For Educators

Religion and the Civil Rights Movement – Background


Many of the most prominent figures of the civil rights movement drew their motivation to fight for freedom and equality from their religious faith. Powered by the belief that all men and women are children of God, they set forth to assure that justice, fair treatment, and equal opportunity were awarded to people of all races, cultural backgrounds, and religious faiths. As historian and Martin Luther King biographer Taylor Branch has said, the civil rights movement fused the political promise of equal votes with the spiritual doctrine of equal souls. While it is easy to see how religion would serve as a tremendous motivator for such a cause, some question whether direct influence and discussion of religion in the civil rights movement somehow threatens a secular society and the separation of church and state.

In this lesson, students explore the ways religious faith inspired and influenced social change and the civil rights movement. They will review religious lessons that encourage the fair and equal treatment of all people, and those that encourage us to treat others only as we would like to be treated. Students will investigate whether the influence of religious faith on the civil rights and other social movements somehow violates the separation of church and state, and they will consider whether extreme religious beliefs might actually harm or hinder the efforts of the civil rights movement.

Grade Level:

Grades 9-12

This lesson is intended for high school grades, but can be adapted for middle school students.

Time Allotment:

4-5 45-minute class periods

Subject Matter:

Behavioral Studies, Civil Rights, Cultural Studies, Ethics, Language Arts, Political Science, Racial Studies, Religion, US History

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Discuss religious teachings that support the goals of the civil rights movement.
  • Explore the ways key figures of the civil rights movement were inspired by their religious faith.
  • Consider the responsibility of religious figures and faith-based organizations to be actively involved in the civil rights movement.
  • Investigate whether the influence of religion on the civil rights movement violates the separation between church and state.
  • Determine whether staunch religious beliefs ever hinder the efforts and goals of the civil rights movement.


Behavioral Studies

Standard 1: Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity, and behavior Level III, Benchmark 1; Level IV, Benchmark 1

Level III, Benchmark 1. Understands that each culture has distinctive patterns of behavior that are usually practiced by most people who grow up in it

Level IV, Benchmark 1. Understands that cultural beliefs strongly influence the values and behavior of the people who grow up in the culture, often without being fully aware of it, and that people have different responses to these influences.

Standard 2: Understands various meanings of social group, general implications of group membership, and different ways that groups function

Level III, Benchmarks 4, 5; Level IV, Benchmark 3

Level III, Benchmark 4. Understands that people sometimes react to all members of a group as though they were the same and perceive in their behavior only those qualities that fit preconceptions of the group (i.e., stereotyping) which leads to uncritical judgments (e.g., showing blind respect for members of some groups and equally blind disrespect for members of other groups)

Level III, Benchmark 5. Understands that a variety of factors (e.g., belief systems, learned behavior patterns) contribute to the ways in which groups respond differently to their physical and social environments and to the wants and needs of their members

Level IV, Benchmark 3. Understands how the diverse elements that contribute to the development and transmission of culture (e.g., language, literature, the arts, traditions, beliefs, values, behavior patterns) function as an integrated whole

Standard 3: Understands that interactions among learning, inheritance, and physical development affect human behavior

Level IV, Benchmark 4

4. Understands that people might ignore evidence that challenges their beliefs and more readily accept evidence that supports them

Language Arts

Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Level IV, Benchmarks 2, 5

2. Uses a variety of print and electronic sources to gather information for research topics

5. Synthesizes information from multiple research studies to draw conclusions that go beyond those found in any of the individual studies

Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Level IV, Benchmarks 2, 4, 8

2. Asks questions as a way to broaden and enrich classroom discussions

4. Adjusts message wording and delivery to particular audiences and for particular purposes (e.g., to defend a position, to entertain, to inform, to persuade)

8. Responds to questions and feedback about own presentations (e.g., clarifies and defends ideas, expands on a topic, uses logical arguments, modifies organization, evaluates effectiveness, sets goals for future presentations)

This lesson was prepared by: Erin Audia