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For Teachers: Activities for Middle School Students return to index
These activities have been written with middle 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 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: Voices from Outside the South.
Have volunteers read aloud the New York Times editorials from April 26, 1956 and June 4, 1961. What message do they have in common? If you had been alive during the Civil Rights Movement, would you have agreed or disagreed with the idea that non-southerners should show restraint in their demands regarding civil rights in the South because the issue was none of their business?
Have students imagine that they just read one of the editorials in the morning paper and write a letter to the editor in response to it, expressing their support or disapproval. In their letters, writers should identify their race and whether they live in the South if they think those facts are relevant to their argument.
Connecting to the Present: The Rights of Immigrants
One of the most controversial issues in recent U.S. politics has been immigration, especially the question of how to deal with illegal immigration. To help students get a sense of this debate, have each student bring into class a newspaper, magazine article or editorial on an issue related to immigration (many were published in spring/summer 2006). Students should summarize their article for the class and explain what they found most interesting in it.
Point out that this is hardly the first time Americans have had a fierce debate over immigration. In the 1800s, for example, some people argued that the United States should severely restrict the number of immigrants from countries like Ireland and Italy because these immigrants were too "foreign" and would never become "truly American" — arguments that today are sometimes used against Hispanic immigrants.
Divide the class into four groups and assign each group one of the following roles: an immigrant living illegally in the United States, an immigrant living legally in the United States, a U.S. citizen who is unemployed, and a business owner who employs low-wage workers. Each group should decide how they think the person they have been assigned would answer the following questions: Should illegal immigrants be
(a) given the same rights and protections that U.S. citizens have,
(b) required to return to their home country and apply to immigrate to the United States, or
(c) allowed to remain in the United States while they apply for citizenship, but not receive the full rights of citizenship until they become citizens?
Have each group elect a spokesperson to announce the group's position on this issue and explain their reason for it. Then ask whether students agree with the decisions made by each of the other groups. For example, if the group representing the legal immigrant argued that illegal immigrants should be given the same rights and protections that U.S. citizens have, do any students think that some legal immigrants might disagree with that position, and if so, why?
Lesson 2: Economic rights can't be separated from civil rights.
Exploring the Past: An Economic Bill of Rights.
Have volunteers read aloud the newspaper editorials and letters to the editor concerning the Poor People's March. Then explain that the Poor People's Campaign also called on Congress to pass an "economic bill of rights" for all Americans, black and white.
Divide the class into groups of roughly three students each. Each group should review the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, think of what items it might want to include in an economic bill of rights, and make its own proposed list. (If groups are having trouble coming up with ideas, you might suggest that they consider areas such as jobs or income, housing, education, and health care.) Circulate the completed lists among the class. Then compare these lists to the list of specific legislative demands prepared by the Poor People's Campaign:
1. Recommit the Federal Government to the Full Employment Act of 1946 and legislate the immediate creation of at least one million socially useful career jobs in public service;
2. Adopt the pending housing and urban development act of 1968;
3. Repeal the 90th Congress's punitive welfare restrictions in the 1967 Social Security Act.
4. Extend to all farm workers the right — guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act — to organize agricultural labor unions;
5. Restore budget cuts for bilingual education, Head Start, summer jobs, Economic Opportunity Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Acts.
How do the students' lists compare to this list, and to each other? Discuss whether you think these are rights the government could — or should — commit itself to protecting.
Connecting to the Present: From Welfare to Work.
In 1996 Congress made major changes in federal welfare rules designed to encourage welfare recipients to work. Since then, a number of states have designed programs for welfare recipients who have problems that prevent them from getting good-paying jobs — such as a disability or a lack of education — to help them overcome these problems. Critics complain that states should focus more on getting welfare recipients into jobs, regardless of what these jobs pay or whether they have opportunities for advancement, and in 2006 Congress tightened federal welfare rules in order to push states in that direction.
Ask students: Do you think welfare recipients should receive help to go to college or vocational school, or should they be required to find whatever kind of job they currently qualify for? Each student should write a paragraph giving his or her view on this question. Read students' answers to the class. Then, as a class, find out what your state's welfare policies are. What rules must welfare recipients follow? What programs are available to help them overcome problems that can prevent them from working? You might want to invite a local welfare caseworker to speak to the class about the challenges families on welfare face, and the kinds of programs they find most helpful.
Lesson 3: Ordinary people can change the world.
Exploring the Past: A Diverse Movement.
Have students read the Profiles and Reflections of some of those who made history during the Civil Rights Movement, and tell them to note as they read that the people who fought for civil rights came from a variety of backgrounds. Then write on the board, "The people who fought for civil rights were..." and ask the class to end that sentence in as many different ways as it can, in order to show that the movement contained many different kinds of people.
Next, have students work in small groups to research the many movements that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Chicano movement, the women's movement, the Puerto Rican movement, and the American Indian Movement. For the movement it has chosen to research, each group should answer these questions: What were the goals of this movement — what did it want to change? Who were some of the leaders of the movement, and how much were "regular people" involved?
