Bringing the Civil Rights Movement into the Classroom

Students can identify with the rich tradition of resistance in U.S. History

By Larry Miller

Illustrator: AP/WideWorld Photos

Birmingham firefighters turn their hoses at Civil Rights demonstrators in 1963.
-photo: AP/WideWorld Photos

I teach a freshman citizenship class to all entering students at Metropolitan High School, a predominantly African-American high school in Milwaukee. For the last two years, I’ve taught a five-week introduction to the history of the civil rights movement. I feel strongly that students of every race should have an understanding of the rich history of struggle for equality in this country.

I have done this unit for two years, and while it continues to evolve, we have examined the tactics of the Southern Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement as exemplified by the Black Panthers, and government repression against African Americans. We conclude the unit with a debate that represents the spectrum of opinion of 20th century African-American leaders.


I start by introducing students to some of the key battles in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. An invaluable resource throughout the unit is the “Eyes on the Prize” series, a two-part film documentary that begins with the Emmett Till murder in 1955 (see below) and goes through 1985. The first, “Eyes on the Prize: American’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965,” is a six-segment documentary that first aired on PBS. “Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965-1985” is broken into eight parts of roughly one hour each. Both documentaries have extensive accompanying material in print.

I also use Free at Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle, a 104-page magazine-sized booklet that begins with a section on slavery and ends in the 1960s. It tells the history of the movement by focusing on individuals who gave their lives to the struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.

I edit selections from “Eyes on the Prize,” keeping the length of each segment between 10 and 20 minutes. I then follow with a reading from the booklet Free At Last that has a short description of each of the events just covered in the documentary.

Each day after showing the video segment and doing the reading, I hold a discussion where I ask for students’ impressions and thoughts. Then I have students write in their journals, giving their thoughts about what they just viewed, read, and discussed. I repeat my instructions for writing in journals each day, and I also write them on the board: “Don’t just describe what you see or hear. Include your reactions and emotional responses, the questions the video and reading raise for you, and your thoughts on how you might have responded if you were there at the time.” While students are doing this I walk around class and read their reactions as they finish.

Then at the beginning of class the next day I read from three or four of the journals, both to sum up discussions and spark new lines of inquiries. Here I talk to students about the tactics used in the particular struggles we are observing and studying.

One student, after seeing the brutality toward students sitting in at a lunch counter in Nashville, said, “I could never be nonviolent, turn the other cheek, and not hit back. It makes me mad just to hear about this. No way would I put up with it.” This comment gave us a chance to discuss the philosophies of nonviolence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the role of nonviolent civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement. It also led to a discussion on anger. One Latina student said she felt angry when she heard about what happened to African Americans during that era. We talked about how all of us, no matter what our race, should be angry about injustices in our history.

The historical events we have studied in this unit so far are:

  • The murder of 14- year-old Emmett Till in 1955 in Money, Miss. Till, who was from Chicago, violated the white supremacist codes of the time by- acting on a dare from another teenager – flippantly saying “Bye Baby” to a white store clerk as he left a country store. That weekend he was beaten, shot in the head, and dumped into the Tallahatchie River because, as the clerk’s husband later said, “He thought he was as good as any white man.” An all-white jury found the murderers “not guilty.” (Shown in the “Awakenings 1954-1956” segment of “Eyes on the Prize” and on pp. 40-41 of Free At Last.)
  • The Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, in which Rosa Parks, the young Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others joined a growing movement to end the Southern Jim Crow rule that Blacks had to sit at the back of the bus. I use this section in particular to highlight the courage and resourcefulness of Black communities. (Shown in the “Awakenings 1954-1956” segment of “Eyes on the Prize” and on pp. 14-15 of Free At Last.)
  • The lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, Tenn., to demand that public accommodations such as restaurants and restrooms be open to African- Americans. In one year alone, 70,000 people – mostly young people and college students – participated in sit-ins at public accommodations, and 3,600 were arrested. This section is especially useful to talk about the bravery of young activists and to explain the philosophy of nonviolence that was characteristic of many in the Civil Rights Movement. (Shown in the “Ain’t Scared of Your Jails 1960-1961” segment of Eyes on the Prize and on pp. 18-19 of Free At Last.)
  • The Freedom Rides in 1961, in which journalists reported on the bus rides of whites and Blacks who set off from Washington in a heroic action to test compliance with a court ruling outlawing the segregation of buses and terminals. Angry white mobs attacked the Freedom Riders as they disembarked from buses. The Freedom Rides, organized primarily by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), were one of the first times in which the Civil Rights movement consciously used the power of the media, in this case mostly print journalists, to win people over to their cause. (Shown in the “Ain’t Scared of Your Jails 1960-1961” segment of Eyes on the Prize and on pp. 20 -21 of Free At Last.)
  • The Birmingham struggle in 1963 demanding jobs for Blacks and an end to segregation in this key southern city. Protesters led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were attacked by dogs and fire hoses under the orders of Police Chief Bull Connor. I note the movement’s use of the television media, which brought the reality of southern bigotry directly into the living rooms of households across America. (Shown in the “No Easy Walk 1961-1963” segment of Eyes on the Prize and on pp. 22-23 of Free At Last.)
  • “Freedom Summer” in 1964, which highlights the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi, pointing out the blatant and widespread violation of the voting rights of African Americans. The section brings us into the issue of voting rights and also focuses on the role of young organizers. (Shown in the “Mississippi: Is This America? 1962-1964” segment of Eyes on the Prize and on pp. 26-30 of Free At Last.)
  • The Selma march in 1965 that united SNCC, CORE and the SCLC in the demand for voting rights and was instrumental in the passage of the Federal Voting Rights Act of that year. (Shown in the “Bridge to Freedom 1965” segment of Eyes on the Prize and on pp. 30-31 of Free At Last.)


