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Examining the Modern Civil Rights Movement & the Birth of Our Activist Spirit

January 27, 2017

Karsonya Wise Whitehead & Fayetta Martin



Photo by Ira Wilmer, courtesy of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Grade: Middle/High School

Overview: In order to fully understand this lesson, students should have mastered the indicators covering the impact of the Dred Scott v. Sanford and the Plessy v. Ferguson cases on American racial politics; the early development of the modern Civil Rights Movement and the resistance to segregation in both the North and South from 1945-1960; and, the political and social impacts of America’s earliest responses to segregation. If necessary, provide a brief overview of the aforementioned topics to prepare them for this lesson.


United States History

McRel StandardsEra 9 – Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s

  • Level IV (Grades 9-12) Understands significant influences on the Civil Rights Movement (e.g., the social and constitutional issues involved in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) court cases; the connection between legislative acts, Supreme Court decisions, and the Civil Rights Movement; the role of women in the Civil Rights Movement and in shaping the struggle for civil rights);
  • Level III (Grades 7-8) Understands individual and institutional influences on the Civil Rights Movement (e.g., the origins of the postwar Civil Rights Movement; the role of the NAACP in the legal assault on the leadership and ideologies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X; the effects of the constitutional steps taken in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government; the shift from de jure to de facto segregation; important milestones in the Civil Rights Movement between 1954 and 1965; Eisenhower’s reasons for dispatching federal troops to Little Rock in 1957).

National Center for History in the Schools: UCLA

Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

  • Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions by identifying likenesses and differences.
  • Consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes and fears.
  • Hold interpretations of history as tentative, subject to changes as new information is uncovered, new voices heard, and new interpretations broached.
  • Hypothesize the influence of the past, including both the limitations and opportunities made possible by past decisions.

Social Studies

USA – National Council for Social Studies: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

AI: Thematic Standard: Culture and Cultural Diversity
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.

AII: Thematic Standard: Time, Continuity and Change
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ways human beings view themselves in and over time.

AVI: Thematic Standard: Power, Authority and Governance
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.

AX: Thematic Standard: Civic Ideals and Practices
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Lesson Essentials:

Primary source “packets” comprised of
1. NVLP video clips and transcripts
2. Images
3. Speeches & Documents

Additional Materials
4. Historiography
5. Words and Phrases
6. Worksheets

Classroom Materials:  Chart Paper, Student’s in-class journals, United States physical map, Activity Bins (colored paper, markers, scissors, glue, tape, etc.), Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Continuum CD (or any song that either discusses or was sung during the Civil Rights Movement


Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • identify some of the significant events that framed the modern Civil Rights Movement (“Movement”) from 1954-1972;
  • evaluate the goals and objectives of the Movement as a whole;
  • analyze the leaders of the Movement and how they influenced the direction and focus;
  • compare multiple perspectives written about the same issue so that students will learn how to effectively differentiate between historical facts, historical interpretations and historical opinions.

Essential Questions

  • How did the events from the modern Civil Rights Movement impact the lives of all Americans?
  • How did the three branches (Executive, Judicial and Legislative) respond to these events?
  • What was the social, political and socio-economic climate during this time period?
  • Who were the Black leaders and how did they influence the focus and direction of the Movement?
  • What are some of the significant events that happened during the Movement from 1954-1972?


Prior to using this lesson in the classroom, review the Historiography and primary source materials for this lesson by clicking on the button on the left side navigation labeled “primary sources.” In addition to primary sources, this area includes historical documents, speeches, and worksheets that you can download and use for this lesson.

Depending upon how much time you have to teach this lesson, choose two or more video clips and five to ten images. For this lesson, there are several historical documents also available, with a worksheet so students can analyze the documents. Documents include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the text of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the lyrics to the song “We Shall Overcome.” Print out the photographs, video transcripts and documents and organize the material into “primary source packages” for your students. The students will be working in groups, so print enough copies so that you have one “packet” for each group. If you like, you can print different images and different transcripts so that each group does not have the same exact “primary source package.”



  1.   Have each of the quotes listed below written on a chalkboard or overhead where all students can see them.

* In the name of the greatest people that ever trod the earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny… and I say… segregation now… segregation tomorrow… segregation forever.   –George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama (1963)

* I have a dream that one day… the state of Alabama… will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.  –Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963)

  1.   Once the students are seated, they should be given 1-2 minutes to read and reflect on the two quotes. Each should then pick up his or her index card and write a 2-3 sentence statement outlining how either Wallace’s or King’s (depending upon which index card they have) goal can be achieved.
  2.   Invite students to share-out their responses. Ask them to speak a bit about the process of writing their statement, specifically about how easy or difficult it was to write goals for each statement. Ask them to react to each perspective and reflect on how each goal makes them feel. Explain to them the difference between Wallace, a segregationist and King, an integrationist. (Please see Words and Phrases or the Historiography, if needed.) Tell them to keep these definitions in mind as they work their way through the next two days of discussion.

