Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

If young people are to make the vision of a just and peaceful world a reality, we must give them the tools to build a strong, multiracial, inclusive democracy—and those tools include an honest and comprehensive history of the United States.

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.” —John Lewis

From the first acts of Black resistance to enslavement in the lands that are now the United States to the present-day movement for justice and civil rights, the long tradition of the Black freedom struggle spans the history of our nation. No history of the United States is complete without the story of the Black movement for freedom and equality. In the early periods of U.S. history, the Black freedom struggle centered around resistance to slavery and the abolitionist cause. Learning for Justice’s Teaching Hard History: American Slavery project provides a framework for teaching the history of slavery in the U.S. in age-appropriate ways.

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement begins in 1877 with Reconstruction and continues the narrative of the movement for equality and civil rights to the present. This framework centers Black Americans’ struggle, while pointing out the ways in which white supremacy was institutionalized—across multiple levels of society—to deny political, social and economic equality to Black people.

Black Americans have continuously struggled for equal participation in our nation. Expanding the prevailing narrative contextualizes the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a particular era within the longer time frame of the Black movement for equality and civil rights. This focus avoids limiting the history of the movement for equality and civil rights to two mid-20th-century decades and extends the study of the movement into the present.

By engaging young people in a more inclusive history and activist pedagogy, students can make connections between past and present, recognizing the relevance of history to today’s justice and civil rights movements. For example, the 2020 anti-racism protests, the largest in our nation’s history, challenged us to confront deeply entrenched structural racism as we grappled with injustice and inequality amid the devasting COVID-19 pandemic. The January 6 U.S. Capitol riot and its aftermath illustrate the ongoing threat that white supremacy poses to democracy. And the current wave of state legislative efforts to censor inclusive education and accurate history demonstrates the urgent need to understand and learn from our nation’s past. Political, social and economic equality have yet to be achieved, and increasing pushback against the movement toward a more inclusive society challenges us all to become more conscious about the essential knowledge and skills to participate in democracy.

The study of the Black movement for equality and civil rights—and especially the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s—creates opportunities for students to learn about activism and civics, giving them the models and strategies for action and change that encourage them to explore social justice issues and to find ways to answer the question: “How can I make a difference?”

Framework Organization

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement supports educators in grades 9-12 in facilitating a solid understanding of the struggle for equality. The framework is designed to map onto, and expand upon, existing U.S. history and interdisciplinary curricula. Educators can decide what content to integrate into their lessons; the framework design allows choice. And while the recommended resources are by no means an exhaustive list, the intention is to provide options for teaching the Essential Knowledge.

  1. The first section is the Teaching the Civil Rights Movement Framework, which organizes Essential Knowledge into four chronological periods and within 14 Summary Objectives. This structure provides a blueprint for integrating the Black movement for equality and civil rights into interdisciplinary courses from Reconstruction to the present. Each time period is designated with a section title and dates so teachers may skip to a particular period or consult the framework continuously as they move through their courses.
  2. The second section, Guiding Principles, provides five essential practices to support educators in being reflective and intentional in their teaching.
  3. The third section, Resources for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, addresses the question: “How can I teach this?” Many of these resources—plus other primary and secondary source documents—are available for download or are linked in the Learning for Justice student texts library. The library is searchable by topic, author or grade level, and each text includes an introduction and reading questions for students.
    The online version of Teaching the Civil Rights Movement contains links to all resources in this section.
  4. The last section, Advocating for Teaching Honest History, includes a description and link to Learning for Justice’s guide of the same title.

Teaching history has a core goal of helping students understand the forces that shape our world and make connections between the past and the present. In today’s contentious political environment—with numerous states censoring teaching accurate history and critical learning about race and racism along with gender and identity—fighting for young people’s rights to research-based practices and inclusive education is essential.

We hope that Teaching the Civil Rights Movement will support and engage educators, students, families and communities in teaching and learning about the Black movement for equality and civil rights—which includes the influential Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s—and in exploring their roles in our country’s ongoing narrative to build a multiracial democracy.

NOTE: Regarding language, please note that this framework recommends various primary source documents that use words and phrases recognized as biased, derogatory or no longer appropriate. The historical use—and historical harm—of these words cannot be denied. For this reason, we have chosen not to censor the words from these primary source texts. To avoid further harm, however, we strongly encourage educators to preview these materials before sharing them with students, to prepare students to encounter these words in writing, and to avoid having the words read or spoken aloud in class. We also encourage educators to discuss with students the reasons for choosing not to have such words spoken aloud and the harm these words have caused and continue to cause. Some of the multimedia sources also contain imagery of hate, such as nooses and Confederate flags, about which educators should engage carefully and honestly with students.

View the Framework

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Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

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