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The Moral Arc of the Universe: Deconstructing Black Women’s Political Activism, Struggle, and Resistance

April 30, 2019


Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.[1]

courtesy of:

Introduction: Less than sixty years ago, our country operated under a system of legalized segregation and oppression. Schools were separate and unequal and we had two nations—one black and one white—one oppressed and the other free.[1] Even though any challenge to the system was met with resistance there was a growing collective that was crying out for change and was willing to challenge and confront the system in both the courtroom and in political and social spaces. While college students were sitting down at counters in North Carolina; high school students were sitting down in classrooms in Little Rock Arkansas. And while nonviolent resistance was the battle plan for black and white foot soldiers throughout the South; unchecked violence, mass arrests, and murder were the primary responses of white Southern politicians and police officers. This effort in so many ways was led by black women who have often been left out of the historical narrative. While Thurgood Marshall’s name took center stage, lawyers like Constance Baker Motley and Elaine Jones also worked tirelessly to change the laws; and, while leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Andrew Young were discussed and profiled, civil rights leaders like Dorothy I. Height and Fannie Lou Hamer also bent their privilege and found ways to use their social power to mobilize people to work within their organizations to bring about change.

America, particularly in cities throughout the South, was separated and deeply divided. It was an extraordinary time where leadership was a burden and jail time, particularly during the Birmingham Children’s March, was seen as something that was inevitable. From that tumultuous time where black people were fighting to have their right to vote be protected to today where a black man has been elected twice to the highest office in our country, our American society has drastically changed. From the work being done around the #MeToo movement to a record number of women being elected to political office, there is a sense that our society is on its way to becoming more inclusive, more diversity, and more just. At the same time, there are some members of our society, including our current president Donald Trump, who seem to be focused on pushing an agenda replete with white nationalism, Islamophobia, sexism, and white separatism. All ideas that are designed to drive us further apart rather that bring us together.

At this moment in time, as educators, our questions have changed so it “How do we teach young people about the Civil Rights Movement” but rather “What do we teach young people about the Civil Rights Movement.” And it is not “How do we tell them about the leaders from this time” but rather, “How do we let these leaders speak for themselves.” It is not “How do we include lessons about women and people of color” but rather, “How do we amplify their voices, highlight their experiences, and lift up their work?” In helping students to understand the significance of black women’s current activism, they must learn how the black women activists of the past and how their work has helped to shape their present reality.

Intended Audience:Middle and high school students

Overview: Using the March on Washington as a lens, students will explore the history and the significance of the modern Civil Rights Movement, including the bombing of the Birmingham church, the assassination of President John F Kennedy, and the passage of both the1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Scope and Sequence: The lesson begins with a broad contextualization of some of the  key events that shaped the focus and planning of the March on Washington.  Students will examine videos, photos, textile, and audio sources to interpret the historical context of this time period. With this context in mind, students will then engage in a series of close reading activities in order to analyze and evaluate this event.

National Standards for History[2]

Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

A. Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions by identifying likenesses and differences.

B. Consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes and fears.

H. Hold interpretations of history as tentative, subject to changes as new information is uncovered, new voices heard, and new interpretations broached.

J. Hypothesize the influence of the past, including both the limitations and opportunities made possible by past decisions.

Common Core State Standards

This lesson plan is designed to meet the Common Core State Standards in History/Social Studies for grades 6th-12th grades.

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 6-8

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 9-10: Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 11-12:


1) Examine, analyze, and evaluate the events that took place leading up to the Civil Rights Movement.

2) Review and synthesize the major events that happened after the Civil Rights Movement, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

3) Write a critical essay exploring the impact of the Civil Rights Movement.

4)  Write and produce a mini-visionary community audiotaped interview with an elder 70+ years of age or older.[3]

Essential Questions

1. Who were the leaders that helped to organize the March on Washington; how were their organizations involved in the planning of the event; and what was the impact of their speech on the day’s events?

2. What are some of the incidents that led up to the March on Washington and how were these incidents addressed during the March?

3. How was the March designed to support President Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill? How was the bill changed prior to it becoming the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

