Summer Workshop Series: Teaching Civil Rights as a Living Movement

Summer Workshop Series: Teaching Civil Rights as a Living Movement
Monica Fuglei June 28, 2016

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Bringing the Civil Rights Movement to Life

2015 marked the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the march from Selma to Montgomery, a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. The milestone celebration aired on numerous TV channels and received a tremendous amount of media attention, but for teachers, these events highlighted students’ fundamental lack of knowledge about the American civil rights movement.

NAEP report: The number of high school students familiar with Brown v. Board of Education is around two percent

While students can identify Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., their understanding of civil rights history and its pivotal events tends to stop there. According to Teaching Tolerance, a 2010 National Assessment of Education Progress report showed that only two percent of high school seniors were familiar with the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.

The problem: Teaching the civil rights movement as a bland list of facts

When taught effectively, lessons on the civil rights movement give students a framework for understanding American history, building critical and civic literacy, and making connections between historical and present-day struggles against racism, segregation and discrimination. Instead, many social studies units boil civil rights knowledge down to a bland list of names, dates and holidays that students view as ancient history.

However, a workshop that accesses the immediacy of the civil rights era by examining the Voting Rights Act of 1965 can provide both context and a touchstone for understanding why and how ordinary citizens fought, and continue to fight, to attain rights guaranteed by the Constitution. 

A summer workshop that brings the civil rights era to life for students

This workshop seeks to provide in-depth understanding of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its long-term consequences. The lesson’s goal is to give students an understanding of contemporary civil rights as a living movement, including how recent changes to the VRA have the potential to influence the 2016 election.

The content is best suited for high school students, though it might be appropriate for middle schoolers as well. Use of primary documents can be expanded to include picture books or other readings to make the work more accessible for younger audiences.

Teaching the civil rights movement: Instructor prep

In order to teach this workshop, the instructor must understand the context of the civil rights movement and prepare for student questions. Teaching for Change is an excellent resource for books, workshops, and additional lesson plans that can serve as professional learning tools.

Because state standards do not specifically call for civil rights or history education, it’s also a good idea to review how these topics fit within reading, writing and language standards, specifically the use of primary documents and exploring multiple viewpoints.

Leading students through the Selma-to-Montgomery march

This workshop should take place in a classroom where students can conduct research using tablets, computers or even their smartphones. When done in one session, the workshop is about 90 minutes long, but it could easily be expanded into several days’ work.

To kick off the session, instructors should provide a contextual overview of the Selma march, then lead a class discussion of its connection with the Voting Rights Act. Watching Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma” in clips or in its entirety can be beneficial, but is not required. Topics to discuss as a class might include:

  • Why Jim Crow laws harmed American democracy
  • The movement against segregated schools and facilities leading up to the Selma-to-Montgomery march
  • How federal, state and local institutions legally prevented African-American citizens from congregating and organizing
  • Why young people in Selma organized voter-registration drives
  • How violence and retaliation were used to intimidate African-Americans and their allies in the civil rights movement

Challenge student investigators to find connections between ‘I Have a Dream’ and the 1965 Voting Rights Act

Students should read both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the text of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Put students into small groups to discuss how they believe the law could help turn Dr. King’s dream into a reality. Encourage them to find supportive evidence from both primary documents and their own research of the Act’s successes or failures. 

As a larger class, bring the groups together and lead a discussion of their findings. Themes might include:

  • Politicians’ and legislators’ motives for repressing the black vote
  • Voter suppression tactics and other forms of legal racial discrimination addressed by the Voting Rights Act
  • Political and economic means VRA opponents used to resist enforcing the law

No permanent victories: Helping students see civil rights as a living movement

To begin the next part of the workshop, familiarize students with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling on Shelby County v. Holder by covering the basics of the case and a summary of the decision, then:

  • Return students to small groups
  • Ask them to consider how the decision might affect the progress of the civil rights movement
  • Share what kind of issues each group discovered

After discussing Shelby v. Holder, show the class a video of President Obama’s remarks on the 50th anniversary of Selma. To conclude the session, have the class reflect together on what they learned during the workshop as well as what they believe is in store for the future of U.S. civil rights. In a culminating assignment, students can write a journal reflecting on the President’s remarks, particularly how we can “run so our children can soar.”

Beyond ‘heroes and holidays’: Expanded options for teaching about the civil rights era

During the school year, this workshop works well for history or civics students, but also has cross-curricular potential for using data sets and calculations in a mathematics environment. While it can be taught on its own, this lesson is not a complete chronicle of the civil rights movement and would be best-suited as one of many classroom discussions about civil rights and American identity and history.

The Teaching Tolerance guide “A Time for Justice: America’s Civil Rights Movement” provides interactive, multi-disciplinary lesson plans that explore the following subjects:

  • How the civil rights era transformed laws and cultural norms in the United States
  • Why civil rights leaders and activists chose nonviolent strategies to achieve equality
  • Safety risks to civil rights-era African Americans and allies
  • Civil rights successes and inequities in the present day

Meaningful civil rights learning creates informed students and citizens

Students who experience meaningful learning about civil rights are likely to continue discussions about justice and equality over time — particularly as they see the headlines during the 2016 campaign season. It’s important to allow students to connect and revisit their learning in order to ensure that they fully understand the long-term ramifications of the civil rights movement, particularly in the context of the current election cycle.  

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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