Being reflective and intentional about how we teach about the Black movement for equality and civil rights is essential for engaging young people in this history and its connections to their lives. The following strategies provide guidance for practices that can be integrated into planning and instruction. These practices are adapted from the Learning for Justice publications The March Continues and Beyond the Bus.
- Practice 1 Connect to the present.
- Practice 2 Know how to talk about race and racism.
- Practice 3 Educate to realize power.
- Practice 4 Reveal the unseen.
- Practice 5 Resist telling a simple story.
Connect to the present.
- Build bridges between current events and the long history of the Black movement for equality and civil rights.
- Encourage students to make connections between the history—especially the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s—and justice and civil rights movements today.
- Address goals of the Black movement for equality and civil rights that remain unmet.
- Make the history and today’s justice and civil rights movements relevant to students’ lives by drawing on local issues and community struggles.
- Use project-based learning and performance tasks to assess student learning and its application in their own lives.
Making connections and recognizing that we are not simply learning about the past, but rather how society today is shaped by that past, is key to establishing relevance for students. When historical learning is connected to current events, students can explore ways to apply their knowledge to analyze conditions today and imagine the changes needed to achieve a more equitable society. They become better equipped to take action in the present.
Examining current news stories and recognizing recurring themes can help students connect past and present. Mapping the ways in which white supremacy and racism persist in contemporary society helps students evaluate achievements and pinpoint areas that demand additional change. As teachers review contemporary sources, they should incorporate media literacy skills to analyze content and recognize bias and disinformation.
And making connections between the Black movement for equality and civil rights and other justice and civil rights movements today can set the stage for complex discussions. Students will better understand current events if they can draw from the rich historical context, and cultivating this nuanced understanding of past and present is even more essential when teaching students from diverse backgrounds.
Know how to talk about race and racism.
- Recognize how our identities and experiences can affect our feelings about topics of race and racism. Take time to consider your own identities and relationships to this history.
- Dispel ideas about a biological basis for race and help students understand race as a social construction.
- Help students understand the social and legal constructions surrounding race and how race has been used as a means of control throughout history.
- Be conscious and curious about the ways race is important in your students’ lives.
- Allow opportunities for students to discuss, in a supportive environment, their experiences with race and racism.
- Avoid race-neutral language and acknowledge contemporary racial disparities.
Discussing race can be an opportunity for thoughtful conversations. In teaching the Black movement for equality and civil rights, educators must be prepared to talk about race and racism—not as remnants of the past but as real forces in the world today. Learning for Justice’s Let’s Talk! publication is an essential resource for educators working to build their own competency facilitating classroom conversations about critical topics like identity, discrimination and inequality.
Race is a social construct rather than a biological fact. But race matters in how it shapes our experiences and has real impacts, from small interpersonal interactions to large institutional arrangements. Educators should examine the ways that race influences their classrooms and schools every day.
When teachers say they are “colorblind” or they “don’t see race,” they are usually trying to say they do not discriminate and that they treat all their students equally. Of course, being fair and treating each student with respect are essential. However, race and ethnicity often play important roles in children’s identities and our own. We do students a disservice if we encourage them to think that racism is a remnant of a distant historical era. And “colorblind” practices erase the lived experiences of students of color, who know all too well the continued effects of race and racism, and provide white students the opportunity to not consider their own racial identities.
Setting clear guidelines for discussion is an essential step. Involve students in this process by asking them what kinds of guidelines they would need to feel safe expressing their ideas. Remember that conversations about race include everyone. Often, teachers discuss race without making white privilege visible and subject to investigation. This can make the history difficult to understand and diminish the actions of white allies who “crossed lines” in solidarity.
Teaching about the Black movement for equality and civil rights provides a relevant and historically appropriate opportunity to talk openly with students about the ways race and racism shaped and continue to influence American society.
Educate to realize power.
- Challenge students to question the assumptions and historical narratives they have been taught by developing their critical thinking and questioning skills.
- Prepare students to be change agents and participants in history by emphasizing the importance of young people in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
- Introduce students to role models in their schools and communities who can serve as strong examples of change-makers.
- Provide experiential learning opportunities that allow students to apply what they learn.
- Teach the tactics and strategies of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and encourage students to think creatively about how they can address injustice today.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is a story of people who believed they could bring about change. Realizing one’s own capacity for action is an essential disposition for effective citizenship. Help young people to see themselves as participants in history and as agents for change in their schools and communities, building on a central theme of realizing personal and collective power.
Providing young people with activist pedagogy that can improve their sense of self-efficacy is a crucial aspect of teaching them about the struggles and triumphs of ongoing justice and civil rights movements.
Begin by teaching students to think critically about history and to question conventional narratives as they seek the stories lying beneath. Critical thinking includes examining the common ways in which historical fact is created and presented.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s offers hundreds of role models and case studies for students to see how participants critiqued and resisted existing arrangements of power. Studying the movement raises enduring questions immediately relevant to young people’s lives. Teaching to realize power can help students grapple with these questions in productive ways. Racism and other kinds of discrimination persist in society. Students who learn about the tactics and strategies used in the past to resist and overturn systems of oppression can learn how they, too, might address injustices closer to home.
