Most students have heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. They also know of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus. Unfortunately for many students, knowledge of the civil rights movement stops there.
A shallow understanding of the movement denies students access to its most vital lessons. They need to know about the thousands of everyday heroes who took unimaginable risks and put their lives on the line for justice. These are the stories that push students to reflect on courage and identify how it applies to their own lives.
When teaching the movement, I look for stories that my students will relate to easily. I focus on the experiences of young people. The tragic story of Emmitt Till is a powerful opener because he was only 14, the same age as my eighth-graders, when he was murdered.
We discuss the process of school integration in the South. We watch clips from the documentary Eyes on the Prize and view scenes of high school students sitting in classrooms and walking to school. I share the story of the Little Rock Nine, the first students to integrate Little Rock Central High School and the amazing story of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, a black student who integrated her elementary school in New Orleans and was immortalized in a painting by Norman Rockwell.
After watching video footage, I ask my students to reflect. I stress empathy. How would you feel in their position? Can you imagine being in the middle of an angry mob that is threatening to kill you, just because you are trying to go to school? What would you do? Why did these young people risk their lives?
And perhaps the most important question: “Is there something you believe in so strongly that you would risk your own life?”
Then we explore the movement from other angles. I challenge students to examine whether they would have joined the mob or stood up for the rights of others.
The lessons elicited this response from one of my students:
“The people who attended the marches in the streets were truly brave. They knew they were going to get hurt. They knew that no matter what color skin they had, they were going to get arrested. It didn’t matter how old or young you were, if you attended a march, you were going to sleep in a jail cell.”
Another student reflected on nonviolence and the strength it takes to negotiate peacefully:
“Courage isn’t just standing up and fighting or yelling at someone. It’s listening to an idea you might not like at all.”
These ruminations are evidence that students can make personal connections with history. By studying the civil rights movement, I’ve given students a way to learn more about their own potential for bravery. They see that history and change happens by the heroism of thousands of everyday people, who look like each of us, not just the famous few.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.