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Eyes on the Prize
For Teachers: Activities for High School Students return to index

Jesse Jackson's march for jobs, around the White House, January 15, 1975. These activities have been written with high school students in mind. For more suggestions on teaching the Civil Rights Movement, please visit the Featured Educators page. Or if you have your own favorite classroom activity, share it with other educators — send it in an e-mail to American Experience via this site's Share Your Views e-mail form.


Five Lessons of the Civil Rights Movement:

Lesson 1: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Lesson 2: Economic rights can't be separated from civil rights.

Lesson 3: Ordinary people can change the world.

Lesson 4: Culture can enslave or empower.

Lesson 5: Right makes might.


Lesson 1: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Exploring the Past: The Attica Riot.
Have students read about the 1971 Attica prison riot, including some newspaper editorials and letters to the editor on the subject. Then divide the class into two groups: one to research the conditions in Attica that led to the riot, and one to research the state's actions during and after the retaking of the prison. Each group should then give an oral presentation to the other group summarizing its findings.

After the presentations, ask students whether they think the prisoners could have made their complaints known in some way other than taking over the prison, and whether they think the government could have restored order in some way other than using force when it did. What could one or both sides have done differently that might have produced a better outcome?

Finally, ask students whether they think Frank "Big Black" Smith and the other prisoners were treated fairly before the riot, and after it. Have students consider how they defined "fair" treatment for the Attica prisoners - are there forms of treatment that students would not consider "fair" if applied to law-abiding citizens but would considered "fair" if applied to convicted criminals? Smith said that the government denied him what he considers his basic rights in the way it treated him after the riot. Do you agree with him that prisoners should have basic rights?

Connecting to the Present: The Question of Torture.
The September 11 terrorist attacks sparked a debate in the United States over whether the government should be permitted to torture suspected terrorists in order to obtain information. Ask each student to find a definition of "torture" and bring it to class; use these definitions to create a definition that is acceptable to the entire class. Then suggest three broad positions on the question of torture for students to consider:

- Torture should never be permitted.

- Torture should be permitted, but only in extreme situations, such as when a suspect may have information about an imminent terrorist attack.

- Torture should be permitted whenever government authorities think it is appropriate.

Have students form three groups based on which of these three positions they favor. Then have each group write a three-paragraph statement that explains why its position is the most sensible and what is wrong with each of the two alternatives. Each group should read its statement aloud. Finally, have students reconsider their position and change groups if they change their vote. Did this activity lead to greater support for one of the three alternatives?


Lesson 2: Economic rights can't be separated from civil rights.

Exploring the Past: Civil Rights and Vietnam.
Have the class read about the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Read aloud this excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1967 statement of opposition to the Vietnam War.

"A few years ago... it seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program... Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated... and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor."

Then read aloud these related statements by King, quoted in the film:

- "It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill in Vietnam while we spend in the so-called war on poverty in America only about $53 for each person classified as poor."

- "It didn't cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. It didn't cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. But now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power."

Have students read the newspaper editorials and letters to the editor concerning King's speech against the Vietnam War. Ask students: Why did King, as well as groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights activists, start to shift their focus to economic issues and the role of the Vietnam War when they did? In other words, what events in the United States and Vietnam helped cause this shift?

To find out, divide the years 1954-1967 equally among members of the class. For their assigned year(s), students should list the most important events related to the Civil Rights Movement, anti-poverty efforts in the United States, and the war in Vietnam. Use this information to create a wall-sized timeline of this period.

Now point out to students the Civil Rights Movement's victories in areas such as desegregation and voting rights, President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a "War on Poverty," the Watts riot, and the escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. How did these events combine to make antipoverty efforts the logical next phase of the Civil Rights Movement? On the other hand, what opposition did civil rights activists face — including from some in the Civil Rights Movement and from other civil rights allies — when they came out against the war? Why did others oppose this stand against the war?

