Birmingham 1963: Primary Documents

This lesson asks students to interrogate six historical documents that show differing opinions about the conflict in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • analyze written documents for position of writer and content
  • synthesize a historical position based upon document analysis
  • connect historical struggles for equality with current movements
Essential Questions
  • What effect did the media have on public perception during the Birmingham protest of racial segregation in 1963?
  • What equality struggles have the media brought into the national spotlight in recent times?


Many of the major events that defined the civil rights movement took place in Alabama. And it was from that state that two leading figures in the struggle emerged: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to prominence in the state’s capital, Montgomery, as a spokesperson for black people seeking equality, while Alabama Governor George C. Wallace became a symbol for white resistance to racial integration.

On June 11, 1963, Governor Wallace drew national attention when he kept a campaign pledge to stand in the schoolhouse door to block the integration of the state’s public schools. The conflict between these two sides focused national attention on Alabama.In May 1963, civil rights advocates demonstrated in another Alabama city, Birmingham. The news media enabled millions of Americans to see how the city police department (led by its chief, Bull Connor) responded—using powerful water hoses and police dogs against the demonstrators, many of whom were children. The world watched as terror and violence gripped Birmingham.




alleged [uh-lejd] (adjective) claiming to be true without proof

arbitrary [ar-bih-treh-ree] (adjective) done at random

indignity [in-dig-neh-tee] (noun) an act that results in humiliation

inevitably [in-ehv-i-tuh-blee] (adverb) as is expected to occur

quell [kwel] (verb) to put an end to something, often by use of force

document [dok-yoo-ment] A written, printed, or electronic item that provides information

primary source [pry-mer-ee sors] A document or other source of information created by someone with first-hand knowledge


Suggested Procedure

1. This lesson makes use of six historical documents that show differing opinions about the conflict in Birmingham, AL, in 1963. Assign students to read all six, explaining that five are telegrams and one is the cover page of a report on “Human Rights in Alabama.” Remind students that historical documents are written in the language of their time, and may use phrases that today appear outdated or offensive. After reading the documents, ask each student to choose one document and answer the questions on the handout.

2. Have students report their findings to the class.

3. After everyone in class completes steps one and two, give each student the following performance task: “You are the press secretary for the governor of Alabama in 1963. You are to write a press release that will be sent to every newspaper, radio station and television station in Alabama regarding what is going on in Birmingham. Consider all of the documents available to you. What will you advise the governor to tell the state?”

Alignment to Common Core State Standards/ College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards CCSS R.1, R.6, W.2, SL.4


Extension Activity

Do Something

Ask students to search for a primary document related to a current controversy around civil or human rights. Read over that document and answer the questions about it asked on the handout on ‘Analyzing a Written Document.’ For question number seven on the handout — “List two things from the document that describe life in the United States or in Alabama in the 1960s — change the words “or Alabama in the 1960s” to “or your home state in the 21st century.”