4. How was the 1965 Voting Rights Act designed to support and protect the voting rights of people of color?

DAY ONE: Deconstructing the Civil Rights Movement: Understanding Nonviolence


  1. Tell the students that they are going to spend the next five days talking about the modern Civil Rights Movement, the March on Washington, and some of the legislation that was enacted after the March. Explain that the use of activist writing to advance the Movement’s mission will also be explored.
  2. Show a small clip from a NVLP interview and tell the students that for their final project, they will identify and conduct a short interview with a local visionary.
  3. Activate prior knowledge by asking the students to share what they know about the non-violence movement. Write their answers on the board and tell them the class will review the list to determine what is true and what is not at the end of the lesson.  Ask students to also share questions they have about the Civil Rights Movement so they are also engaged in inquiry as they move through the lesson.
  4. Depending upon whether or not your classroom has internet access: play the song “Strange Fruit” while showing them photos from the primary source package that depicts some of the violence that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement.[4]
  5. Once the students have listed to the music, tell them that they are going to watch a NVLP webisode about Dorothy I. Height where she explains Dr. King’s reaction to the Birmingham church bombing. Take time to explain the legacy of Dorothy Height and her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and her involvement with the March on Washington. Once finished the clip, have them think-aloud about why Dr. King stated that he “needed” women to come to Birmingham. 
  6. After the class discussion, have them read the quotes and work in small groups to discuss how Dr. King’s quote and Malcolm X’s quotes contradict one another and then decide which quote do they agree with and why.

If necessary, explain to them that even though African Americans were legally free in America their political, social, and economic rights were restricted by the Jim Crow Laws (or the American system of apartheid).

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.  -Dr. King, 1964

I don’t favor violence. If we could bring about recognition and respect of our people by peaceful means, well and good. Everybody would like to reach his objectives peacefully. But I’m also a realist. The only people in this country who are asked to be nonviolent are black people. –Malcolm X[5]

Shared Reading

  • Explain to students that writing political essays[6] is a form of activism that leaders can use to work for social change.  Over the next couple of days they will examine different types of essays from the modern Civil Rights Movement that will give them opportunities to fully engage with the material.  
  • The first political essay students will read is Dr. King’s “The Power of Non-violence.”[7] Explain and model how they will use a close reading strategy[8] to understand the central arguments underpinning the essay. Identify appropriate close reading strategies from “Closing in On Close Reading” [9] to model for students.
  • Organize students in small groups to conduct a shared reading of Dr. King’s political essay “The Power of Non-violence.” Ask students to use the modeled close reading strategies to analyze the essay and discuss the most salient points.  Once small groups complete their initial reading and analysis, facilitate a whole class discussion.


  1. After completing the close reading discussion have students revisit the no-violence list they made at the beginning of the lesson to determine the following: whether the list is accurate; remove things that are not true; add other points to the list; and identify any outstanding questions.

If students are still unclear about the history of nonviolence (as a religious ideology and as an organizing tactic) from Jesus Christ to Mahatma Gandhi to James Famer to Dr. King, take a few minutes to conduct a short Lecture Blast.[10]

  1. To close the session and assess student learning instruct students to write a short reflection on what it means to stage a “non-violent” campaign to achieve equality and social justice. Invite them to share out their responses with the class.

DAY TWO: Incidents in the Life of Civil Rights


  1. Building on the previous activity, this lesson allows students to examine some of the incidents leading up to the March on Washington, including the release of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Explain to the students that they are going to discuss “A Call to Unity,” which is the political statement that prompted Dr. King to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”[11]
  2. Using both the “Timeline”[12] and the “Words and Phrases” [13] from the online Civil Rights Movement dictionary, create a timeline on the board to highlight some of the key events that took place during the modern Civil Rights Movement to help students understand what was happening throughout the South prior to Dr. King’s arrest. Time permitting (and depending upon your classroom’s access to technology), have students work through the “Timeline” website in small groups or individually.
  3. Have the students watch a clip from the Ray Charles interview where he discussed the 1961 incident at Payne College. Time permitting, play the 1972 clip of Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” and explain to the students who he was and his contribution to American history.[14]


  1. Explain to students that they will practice another close reading technique called text annotations[15] to deconstruct the political essay “A Call to Unity.”  Organize students in partnerships to complete the task.
  2. Once students complete text annotations on “A Call to Unity” discuss the parts of the text students annotated. Ask text dependent questions to guide the whole class in a discussion to deconstruct the central arguments of the Alabama clergymen.
  3. Return to the non-violence list from the previous day to clarify any understandings or outstanding questions with the class.


  1. Provide each student with a copy of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”[16] Ask students to read the letter and complete text annotations as an independent homework assignment.

DAY THREE: Exploring the Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Small group

  1. Tell students that today they are going to work in small groups to re-read Dr. King’s “Letter” and generate two lists: a) the key events in the history of non-violence; and, b) the goals and activities of the Civil Rights Movement.
  2. Have students watch the NVLP Wyatt T. Walker mini-documentary and explain to them about his involvement in helping Dr. King to publish the “Letter.”
  3. Students should then use the internet to find more information on each of the points mentioned in Dr. King’s “Letter.”

Class discussion

  1. Once students are finished, have them share their lists and add any information that they have missed.
  2. Then, as a class discuss the following questions:
  3. In what ways did Dr. King’s letter contribute to the Civil Rights Movement?
  4. How can Dr. King’s “Letter” be used to understand the impact of the Civil Rights Movement?
  5. Did Dr. King effectively refute the arguments of the clergymen in “A Call to Unity?”
  6. What writing techniques did Dr. King use to extend his arguments for non-violence?


