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Lesson Plans

From Selma to Montgomery: An Introduction to the 1965 Marches - Lesson Plan

February 10, 2016

Full Lesson



Social Studies, English, film

Estimated Time

One 50-minute class period

Grade Level

Middle or High School


Students will learn about the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement. They will examine the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and watch clips from the movie Selma. Most importantly, students will think critically about sources of information.

Warm Up Activity

  1. Pass out Background (one-pager for students) to read.
    • The right to vote was first guaranteed to black men in 1870 with the passage of the 15th Amendment. But for nearly 100 years after, that right was systematically obstructed in many places across the nation.
    • Even now, voting rights remain contentious, with portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 having been struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, and new voter ID laws sparking heated debate over the impact on voter participation.

Play video clip – Application

2. Alabama was a flashpoint for civil rights battles. Throughout the state, black citizens applying to vote were repeatedly blocked by local registrars – known to give impromptu literacy and civics tests featuring absurdly difficult questions designed to fail all takers. Furthermore, widespread poll taxes discouraged the poor and penalized those who chose to vote even if they succeeded in getting registered. By 1965, there were counties in Alabama where not a single black person had voted in any election for the previous 50 years.

Play video clip – Give us the vote

3. In Selma, where only 130 of 15,000 black citizens were registered, citizens continued their long fight against institutionalized racism. The national civil rights group, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (known as SNCC), started organizing in the area in 1963, but faced considerable resistance, particularly from segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark who utilized local posses to intimidate, arrest and flat-out beat up those engaged in voter drives. In January of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a group of ministers leading nonviolent boycotts, marches and sit-ins to protest segregation across the South) arrived in Selma to assist the growing movement.

Play video clip – Join Us

4. Ask students what they think about the protest methods used by SNCC, the SCLC and the people of Selma. Do you think you would have participated if you were alive in 1965? Why or why not? 

Video clips courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Main Activity

  1. Explain to students that they are going to watch three short videos and analyze the content and critically think about the intended audiences for each different video. Have them think about the following questions:
    • What audience do you think the video is intended for? What clues let you know?
    • Who is the central leader or hero of the March? Think carefully if it is realistic that one person was responsible for so much or if that makes the story easier to tell.
    • How are African-Americans portrayed? How are white Americans portrayed?
    • What else do you notice?
  2. Make sure to give students time to write down their thoughts and space to express their thoughts on what they are seeing.

Video | Selma – Trailer | Paramount Pictures

Extension Activity

A key provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring federal oversight of states with a history of racial discrimination has been struck down by the Supreme Court. Watch this PBS NewsHour interview to learn more about this important legal change.

Video | High Court Strikes Down Key Provision of Voting Rights Act | PBS NewsHour

“Selma” video clips courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Lesson by Katie Gould, PBS NewsHour Teacher Resource Producer