When you are done, ask the class what this exercise has taught them regarding the diversity of backgrounds of Americans who have worked — and who continue to work — to improve this country.
Connecting to the Present: Work in an Age of Globalization.
Start by telling students that when they get ready for school tomorrow, they should check the tags on the different items of clothing they wear to see where they were made, and make a list of the different countries. The next day, identify these various countries as a class on a wall map, explaining that many countries have few if any laws to ensure that their workers are paid decently and work in a safe environment.
Have students form groups, one for each country from students' lists; each student should join a group that "represents" one of the countries whose products he or she wears. Groups should then investigate their assigned country's laws regarding workers' rights. For example, are workers allowed to form unions? Is child labor banned? What is a typical wage for workers in the clothing industry? Groups should report their findings to the class.
Finally, explain to students that through groups such as United Students Against Sweatshops, American high school and college students have organized campaigns to fight for the rights of workers around the world (including the United States) in the clothing industry and other industries. Can students suggest ways to organize such a campaign in your community?
Lesson 4: Culture can enslave or empower.
Exploring the Past: Images of Minorities in American Culture.
View the video clips concerning "Black Power" and "Black Pride" during the 1960s. Ask students: Why was it important for African Americans, and other racial and ethnic groups, to express pride in their heritage and their accomplishments? Divide the class into groups; have each group select a group, such as African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, or Native Americans, and research how this group was portrayed in television, Hollywood films, and advertisements in the decades before the 1960s. How did the "Black is Beautiful" movement and related movements change how this group was portrayed in popular culture? Is stereotyping now a thing of the past, or do you think this group sometimes is still treated unfairly in places like TV, movies, and ads?
Connecting to the Present: The Power of Advertising.
Explain to students that many advertisers seek to convince consumers that they can become more desirable by buying a particular product; often this involves making consumers feel bad about themselves by giving them images of people who seem better looking, more successful, and/or happier than consumers are. Ask them if they can think of examples. (If necessary, prompt students by asking them whether the people they see in magazine and TV ads look like people they know — and if not, how they differ from real people. For example, you might ask students to describe how a "typical" man and "typical" woman in an ad look and act, and whether they ever see people who look or act like that in real life.)
Have students form small groups to prepare their own TV ads that spoof this tactic of selling products by making consumers feel bad about themselves. Each group should choose a different kind of product: food, clothing, drink, cell phone, etc. The "target audience" for the product is students in your school, so the ads should be designed to appeal to the tastes of the students and their friends. Each group should rehearse a 15-second ad and then present it to the class.
When all of the groups have presented their ads, hold a class vote on which one was most effective. Then ask students how (and whether) they protect themselves against the manipulative claims made by advertisers.
Lesson 5: Right makes might.
Exploring the Past: Debating Non-Violence.
As a class, watch the video clip of the interview in which Malcolm X criticizes the tactics used by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the interview in which King responds to Malcolm X's charges. Then divide the class into two groups — one representing Malcolm X, the other representing Martin Luther King, Jr. — to organize a debate the two men might have had on the following question: Was King's tactic of non-violent resistance the best way for African Americans to fight for their civil rights?
Each team should find out more about the views of the man it was assigned, including quotations from him that would be relevant to this debate. Then have the two groups work together to write the script of the debate, using as many quotations as possible. When they are done, have two volunteers (one from each group) act out the debate for the class.
Afterwards, have the class consider the two sides of the debate over non-violence. Point out that this debate took place on both a moral level (Is it right to use violence, even in response to violence?) and a practical level (Is violence likely to be an effective way for African Americans to overcome discrimination?), and that some civil rights activists endorsed non-violence for practical reasons even though they did not accept it as a moral imperative. Ask students: If you were a civil rights worker in the 1960s, would you have supported or rejected non-violence, and would your position have been based mostly on moral reasons or practical ones? Ask for volunteers to explain their opinions to the class.
Connecting to the Present: Is Non-Violence Out of Date?
Ask students: With terrorism, war, crime, and political extremism so much in the news these days, does non-violence have a role to play in making the world of the 21st century — the world you will inherit when you become adults — a less dangerous place?
Have students work in small groups to select a contemporary issue and examine the possible role for non-violence in addressing it. For example, can non-violence help overcome conflicts between nations (such as between North and South Korea), or between groups in the same nation (such as between the Sunnis and Shiites of Iraq)? Can non-violent techniques help prevent domestic abuse, or reduce violence among youth gangs? Can non-violence be an effective response to bullying in schools? Is non-violent civil disobedience an effective way to push for changes in government policies related to abortion, foreign conflicts, or other controversial issues? Is a non-violent response to terrorism possible, and what would it consist of?
Have groups present their suggested issues to you so you can ensure they are appropriate and avoid repetition between groups. When their topics have been approved and they have completed their research, groups should make a five-minute presentation to the class on what they have found. List each of the topics on the board as the presentations are made; when they are done, ask whether you think non-violence is more, or less, important today than it was during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.