Adopting a culturally responsive approach to teaching is essential. To prevent inadvertently inflicting harm on young people, particularly Black, Indigenous and other students of color, we must be conscious of “curriculum violence.” Stephanie P. Jones, Ph.D., founder of the Mapping Racial Trauma in Schools database, advises how to do that in the Learning for Justice article “Ending Curriculum Violence.” The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s includes examples of culturally responsive teaching in action. For example, the Mississippi Freedom Schools, established during Freedom Summer of 1964, created curricula based on students’ needs and experiences as African Americans living in the Jim Crow South. As expressed in the 1964 memo by Freedom Schools founder Charles E. Cobb Jr., “[t]he purpose of the Freedom schools is to provide an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives, and ultimately, new directions for action.” Making this possibility concrete meant beginning with shaping the curriculum according to students’ needs and interests.
Educators should emphasize the important role young people played in shaping the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Explore the work of young people who registered voters during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, tested segregation laws with the Freedom Riders, and influenced movement tactics and strategy through participation in such groups as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Black movement for equality and civil rights offers an ideal setting to plan for experiential learning. Like young people in the Freedom Schools, students today can learn to interrogate their own schooling experiences as they learn about others who interrogated other social realities.
Reveal the unseen.
- Teach the wider Black freedom struggle that took place across the country (not just in the South) and in daily life (not only in the political sphere).
- Shift the focus from familiar heroes and villains to lesser-known individuals.
- Offer broader viewpoints of history by drawing upon original sources and personal narratives and testimonies.
- Be conscious of (and encourage students’ awareness of) bias, language and context in source documents.
- Promote a model of learning as discovery in which students are producers of knowledge and meaning rather than passive receptacles.
Expanding the focus to the unseen or underrepresented engages young people in the process of discovering knowledge. Because the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is often condensed into two names (Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) and four words (“I have a dream”), students can uncover much that is usually unseen. When teachers broaden the perspective to include the unseen, they open doors for students to enter and explore. Students see that the movement—much like knowledge—is a “living thing.” When students are producers rather than simply passive recipients of knowledge, they are more likely to show interest and retain information.
The unseen movement brings women leaders, activists of other ethnic and cultural heritages, and LGBTQ+ leaders out of textbook sidebars and places them at the center of discussion. It focuses the lens of inquiry on such places as Sunflower County, Mississippi; Albany, Georgia; and Wilson, North Carolina, to see how the freedom struggle was understood differently in diverse places. The wider movement reveals what is often obscured by textbooks’ focus on court victories and federal legislation—and that the Black movement for equality and civil rights includes the entire nation, as students learn that prejudice and struggle were not and are not limited to the South.
The idea of a broader movement for equality and civil rights expands the study beyond a traditional limited time frame and focus. Educators opening this door will find rich roots of the movement stretching back into Reconstruction—A. Philip Randolph and organized labor, Paul Robeson and music, and the Tuskegee airmen are all behind this door. Students learn about coordinated opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including dramatic increases in extrajudicial violence. They examine the reasons for urban protests in places like Detroit and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, consider the recommendations of the Kerner Commission, and evaluate the trajectory of the Black Panther Party.
Including the stories of individuals from outside the familiar list of movement heroes and villains can help students follow the movement’s complicated path while illuminating broader issues. Testimonies can personalize history and help students understand the thoughts, experiences and motivations of people in the past.
Original historical resources include multiple perspectives often left out of textbooks’ summarized accounts. When students encounter artifacts from the past, they engage actively in interpreting history. Students can listen to participants through oral history projects, increasingly located online, including many that are ongoing and constantly growing. They can find the history of the Civil Rights Movement in their own communities, even in places where a connection to the movement might not be obvious.
Finally, explore hidden dimensions of the well known by giving students a rich sense of context. Elaborate on and deepen the meanings of famous people and events and make connections among various intersecting issues.
Resist telling a simple story.
- Avoid presenting sanitized accounts of history that obscure the realities of racial violence and systems of racial control.
- Address the work that remains to be done, current inequalities and challenges to racial justice.
- Shift students’ thinking away from individuals and toward systems and institutions.
- Dispel the “Malcolm X vs. MLK” dichotomy that casts the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as divided over nonviolent resistance.
- Present the Black movement for equality and civil rights in the United States from a global perspective that reveals its international implications.
In telling the honest and complicated history, we refuse to sanitize the past. Students learn—in age-appropriate and culturally responsive ways—about the realities of racism, systems of racial control and racial violence that prompted the Black movement for equality and civil rights and persisted beyond the 1960s. Showing students that racism wore both institutional and individual faces will help them understand the importance of the movement’s achievements and recognize the work that remains.
Often, students learn that school segregation ended after Brown v. Board of Education, that the Montgomery Bus Boycott stopped segregated busing and that passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated all obstacles to voting. They learn that racial violence went away after the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing. Yet those same students may notice that they attend segregated schools and live in segregated neighborhoods and that poverty and race seem to go together. When educators reach beyond the limited narrative, they acknowledge students’ experiences and the ongoing struggle.
As students analyze the realities of institutional racism, they begin to understand why racism persists. Revealing that the past and present are littered with violence and persistent systems of oppression helps students understand the exceptional heroism of regular people in the movement. When history diminishes the severity of past obstacles, it also diminishes the work of activists who overcame those obstacles.
Telling a complicated history can mean connecting to a global context. When the classroom’s lens is broadened to reveal a global view, educators and students have the opportunity to discover the unseen international implications of civil rights restrictions and expansions in the United States.
When students examine complex causality, they build critical thinking skills that can be applied in other disciplines and to other eras in history.