Connecting to the Present: The Continuing Wealth Gap.
Despite the important gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans as a group remain much less prosperous than white Americans by measures such as income, wealth, savings, homeownership, and employment. Large numbers of white Americans are poor as well — in fact, poor whites outnumber poor blacks - and the income gap between lower-income and upper-income Americans of both races is growing.

Have students form groups of two to three students each and select one of the measures listed above (or a similar measure of prosperity) to research, using the U.S. Census' Statistical Abstract or other resource. Each group should prepare a graph comparing various groups by this measure. Post the graphs around the room and have the class review them; ask students to note which measures show the largest, and the smallest, gaps between groups.

Finally, brainstorm as a class to think of some ways in which government and individuals could close the wealth gap. For example, since people with a college education tend to earn more, what could be done to increase the number of people who attend college? List these ideas on the board, and vote to select the three ideas that the class finds most promising. Then divide the class into three groups, assign one of the ideas to each group, and have each group find out whether its assigned idea has been (or is now being) tried — and whether it has proven successful.


Lesson 3: Ordinary people can change the world.

Exploring the Past: "Freedom Summer."
As a class, watch the video clip of "Freedom Summer," during which civil rights activists — many of them students — traveled to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote. Discuss with the class the problems African Americans faced when trying to register to vote, such as physical threats, economic punishment, and biased "literacy" tests. Organize a class skit to explore the different kinds of encounters those activists might have had with local residents.

Ask for three volunteers to play the part of activists as they visit African American homes and talk to residents, and have these volunteers figure out ahead of time what they will say to residents to try to convince them to register. Divide the rest of the class into groups of two or three to play the part of African Americans the activists encounter, and have each of these groups likewise decide what its attitude will be toward the activists. (Remind students that African American residents — and the activists themselves — had good reason to fear violence at the hands of racist whites if they asserted their rights.) When the groups are ready, position the different groups representing African Americans around the room and have the three activists visit each group in turn to speak with them. Were the activists successful in convincing any reluctant residents to register to vote?

Alternatively, you might want to have one group of students represent activists, a second group represent African American residents, and a third group represent city workers (registrars, police, etc.) on hand at the local courthouse when the residents come in to register. What kinds of methods might be used to keep the residents from registering?

Finally, ask for a show of hands by students who plan to register to vote once they turn 18. Why do these students plan to register? Why do the other students not plan to register? Were any students influenced by the fact that during the Civil Rights Movement, people risked their lives to register and to help others register? Close by telling students that a single form is available from the government's Election Assistance Commission, through which residents of any state can register to vote.

Connecting to the Present: "People Power" Around the World.
Have students form groups and research the various "people power" movements of recent years, in which citizens in a number of countries have taken to the streets demanding better government and more freedom. Over the past two decades, people power movements have toppled a number of governments — most recently in Lebanon in 2005, but also in places like the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Ukraine; on the other hand, large popular demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 were violently put down

Each group should give a brief oral report to the class in which it (a) points out the location of its country on a wall map; (b) explains when, why, and where popular demonstrations arose against the government; (c) summarizes the government's response; and (d) explains the longer-term impact of the people power movement. Is the country in question better off today as a result of people power?

After the reports, tell students that a number of "people power" movements have adopted the Civil Rights Movement song "We Shall Overcome" as their anthem. What meaning do students think the song has for people around the world?


Lesson 4: Culture can enslave or empower.

Exploring the Past: The Roots of Prejudice.
As a class, watch the video clip describing the civil rights demonstration in Nashville at which a young white man who joined the demonstration was attacked by another young white man. Then have the class count off by threes, and tell them to form groups of three students each; each group must contain one person who is a #1, one who is a #2, and one who is a #3.

When they have formed groups, tell them that each group is going to hold a 15-minute mock TV talk show examining the confrontation; all #1s are going to play the part of the white demonstrator in the video clip, all #2s are going to play the part of the man who attacked the white demonstrator, and all #3s are going to play the part of the show's host. The host will interview the other two men about the confrontation, asking them why they acted as they did and asking questions about their background in order to help the audience understand how the two men became who they are today.

