The Civil Rights Movement | Classroom Materials at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress (2024)

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Teacher’s Guide

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In the middle of the 20th century, the United States was rocked by a nationwide movement for equal rights for African Americans and for an end to the racial segregation and exclusion that had been enforced by law and by practice throughout the Jim Crow era. This movement took many forms, and its participants used a wide range of means to make their demands felt, including sit-ins, boycotts, protest marches, freedom rides, and lobbying government officials for legislative action. They faced opposition on many fronts and fell victim to bombings and beatings, arrest and assassination. By the end of the 1960s, the civil rights movement had brought about dramatic changes in the law and in public practice, and had secured legal protection of rights and freedoms for African Americans that would shape American life for decades to come.

Highlights from the African American civil rights movement of the 20th century

  • Brown v. Board of Education The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, led by Thurgood Marshall, spent decades fighting against racial segregation in education. This long campaign culminated when the U.S. Supreme Court heard Brown v. Board of Education, which gathered together five separate cases related to school segregation with Marshall leading the arguments before the Court. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” legally ending racial segregation in public schools and overruling the “separate but equal” principle set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1889.
  • Rosa Parks arrested On December 1, 1955, civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white passenger. The arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a pivotal event in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and was a defining moment in Parks' long career as an activist. The Montgomery Bus Boycott also saw the rise to prominence of a young Montgomery minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Little Rock school integration crisis After the Brown v. Board, Supreme Court decision, state and local officials in a number of states resisted school integration. In September of 1957, nine African American students attempted to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The governor ordered the state’s National Guard to surround the high school, and the Black students were harassed and kept from entering the building. President Dwight Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent U.S. troops to protect the students and enforce the desegregation order of the federal courts.
  • Birmingham campaign In the spring of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., launched a large-scale campaign of sit-ins and marches in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest the city’s brutal segregation policies. Many of the protestors and leaders were jailed, and while behind bars, Dr. King wrote a long public letter that explained his philosophy of non-violent protest. This document, which became known as “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” went on to be widely republished and regarded as a classic defense of the principles of civil disobedience.
  • The March on Washington On August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people arrived in Washington, D.C., for the largest non-violent civil rights demonstration that the nation had ever seen: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was organized in a few months, coordinated by veteran strategist Bayard Rustin, and was meant to demonstrate an urgent need for substantive change. The demands in the event program began with “Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress” and included the end of discrimination in education, housing, employment, and more. Leaders and organizers met with members of Congress and with President John F. Kennedy, while the march ended at the Lincoln Memorial with music and speeches, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • The Selma civil rights marches On March 7, 1965, a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, led by 25-year-old activist leader John Lewis, was attacked by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies as the marchers attempted to cross the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Coverage of the marchers being beaten, tear-gassed, and trampled by police horses prompted outrage across the nation, and activists, religious leaders, and everyday citizens flooded into Selma to lend their support. On March 9, a second group of marchers, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., approached the bridge, prayed there, and returned to church. On March 21, thousands of marchers crossed the bridge, this time protected by federalized National Guard troops, and headed to Montgomery.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 The two most significant pieces of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction were passed within two years of each other. Between the two, these Acts outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. They banned discrimination in public accommodations, public education, and employment, and prohibited race-based restrictions on voting. Such sweeping legislation had been a longtime goal of the civil rights movement, and it brought many of the laws and practices of the Jim Crow Era to an end.

Suggestions for Teachers

  • Ask students to research civil rights leaders or other individuals featured in one or more of the items in this primary source set to learn more about their contributions to the civil rights movement. Students might use primary and secondary sources from the Library of Congress, in addition to other sources. How are the individuals depicted differently in primary sources from their own time, compared to in secondary sources?
  • Direct students to compare oral history accounts of an event from the civil rights movement to how their textbook or another secondary source documents it. If time allows, ask them to suggest revisions to the textbook account based on the oral history.
  • Using clues in the primary sources themselves, ask students to put the items, or a sub-set of the items, in chronological order, working in small groups or as a whole class. Then, distribute the item records and allow time for students to check the order they composed against the creation date of each item.
  • Ask students to select a primary source that depicts or describes a protest or demonstration from the civil rights movement and analyze it. What persuasive strategies are used in the protest? Why do you think the planners or participants chose these strategies? Suggest that students brainstorm strategies that they would use if they were organizing the selected protest today.
  • Allow time for students to study and analyze one primary source without presenting the caption or headline, and then ask them to write a caption or headline. To sharpen their focus and prompt discussion, divide students into pairs or small groups and require consensus. Finally, ask them to compare their product with the published caption or headline.

Additional Resources

The Civil Rights Movement | Classroom Materials at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress (2024)
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