The Sixties: Hitsville USA

Essential Question

How did music bridge differences and cultures in America in the 1960s?



Students view an excerpt from the Motown Amp investigation in which they learn about bassist James Jamerson and the role of Motown Records in the Civil Rights Movement. They then analyze Motown’s role its role in desegregating popular entertainment.


Related Episode: Motown Amp Investigation

Bassist Steve Fishman was excited to find a beat-up Ampeg B-15 amp with a name stenciled on the side: “James Jamerson.” Though Jamerson’s name isn’t known to many outside the music industry, his bass playing was the backbone of that funky Motown sound that drove Motown’s musicians into mainstream popularity in the 1960s. Host Eduardo Pagan sets out to discover whether this amp really did belong to bassist James Jamerson.


Suggested Grade Level

This lesson is written for grades 9-12 but could be adapted for use in grades 6-8 as well. Suggestions for adaption include: limit the number research sources resources students view; print resources and highlight relevant information.


Suggested Unit of Study

This lesson is appropriate for American History units covering the Civil Rights Movement and post-World-War-II American society.





Shattering Race Barriers and Chart Records

Eduardo Pagan provides background on Motown Records and James Jamerson.

In this clip, History Detective Eduardo Pagan provides background on Motown Records and James Jamerson, the bass player for the Funk Brothers, Motown’s house band. He interviews Tim Hewitt and Ufuoma Wallace, Motown experts who explain how the Motown Sound, in part generated by Jamerson’s bass style, made history.

James Jamerson Jr describes My Girl

Eduardo talks to James Jamerson Jr about his father prominent base playing.



Motown and the Civil Rights Movement 


Computers/Technology Lab with access to the internet. Optional


Estimated Time Required

 1-2 class periods



Motown Records changed the face of popular music in the 1960s. Founded by Berry Gordy, Jr., in Detroit, Michigan, Motown brought Black popular music into the mainstream. The “Motown Sound” was characterized by syncopated bass lines, call-and-response choruses, and a strong backbeat accented with tambourines. It was wildly popular. Though the songs were not overtly political, Motown’s popularity contributed to the Civil Rights Movement by achieving crossover success. Thanks to its popularity, African-American songs and faces entered the homes of every American in the country, regardless of race.


Set Up

Discussion Questions

 Have students watch the video Shattering Race Barriers and Chart Records while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the following questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion: 

  • What details do we learn about James Jamerson?
  • What do we learn about Motown Records and its artists?
  • What is the “Motown sound”? Describe it.
  • How is Jamerson’s bass playing unique?
  • Make a prediction: How did Motown Records contribute to the Civil Rights Movement?


 After showing the clip from the History Detectives episode Motown Amp, explain to the class that they will work in small jigsaw groups to research Motown Records and its role in the Civil Rights Movement. (If students need a refresher about Civil Rights refer to Civil Rights Timeline. Ask students if they are familiar with any Motown songs. Share with them the video so they have a sense of the Motown sound.

Assign students home and expert groups according to the jigsaw cooperative learning strategy. Each “home” team should consist of 4-5 students and students should number off within their teams. Have students divide up into “expert” groups corresponding to the numbers they counted off (eg: all the number 1’s should work together, etc.). 

Once students are in their expert groups, assign each group one of the following articles to read and analyze. Students may take notes on the Motown and the Civil Rights Movement reproducible.

  • Motown and Civil Rights. Includes background on Berry Gordy and the early days of Motown, and strategies used by Motown to achieve crossover success
  • What’s Going On: Motown and the Civil Rights Movement (pages 47-50): Explicit discussion of how Motown helped African Americans achieve Civil Rights’ goals of economic success and integration
  • Motown Turns 50(page 2): Provides background on Berry Gordy and the role of African American musicians in the music industry before Motown
  • Motown Founder Bridged Racial Divide. Discussion of Berry Gordy’s role in the Civil Rights Movement and how he so successfully created successful artist after successful artist

After students have read and discussed the articles in their expert groups, dismiss students to their home groups to share and exchange what they learned. By the end of the activity, students should have filled out notes in all the boxes on the handout.

Then, lead a discussion about how Motown Records contributed to the Civil Rights Movement.

  • What was Motown Records?
  • How did it achieve crossover success?
  • How did opportunities for African American musicians change with the success of Motown?
  • Were there any downsides to Motown’s success?
  • How did the success of Motown contribute to the Civil Rights Movement?
  • How did music bridge cultural differences in the 1960s? Does it do so today?

Going Further

In the late sixties, Motown Records released a number of explicitly political hits: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and Smokey Robinson’s “I Care About Detroit.” Ask students to research one of those songs and analyze what it says in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Students may present their findings in brief oral or written reports. How was Motown changing as the 1960s progressed? Why?


More on History Detectives

Use the following episodes or lesson plans from History Detectives to enhance the teaching of this lesson in your classroom. 







National History Standards

Historical Thinking

2. Historical Comprehension: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources

3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation

4. Historical Research Capabilities: The student conducts historical research


US History Content Standards, Grades 5-12

Era 9: Postwar United States (1945-1970s)

  • Standard 1: The economic boom and social transformation of postwar United States 
  • Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and the extension of civil liberties

Common Core State Standards


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.



CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.



CCS.ELA-literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.




CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-12.8 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the specific task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.