Oral History and Civil Rights

Little Rock isn't the only city or town with a civil rights history.
Grade Level

The Civil Rights Movement and other struggles for justice have impacted every community in the United States. Using "Gates of Change" as contextual background, educators can introduce students to the power of oral history and lead them in efforts to collect local testimonies.

Oral history projects can help students discover connections between historical events, contemporary issues and the well-being of their communities. Such projects also support content standards in various subject areas, including language arts, history and civics.


Sample Project Design

  • Research local civil rights history. A simple Google search can often reveal surprising local facts. Check, too, with local libraries, museums and civil rights organizations.
  • Formulate the project's central question. Narrow the project's focus to a single issue that can't be answered with a brief set of facts. For example: How did school integration change our community?
  • Look at models. The University of Southern Mississippi's Civil Rights Documentation Project is a good place to start.
  • Locate people to interview. Reach out to community organizations and the local newspaper to help spread the word about your project. And don't forget: as students at Central High discovered, family members can be rich resources.
  • Prepare for and conduct the interviews. Teach students interviewing skills, and prepare questions in advance.
  • Organize the information. Transcribe the interviews and determine how to present them in the context of research findings. Conduct additional research as needed.
  • Reveal students' findings. Share findings in a printed anthology or website, or at a read-aloud at a school or community event. Donate the class' collection to a local library or university.

Adapted from the Montana Heritage Project, the Oral History Association (OHA) and DoHistory, a project of Harvard's Film Study Center. For ethical guidelines on oral history, please visit OHA.


Moot Court

The Little Rock Nine and people throughout the city endured enormous hardships in order to integrate their city's schools -- and schools across the nation. Yet, today, schools are resegregating. Among the reasons is a string of Supreme Court decisions in the early 1990s that relaxed school integration standards -- and this spring, the court is expected to decide whether race-based school assignment policies are constitutional.

In essence, the court must decide whether racial diversity in schools is a compelling interest -- one that justifies the government's use of race in selecting students for admission to public high schools. Their ultimate ruling in the joined cases Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (05-908) and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (05-915) will have far-reaching implications for integrated schooling in the United States.

Bring these cases alive for students by staging a moot court in your classroom. Divide students into three groups: one group should serve as the Justices, with the remaining groups serving as the litigation teams for and against race-based school assignment plans. To create oral arguments and lines of questioning, call upon "Gates of Change," key cases related to school integration, briefs filed by the involved parties and by third parties and other sources.

For an added degree of authenticity, download the Supreme Court's procedural guides, including "Guide for Counsel in Cases to Be Argued."


In the Classroom

Laura Miller says that reading today's newspapers is like reading newspapers from 1957. Ask students to keep a journal for one week in which they examine local and national newspapers or watch the nightly news, documenting the words and phrases used to describe different groups of people. At the end of the weeklong assignment, ask students to write an essay or prepare a presentation about the words and phrases used, the messages of those labels, and why this is important. As a class, discuss the similarities and differences of students' findings and perceptions.