Guided Practice

  1.   Inform the students that they are going to spend the next two days analyzing some of the major events that happened during the modern Civil Rights Movement from 1954-1972 to determine whether the Movement was a success or a failure. Ask the students how they would define the words “success” and “failure.” Write their definitions on the board. If necessary, have two students look up each word and write the standard definition on the board. Have the students write down the agreed upon definitions so that they can refer back to them during the assignment. Ask the students:

a) How do you know when you have succeeded or failed?
b) Can an event be both a success and a failure?
c) Have you ever looked back at an event in your life that you thought was a failure and it turned out to be a success? Or that you thought was a success and it turned out to be a failure?
d) What is more important – succeeding or failing?

Tell them that their goal for the next two days is to study some of the events, the leaders, the goals and the outcomes to attempt to answer the guiding question: Was the modern Civil Rights Movement a success or a failure? Explain that since they are going to conduct a historical investigation, they may find that, at the end of the assignment, they cannot make or agree upon a clear cut position. This is fine as long as they are able to defend why and how they reached that conclusion.

  1.   Ask them to think about the modern Civil Rights Movement and  a) name and describe any events that happened and b) name any leaders and their contributions. Write their responses on the board and clarify any confusion regarding dates. Encourage the students to think beyond the usual responses of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  2.   Once the students have finished, use the Historiography to provide a detailed overview of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Students should take notes and be encouraged to ask questions and make comments. Make sure that everyone understands what the Movement was and why it was important.
  3. Prior to presenting the lesson, select two or more video clips from the primary sources area for this lesson and print out the transcripts for the interviews you have selected. Give each student a copy of the transcripts so they can read them silently as the clips are played (or read aloud.) Before you present the video clips in class, provide a brief introduction for each clip.  Also, tell the students that they are now going to listen to (or read) two interviews from the National Visionary Leadership Project. Note that the interviewees are considered to be primary sources (if necessary, quickly explain the difference between a primary and a secondary source so that they can fully understand the value of the interview). As you present the clips, students should take notes and be prepared to discuss.
  4. Once the clip(s) has ended, guide the students in a discussion of the following: Why is it important to learn about history from the people who experienced it? (If necessary, remind them of the differences between primary and secondary sources.); How accurate are their memories? Could time have impacted upon how they remember the event?; Do they have a reason to distort the past?; What would life have been like if the organizers and participants of the Civil Rights Movement had not gotten involved?

Independent Practice

  1. Once the students have analyzed the clip(s) for accuracy, importance and relevance, direct their attention to the board and review the essential questions of the lesson. Tell them that now they will be working in groups of four to conduct a historical investigation to answer the essential questions. They should select a recorder to record the group’s findings on chart paper (everyone else should record their notes in their notebooks); a reporter to present the group’s findings to the class; a task manager to manage their group’s process and a time-keeper.
  2. After selecting documents from the primary sources section for this lesson, download Worksheet 1-1. Create “primary source packages” for your students and hand them out with chart paper, markers and Worksheet 1-1, the Success or Failure handout. Tell the students they are to review each document in detail and answer the questions based only upon what they see or read in the documents. Tell them that as much as possible, they are not to draw upon prior knowledge, because they are acting as historians who are attempting to answer a question based only upon the presented evidence.


  1. Tell students that they will have 45-minutes to conduct their investigation. Take time to answer any clarifying questions or clear up any confusion. If necessary, generate a short discussion to come up with a working definition of “success” and “failure.” Inform them that, if they need to, they should also use their United States maps to gain a geographical perspective of where the event was taking place.
  2. While they are working, circulate among the groups to make sure that they understand the assignment and are critically analyzing the sources.
  3. Ten minutes before the lesson ends, tell students that they should begin organizing their notes so that they can present their findings. They should be prepared to state and defend their group’s conclusion.
  4. Student reporters should be given 10-15 minutes to present the group’s findings and to explain how they reached their conclusion. Other groups should be encouraged to take notes during the presentations and to ask clarifying statements at the end. If time permits, allow other members of the group to add any additional information.
  5. At the end of the presentations, ask the students to take 10-15 minutes to reflect in their journals on the following:

* How important is it to study the successes and failures of the modern Civil Rights Movement? Name three things that were changed as a result of the Movement. How does the modern Civil Rights Movement connect to the Black Lives Matter social movement? Explain.

  1. Tell the students that tomorrow they will be participating in a Movement simulation that directly connects to today’s investigation and tonight’s homework.


Tell students to log onto the National Visionary Leadership Project Student Site ( and click on “video clips” to access the following two video interviews:

Clip 12. Freedom Rides. Rev. C.T. Vivian talks about his participation and arrest during the Freedom Rides.

Clip 13. Mississippi Voter Drive. Harvard graduate, Math teacher and SNCC Field Secretary Robert Moses worked with C.C. Bryant in rural McComb, Mississippi to educate and register Black voters. This experience informed the larger 1964 “Freedom Summer” Mississippi Black voter education and registration campaign. Bob Moses talks about his early experiences while registering Black voters in rural Mississippi.

