‘Selma Online’: Young People Impact the Vote

Use ‘Selma Online’ to help students build decision-making, leadership, activism and civic engagement skills at their own pace.
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Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photo

“There was never a time when we were without fear. There was never a time when we didn’t think we might get seriously hurt. We might die.”
—Charles Bonner, Selma student

On March 7, 2020, the 55th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Teaching Tolerance (now Learning for Justice) and the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research launched a new resource that educators can use to introduce the rich history of the civil rights movement to students in grades 7-12. Supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Selma Online is an interactive digital platform built by Left Field Labs that guides students to think critically about disenfranchisement and voter suppression in our nation’s history and in the present—and to consider what they can do about it.

Offering a visual history of the civil rights movement leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Selma Online lets users examine significant moments in American history, from Emancipation through Reconstruction, Redemption and Jim Crow, to better understand the struggle for voting rights in the United States. Through the eyes and stories of the students in Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s, we learn that the passing of the Voting Rights Act is more than a social studies lesson. 

Using Selma Online, students can explore seven self-paced learning experiences: “Race and Voting Rights,” “Democracy Denied in Dallas County,” “Youth Activism and Voting Rights,” “Who’s Who in Selma,” “Selma’s Pivotal Moments,” “Presidential Support” and “The Right to Vote.”  As they learn, students will consider the following:

  • Does voting matter? Why were Black citizens throughout the South ready to risk their lives to secure their right to vote?
  • What are some reasons people don’t or can’t exercise the right to vote today?
  • What is significant about the right to vote? In what ways have students made a difference in the right to vote historically, and what can they do today?
  • What does it take to solve and heal deeply ingrained injustice?
  • Is the right to vote still secure? How might people engaging in current civil rights campaigns in the United States learn from Selma and its aftermath?

Since the platform lets students explore this history at their own pace, there are several possibilities teachers might consider for including Selma Online in their classrooms. Here are a few suggestions.

1. Teachers can use Selma Online to encourage students to consider different perspectives within the struggle for voting rights. 

Selma Online offers 12 scenes from the award-winning 2014 movie Selma. Embedded throughout the interactive platform, the film clips illustrate pivotal decision points and let students consider different perspectives within the struggle for voting rights. 

One scene, for example, shows John Lewis and James Forman disagreeing about whether the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) should participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery anticipated for March 7, 1965—what later became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Students might consider why Forman opposes the march and why Lewis supports it. 

Students could consider other positions using the additional film clips within the site, asking questions like these:

  • Why did Annie Lee Cooper persist in seeking the vote despite the threats to her livelihood and her personhood?
  • Why did President Johnson prioritize the Great Society while Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. prioritized voting rights?
  • Why did people travel to Selma from across the United States to support voting rights efforts?

They could also identify key figures in the movement and create more questions from the point of view of those leaders, groups and activists in Selma.

2. Teachers can use Selma Online to help students better understand why the fight for voting rights progressed as it did—and why it continues to this day. 

As they view the short film clips, students will learn more about the systems that restricted voting rights and the organizations that sought to secure them. Teachers might ask these questions:

  • What role did federal and local governments play in voting access?
  • What was the role of grass-roots groups in securing voting rights for all?
  • Who opposed equal voting rights and why?
  • What was the relationship between those who held power, like the president, and supporters of equal voting rights?

Both Selma Online and its accompanying teaching guide aim to meet specific learner objectives. Students using the platform will be able to:

  • describe the legal and extra-legal obstacles Black American citizens faced in attempting to vote;
  • explain the significance of the right to vote;
  • identify the organized efforts used to achieve passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965;
  • describe the legal and extra-legal obstacles to voting that continue today;
  • understand that even young people have the power to make a difference in the world;
  • evaluate the constructed and contested nature of democracy and voting rights in the United States and apply that understanding in examining democratic change using a global perspective. 

3. Teachers can use Selma Online to help students recognize the power they already hold to make change. 

The stories of student activism in Selma are inspiring. Avery Williams, Bettie Mae Fikes, Charles Bonner, Charles Mauldin, Cleo Hobbs, Hazel Chatman, Henry Allen, Joanne Blackmon, Lynda Blackmon, Sheyann Webb, Terry Shaw and Willie Robinson didn’t know they were making history, but they knew they had to do something. Selma Online users will learn how students in Selma—although too young to vote themselves—walked out of classrooms and marched through towns to demand their parents and neighbors be granted access to the ballot. 

Throughout the self-guided digital experience, students are asked, “If you were living in Selma in 1965, what would you have done to secure your right to vote? Would you follow the rules, join a protest or do nothing?” The choice to join the protests and stand up for your rights reveals additional ways to stand up, such as attending meetings, giving speeches, soliciting media attention and more. 

Teachers can ask students to compare the methods used by protesters in Selma to the methods that Mari Copeny, Emma González, Helena Gualinga, Isra Hirsi, Jazz Jennings, Autumn Peltier, Bruno Rodriguez, Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and other young activists use today.

4. Teachers can use Selma Online to encourage students to take action in their own communities.

The final call to action within the platform reminds students of the importance of civic engagement on all levels and compels students to consider what possibilities they will explore in advancing voter participation. 

Americans must rededicate ourselves to a simple proposition: Do everything possible to help people vote, not stop them from voting.

— Congressman John Lewis

Students can dream up their own ideas, or they can take cues from the platform to take action. Selma Online asks students to take these actions:

  • Learn. Look at voting issues in your state. What are the problems that you see?
  • Call. Call your member of Congress or write letters to local elected officials asking for their views on voting rights and voter participation. What are the problems that they see?
  • Create. Create a community bulletin board with information and directions on how to register to vote.
  • Organize. Organize a neighborhood voter registration day to help unregistered members of the community register to vote.

Students might consider developing a voter registration drive, writing a public service announcement about the importance of voting, or arranging a local march or online campaign to raise awareness about local issues, candidates and voter registration. 

As educators, one of the most important ways we can support our students is to let them determine where their energy is most needed—then get out of the way so they can lead.

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