I then show the movie Murder in Mississippi, a made-for-TV movie that reenacts the 1964 murders of three civil rights organizers who were preparing for Freedom Summer. (This movie should not be confused with the Hollywood version of these murders, Mississippi Burning, which glorifies and distorts the role of the FBI in the Civil Rights movement, transforming it from a tool of government repression into the “white saviors” of embattled Blacks.)

In this section, because it highlights voting rights and Freedom Summer, I also have students take the 10-minute Louisiana Literacy Test, used to prevent African-Americans from voting. I write on the chalkboard, “Spell backwards, forwards” and “Print the word vote upside down, but in the correct order.” Students always respond with dismay, asking, “Why?” I explain that these are the types of questions African-Americans were asked in Louisiana on literacy tests as they attempted to vote. By actually taking the test, the students are able to see how hard the state of Louisiana worked to stop the Black community from voting. (See the Louisiana Literacy Test.)

This year I am planning to have students conclude this section of our study by writing letters of gratitude to living civil rights activists for the work they have done for the freedom struggle. My goal is to create a dialogue between activists and my students. I was inspired by one of my students who spent time last summer with Reverend Jesse Jackson and other civil rights activists while traveling through the South, visiting historic civil rights sites.


Here I focus on the Black Panther Party. The Panthers became a target of a coordinated attack from police departments and the FBI. By looking at the Black Panther Party experience, students see the extent to which local and federal government agencies were willing to go to suppress a militant urban movement of African Americans.

We start with a discussion of the Panther Ten Point Program (See Rethinking Schools Vol. 16, #1 or Students then write reflections on each of the 10 points. I have students do this as homework because of the length of the 10 points. The following day students discuss their reflections and answer for each of the 10 points, “Does it have meaning today?”

Students generally agree with the 10 points. But in one class, Naquandra expressed reservations about Point number nine, which calls for the release of all Black men from jail because of the racist justice system. She stated, “The 10 points have a lot of meaning, even today. All Black men have faced racism, but some are in jail for murder and rape. Some of them I don’t want on the streets.”

We then watch the section on the Panthers from Eyes on the Prize, which explains the origins of the Black Panther Party in Oakland and its focus on issues of police brutality and the creation of community programs to “serve the people.” (Shown in “Power! 1966- 1968” of Eyes on the Prize II.)

From here we watch the Eyes on the Prize section on the Chicago Panthers and the assassination of Fred Hampton by the FBI and Chicago police in 1969. The fact that the FBI played an open and direct role in Fred Hampton’s death startled a number of students.

This sets the stage to study the activity of the FBI and U.S. government toward Black liberation leaders and organizations. (Shown in “A Nation of Law? 1968-1971” of Eyes on the Prize II.)

We look at the FBI’s infiltration, surveillance, and disruption of Black leaders and organizations. Students read the article “J. Edgar Hoover and the Infiltration of Black Activists: a Comparison of FBI Surveillance of Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King,” (click here for details) which shows how the FBI paid people to disrupt organizations and spread derogatory information about peoples’ personal lives to try to destroy the freedom struggle of African Americans. Included with it are biographies of the three leaders and primary documents from FBI records. Students, in groups, give biographies of the three men discussed in the articles and the ways in which the FBI harassed them.

I then have students brainstorm responses to the question, “What are the ways that enemies of freedom movements can try to undermine them?” The list of responses has always included buying people off, brutality, murdering leaders, jailing people, sabotage, subversion, lies, cowardice, denigration, complacency, eroding the base of support through the introduction of drugs, and the spreading of propaganda. I then go through the brainstorm list and ask students to give examples from our study.

Finally, I have students study the perspectives of a selection of African-American leaders representing a spectrum of those who organized from as early as the turn of century through the 1960s. They debate each other representing those historical figures. (See accompanying article.)

As the unit concluded, my students felt they had a more realistic picture of the history of this country. One white student stated, “I was surprised to see that this country was not completely built on the Constitution. I realized that there is a lot of U.S. history to be angry about.”

“This knowledge will help me with perseverance,” wrote Shawanda. “I know I will have to overcome racism and prejudice. But instead of focusing on people’s negatives I am going to focus on what I am going to be as a Black woman. Right now I am using my education and hopefully someday I will be able to speak out for freedom as someone who is respected and strong. I don’t think anybody can take that away from me.”

Larry Miller ( teaches at Metropolitan High School in Milwaukee.