assessment Tool

*Design a Pre-Assessment Tool for the students to have them write down in 2-3 sentences the meaning behind the Civil Rights Movement. At the end of the lesson, have them go over their Pre-Assessment Tool and check and, if necessary, correct it.

1) Before the students enter the room, place a copy of the Pre-Assessment tool at their desks with the front of the sheet turned down.

2) Once they are seated, explain to the students that before they begin learning today’s lesson, they will complete a Pre-Assessment tool. Tell them that if they don’t know the answer, they should take an educated guess.

3) Take time to answer any of the questions they might have before the Lesson begins but do not help them during the Pre-Assessment. All Pre-Assessments should be collected once they are completed.


4) Once everything has been collected, tell the students that they are going to listen to a song that was sung by civil rights activists during the Civil Rights Movement. Explain that a civil rights activist was a person who struggled to achieve civil rights for African Americans (and subsequently everyone) during the period of time when there were laws in place that denied them of their basic civil rights.

5) Bridge Unit: if necessary, based on their reactions or questions, take 5-7 minutes to explain what the Civil Rights Movement was, when it happened and why it was a significant time in the lives of American citizens.

6) Once students are prepared, pass out the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome.” Before the students start reading the lyrics, tell them to Think Aloud about the title. Ask them what it means to “overcome”? How do you overcome something? Who is the “we” that is being referenced? Guide the class in outlining a definition of the title and write it on the board. Tell the students that while they are reading the lyrics if they get confused about the meaning they should refer back to the agreed upon definitions.

7) The students should then be instructed to:

*5th graders: read the lyrics silently to themselves and circle any words that they are unfamiliar with. After 2-3 minutes, tell them to turn towards their neighbor and T-P-S (Think about the lyrics-Pair with a partner-Share their answers). Inform them that at the end of the partner sharing period, they will share their answers with the  entire class.

*3rd graders: read the lyrics to themselves as you read them aloud. If a word is said that they do not understand, they should highlight it. At the end of each stanza, ask students to share out any words that they did not understand.

8) Take time to define or explain any unfamiliar concepts or words:

*Advanced 5th graders should be encouraged to use their dictionaries during the T-P-S to write the definition of any unfamiliar words.

9) Tell the students that you are going to play the song. Instruct them to listen carefully. Tell them not to sing along or write while the song is playing. When it is completed, the students should be instructed to:

*5th graders: take two minutes and think about the lyrics, then write down any feelings or questions that they may have about the song. Have them turn in their papers when the Share-Out is finished.

*3rd graders: think about the song and Share-Out any feelings or questions they may have about the song.

10) All shared answers should be written out on post-it chart and placed up on the wall.

Guided Practice

11) Tell the students that next they are going to learn about some significant events that happened during the Civil Rights Movement that significantly changed the direction of the Movement and demonstrates how hard the civil rights activists struggled for change.

12) Ask them what it means to struggle? And what it means to struggle for something they believe in? Have they ever struggled for anything, if so ask them to Share-Out. Also ask them to think about what it means to struggle for change. Why is change important? Have they ever experienced any life changes (i.e. started a new school, moved to another city, had a new baby brother or sister, had a change in attitude-if you were angry with your sister/brother and then you forgave them)

13) As they are sharing, place a piece of post-it chart paper on the board, write the word Vocabulary List at the top. Tell the students that this is going to be their on-going dictionary. As a class, they should develop a definition for struggle and for change.

*5th graders should be instructed to take out a sheet of paper, label it Vocabulary List and write the definitions, as well.

*Differentiation: (if needed) as each definition is written, read it aloud and provide a Real World definition.

14) Tell the students that

*5th graders: “struggle as a concept, an idea and a goal” was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and as such, it will be the guiding principle throughout the lesson. Tell them to think about how this concept connects to the three Civil Rights Movement events that they are going to discuss.

*3rd graders: doing the Civil Rights Movement, the activists struggled to make changes and they should think about how hard it is to struggle for something as they work through the lesson.

Lecture Blast

15) Tell the students that they are going to listen to a civil rights activist talk about change and then they are going to discuss at what the person shared at the end of the video clip.

*5th graders should receive a copy of the transcript so that they can follow along while the video clip is being shown.

16) Give the students a copy of childhood photograph of Coretta Scott King and ask them if they recognize the name – if they do ask them to Share-Out what they know about her. Using the Words & Names, describe Ms. King and tell them that in the video clip she is going to talk about how she experienced a change in her attitude.

17) Play the clip and then explain to the students that during the Civil Rights Movement, the activists wanted the system to change and they wanted people’s attitudes to change.

18) Using the attached Annotated Historiography as a reference, explain to them that they are going to look at

*5th graders: three events that significantly changed the Civil Rights Movement.