Also encourage your students to browse through the other photos, documents and clips, as well as the Timeline to get a fuller sense of the Civil Rights Movement. More advanced students should also be directed to print out and read the Historiography.



  1. Students should enter the room to the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Motherless Chil [1](if this CD is not available, substitute any song that either discusses or is associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Students can also read the words from We Shall Overcome – this song is included in the primary sources). After listening for two to three minutes, the music should be lowered and students should be told to direct their attention to the front board and answer the following:

* What would it take for them to leave school and become involved in a protest that may cost them their lives or may result in going to prison?

  1. Music should be turned back up to play out while students think about the warm-up question.
  2. Once students are finished, turn off the music and invite students to share-out their answers. Push them to think critically about the level of commitment that is needed to be involved in a protest movement. Ask them to think about what it means to sacrifice for the common good (knowing that you may not be around to enjoy the benefits of your accomplishments). Additionally, ask them to name the characteristics that are needed to make this type of commitment. Write their answers down on the board (look for words along the lines of courage, determination, tenacity, selflessness… add these to the list if they are not said). Ask them to name some rights or issues that are important. Would they be willing to sacrifice their lives in order to gain or keep these rights?
  3.   Remind the students that this is a continuation of yesterday’s Civil Rights Movement lesson and that they should take out their homework to assist them during the activity.

Guided Practice

  1.   Tell the students that they will work in the same groups as yesterday to complete today’s simulation. Pass out the primary source packages from yesterday with one addition: each group should get a description of one of two simulation situations, one about the 1961 McComb, Mississippi Voter Registration campaign and one about the 1961 Freedom Rides.
  2. Ask them to take out their narratives and read silently as you read each one aloud:

Worksheet 1-2: Voter Registration.

The year is 1961 and you are high school students living in New York studying math with Robert Moses (Refer to timeline for background information). He has just informed you that he is planning to spend the summer in McComb, Mississippi working to get Black Americans registered to vote. He asks if you would like to come along. Create a “memory trunk” that documents your experiences. Items should include pictures, letters written home about your experience, 2-3 posters, a bumper sticker and a diary with 5-7 days worth of experiences.

Worksheet 1-3: Freedom Rides.

The year is 1961 and you are high school students living in Washington, DC. You have just heard that CORE is looking for volunteers to be involved in the Freedom Rides from Washington, DC to New Orleans. You decide to join them. Create a “memory trunk” that documents your experiences. Items should include pictures, letters written home about your experience, 2-3 bumper stickers, an itinerary and a diary with 5-7 days worth of experiences.

Independent Practice

  1. Take time to answer any questions and clarify what they are supposed to create with their materials. Also take time to outline a brief history of CORE (see Historiography for background information). Pass out activity bins and tell the students that they have an hour to complete their “memory trunks” and prepare to present to the class (if students are unable to complete within an hour, have them complete it as a home project and present it to the class tomorrow). Ask them to help you create a “memory trunk” rubric that will be used to judge the quality and quantity of their work. Write the rubric on the front board (look for suggestions along the lines of Creativity, Capitalization/Usage/ Punctuation/Spelling (C.U.P.S.), Grammar, Quantity, Presentation). The rubric should contain four-six main points. (If necessary, see Rubistar to create a rubric that meets the needs of your students).
  2. While the students are working, join each group to assist with the preparation and to encourage them to be creative within the guidelines.
  3. Ten minutes before the activity ends, tell the students that they should start to organize their materials and prepare for their group presentation.


  1. Students should present their “memory trunks” as a group and the other students should grade their trunks using the class-created rubric.
  2. Once presentations have ended, refer students back to the Essential Questions and have students answer each of the questions.

Teacher Prep

Read through the We Shall Not Be Moved and Evaluating Nonviolence as a Method of Social Change lesson plans and choose which lesson that you will teach after the students have completed their Memory Trunks. The homework should then take them back to the National Visionary Leadership Student Site so that they can research either the contributions of women or the nonviolence strategy in preparation for the discussion.

Extension Activities

  • Students can choose a leader from the Civil Rights Movement and make a scrapbook highlighting their experiences.
  • Have students write a play recreating the Sit-in Movement.
  • Arrange students in groups of four and have them create Civil Rights Movement newspaper headline collages.
  • Students can find someone in their family or neighborhood who lived during the 1960s and conduct an oral history interview asking the person about their life.


[1] Sweet Honey in the Rock: Continuum (Songbook) (accessed September 2006)

*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.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Alicia Moore permalink
    February 1, 2017 3:31 am

    Excellent lesson!

    On Fri, Jan 27, 2017 at 8:32 AM, Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead #blackmommyactivist wrote:

    > kewhitehead posted: “Karsonya Wise Whitehead & Fayetta Martin Grade: > Middle/High School Overview: In order to fully understand this lesson, > students should have mastered the indicators covering the impact of the > Dred Scott v. Sanford and the Plessy v. Ferguson cases on” >

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