  • Tell students that the use of nonviolent resistance has been used in other nonviolent protests since 1849. Using the Time magazine photos of the “Top 10 Nonviolent Protests,” take them through a quick overview highlighting how it has been used, to help your students understand that it was not limited to the modern Civil Rights Movement.[17]
  • Tell students to take a moment and write a reflection on the three things that they have learned about the non-violence movement and non-violent resistance.

DAY FOUR: Deconstructing the March on Washington


  1. Tell the students that for the last three days the lessons that they have had have been preparing them to deconstruct the March on Washington and its impact on American policies, practices, laws, and procedures.
  2. Activate prior knowledge by asking the students to share what they know about the March on Washington. Write their answers on the board and tell them the class will review the list to determine what is true and what is not at the end of the lesson.  Ask students to also share questions they have about the March on Washington so they are also engaged in inquiry as they move through the lesson.
  3. Ask them to think about  “How old do you have to be to do the right thing?” Have them watch the NVLP interview of Dick Gregory talking about the four-year old boy being arrested because he wanted his “teetum” (freedom). Ask them to think about what they could have contributed to the Movement.
  4. Using the background narrative, outline the purpose for the March on Washington and the planning that went behind the day’s events.
  5. Share with them the Dorothy I. Height interview where she discusses If necessary, use the NVLP narrative on women in the Civil Rights Movement as a reference. Look to bring in the Odetta interview – as the second webisode

Shared Reading

  • Provide each student with a copy of Dr. King’s speech and John Lewis’ speech from the March on Washington. Have them work in pairs to read the two speeches and mark the places where the speeches are similar and where they are different. If necessary, conduct a short lecture blast on the life and legacy of John Lewis.
  • Conduct a whole-class discussion and note on the board the similarities and differences.
  • Have them watch the NVLP webisode of Coretta Scott King talking about her husband and his vision for America. Look to move this – to another day
  • Organize students in small groups to write a response to Dr. King and John Lewis’ challenges, being very specific about how their dreams have or have not been realized.


  1. To close the session and assess student learning instruct students think about what would happened if America were to have a March on Washington today – what issues would be addressed? Who would attend? What are some of the problems we are struggling with as a nation? Who would be the speakers? And what would they contribute?

DAY FIVE: The Government Responds

Critical Essay

  1. Tell students that they are going to write a critical essay deconstructing the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Students should be broken into pairs and given one of the Acts to research and write about. The should take a position on whether these Acts were effective instruments for social change in society today. The students should cite the covered political essays in their paper, using evidence from the essays to support their position. Students should also reference current examples of social issues to support their claims about the effectiveness of the philosophy of non-violence in contemporary society.
    1. High School students should write a 5-7-page essay that includes a bibliography and footnotes.
    2. Middle School students in the 7th and 8th grades should write a 3-5-page essay that includes a bibliography.
    3. Middle School students in the 6th grade should write an essay that is no longer than 1-2 pages and should rely heavily on internet sources.


  • Once the students have completed their essays, revisit the essential questions to make sure that they have been covered and have student volunteers read their essays to the class.

Final Project

  • Students should be told that as a final activity, they will find a community visionary and conduct an audiotaped 3-5 minute interview with them asking them the following questions:
    • What do you remember about the Civil Rights Movement?
    • Do you think the Civil Rights Movement was a success of failure?
    • What do you think was accomplished during the Movement?
    • And do you think we need a “new” Civil Rights Movement? 
    • Share a story about the Civil Rights Movement – your participation, your involvement, how it impacted you, when did you first hear about it

**Note: younger students only conduct interviews with either a family member or a parent should be present at the interview.

  • Students should bring their interviews to share with the class.

[1] See the Kerner Commission Report for more information.

[2] National Center for History in the Schools.  (Accessed 15 June 2013)

[3] Teachers will select three interviews to upload and share on the NVLP website.

[4] “1960s Civil Rights Movement”; National Visionary Leadership Project Primary Sources; iTunes:  “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday:

[5] Malcolm X Quotations

[6] Overview of the Academic Essay:

[7] The Power of Nonviolence:

[8] How to Do a Close Reading:

[9]Closing in On Close Reading:

[10] “Evaluating Nonviolence as a Method of Social Change,”

[11] “A Call to Unity”



[14] Ray Charles on The Dick Cavett Show, 1972

[15] “Independent Reading Strategies for Students”

[16] “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

[17] “Top 10 Nonviolent Protests” (note: photographs #6 and #7 are from the modern Civil Rights Movement),29307,1887394,00.html  

[1] Karsonya Wise Whitehead (; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.

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