*3rd graders: two events that significantly changed the Civil Rights Movement

19) Place a piece of post-it chart paper on the board and use it to outline each of the events. Students should be encouraged to ask questions during the Lecture Blast if they do not understand what is being explained. Outline the events using the following timeline:

Civil Rights Movement Timeline: note: 3rd graders will not discuss The Sit-In Movement (Teacher suggestion: if you were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, share your personal experiences with them as the events are being discussed. Do not spend a significant potion of time on it but use the opportunity to personalize the information for the students.)


Brown v. Board: (described above)

The Sit-In Movement: On February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, NC, students across the country participated in the “sit-in” movement, which officially began when four students, Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain, from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat down at the Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, NC. This nonviolent act sparked similar protests in libraries, restaurants, stores, theaters and public beaches in fifty-four cities across the South. Six months after the sit-ins began, the original four protesters were served lunch at the same Woolworth’s counter.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: (described above)

20) Take time to answer any questions and clear up any misconceptions before the lesson continues.

21) Tell the students that they are going to watch another video clip with a civil rights activist talking about their participation in

*5th graders: the March on Washington. Pass around the childhood photograph of Rev. Joseph Lowry (see above definition) and tell the students that he will speak about his participation with the March on Washington.

*Give the students a copy of the transcript and tell them to highlight any words that they do not understand. Take time at the end of the clip to discuss any unfamiliar words.

*3rd graders: Brown v. Board. Pass around the childhood photograph of Judge Constance Baker Motley, Esq. (see above definition) and tell the students that she will speak about her participation in planning for the case.

22) Once the clip, ends ask the students if they understood the clip and take this time to clear up any confusion. (Teacher suggestion: if necessary, play the clip again and ask them to listen for certain word cues that will help them understand the interview)

Independent Practice

23) Divide the students into heterogeneous cooperative groups and tell them that they are going to work in table groups to create

*5th grade: a Civil Rights Movement memory trunk. Tell them to read silently as you read aloud:

The year is 1963 and your parents have decided to attend the March on Washington. They ask if you would like to come along. Create a “memory trunk” to document your experiences. Items should include two picket signs, a bumper sticker, a letter to your friends about your experience, and the lyrics of an original Civil Rights Movement song.

*3rd grade: a Civil Rights Movement collage with magazine photos, hand-drawn pictures and slogans that demonstrate what they understand about the Movement. Walk the students through the first step: give each group a photo of Constance Baker Motley and tell them to glue her photo somewhere on the poster board. Tell them to discuss and Share-Out two words that they feel describe Judge Motley. Write these words on the board and tell the students to write these words somewhere on their poster board, They should then be told to look through the magazines and newspapers to find additional photos that help to visually define the Brown v. Board decision.

24) Ten minutes before the Lesson ends, tell the students to start cleaning up. Tell them that they should organize all of their materials because they will be sharing their group projects with the class tomorrow.

25) Five minutes before the assignment ends, inform the students that they should take the time to proofread their worksheet and check their posters.

26). Count down the final ten seconds by giving them simple directions between the numbers, i.e. 10 seconds – you should be finished with your chart; 9 – production managers, organize all materials; 8 – get everything back into your activity bins; 7 – check your area for any paper or trash; 6 – tape your posters to the wall closest to your work station; 5 – reporters, check all of your notes; 4 – everyone back to their seats; 3 – all conversations should end now; 2 – all pencils down; and, 1 – all eyes on me.

27) Explain to the students that before they share out their findings, they are going to participate in a metacognitive[2] activity, where they are going to think about and discuss their thought process as they were working on the assignment. This may be a new activity for your students, so take time to explain it carefully. Ask them: what worked within the groups? Did they disagree with any of the findings? If so, how was the dispute solved? What were their initial reactions to the material? What could they have done to a more effective participant? And, what worked and what didn’t work within their groups?

5th graders: Time permitting, they can answer these questions in their journals and then share them during the whole group discussion.

28) Pass out the Pre-Asessment Tool and have them read through their answers and make corrections to the earlier answer (they should not erase their first answer, just correct it on the back of the sheet).


29) Tell the students that tonight

5th graders: Ask an adult to describe one memory that they have about the Civil Rights Movement and be prepared to share in class tomorrow.

3rd graders: Ask an adult to name and briefly explain one thing that they would be willing to struggle to achieve.

[1] It is important to note that Homer Plessy was only one-eighth African American and had devised a plan to be “politely arrested” in Louisiana before the train left the state.

[2] Metacognitive is defined as an “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.” For further reading, please see (accessed June 16, 2007)

*A version of this lesson plan was originally prepared for the National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP). It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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