Each group should meet separately to work out how its interview will proceed. (Students playing the part of the two men in the video should feel free to invent details about their character's background, based on their theories regarding the factors that might have influenced the person's character.) If videotaping equipment is available, you may want to have groups videotape the interviews; otherwise, have groups act them out live for the class.

When the groups have acted out the shows for the class, ask students: How do you explain the two men's totally different reactions to the situation? Do you think prejudice is something we are born with, or something we learn from others? What about a willingness to risk one's own safety to help others — are we born with it, or do we learn it from others?

Connecting to the Present: The Messages of Hip-Hop.
Hip-hop has been one of the most important African American cultural forces of the past few decades. Some hip-hop artists are working for positive social change, such as by promoting education, mobilizing voters, and fighting racism. But critics charge that others are using hip-hop to promote demeaning images of African Americans as well as harmful ideas (such as sexism and materialism) and coarse language (such as the "N word"). Have some African American rappers helped or hurt the image of African Americans, within their own community and/or outside their community?

Have students work in small groups to explore this issue. One group may want to find out more about the origins of hip-hop. Another may want to explore the efforts of hip-hop activists on a particular issue, such as reforming the criminal justice system. Another may want to trace the career of a well-known hip-hop artist. Another may want to compare the lyrics of popular hip-hop songs with the lyrics of popular songs by African American artists of earlier decades, such as the "freedom songs" of the late 1960s or the R&B songs of the early 1970s. Have groups report their findings to the class.


Lesson 5: Right makes might.

Exploring the Past: Symbols of Struggle.
Have students work in pairs to draw editorial cartoons depicting key events during the Civil Rights Movement.

Begin by having students bring in recent examples of editorial cartoons from newspapers, magazines, or websites on topics currently in the news. Examine these samples as a class and discuss their use of techniques such as symbols, exaggeration, and irony. Also show students that cartoons sometimes contain dialogue, that elements within the cartoon are often labeled so readers understand who or what is being shown, and that cartoons are intended not just to amuse readers but to convey a message about a given issue.

The message students should convey in their cartoons is that the Civil Rights Movement drew strength from the fact that its cause was just. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "right makes might."

Have students divide up into groups of two and think about which event they want to use to illustrate that point; students may want to view the video clips on this Web site to find examples of striking events or images they would like to portray. Possibilities include a group of unarmed African Americans standing up to armed police or racist white civilians, the use of brutality (such as beatings or high-pressure fire hoses) on peaceful demonstrators, the courage of young African American students braving white hostility to attend formerly all-white schools, a bus of "freedom riders" crushing segregation, or the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave African Americans who had been denied the vote a "weapon" more powerful than any firearm.

When students are done, post their cartoons around the room and have students examine them. Which ones did they find most effective?

Connecting to the Present: Algebra, a New Arena for Civil Rights.
Since 1982, Robert Moses, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, has run the Algebra Project, a non-profit organization working to improve math education among African Americans and other minority groups. Moses regards math education for minority students as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, something that is as important to young African Americans today as winning the vote was to African Americans in the early 1960s.

Have students visit the website of the Algebra Project, the associated Young People's Project, which trains young people to act as mentors for elementary and middle-school students, as well as other related sites, such as the National Center for Educational Statistics' recent report on student achievement in math, to find the answers to these questions: How does student achievement in math differ among whites, blacks, and Hispanics, and how do college admissions rates differ among these groups? Why was the Algebra Project created, and what kinds of programs does it offer? Where does the Algebra Project now operate? It has been said that algebra is a "gatekeeper" to college admission and future success; what does this mean? More broadly, why is it often said that education empowers people, giving them more control over their future? Discuss these issues as a class.

Close by asking students what challenges they personally have faced in math class, and what they think could be done to make learning math easier. Does thinking of math as a necessary tool to obtaining full citizenship in this increasingly technology-based society give students — of all racial and ethnic backgrounds — an extra incentive to succeed in math class?

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