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Lesson Plan

The Civil Rights Movement by Discovery Education


Social Studies (NYS K-12 Framework Common Core)

Grade Levels

Intermediate, Commencement


Two class periods


Students will understand the following:

  1. Beyond the famous leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, ordinary men and women struggled for their beliefs.
  2. All the participants—famous and not so famous—deserve to have their stories told.
  3. Older people have a responsibility to pass on these stories to younger people.


For this lesson, you will need:

  • Multiple reference sources that treat the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s


  1. Explain to students that forty and fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some participants are very well remembered and some less so. Some participants have been written about frequently; others, even others who lost their lives in the struggle, have received scant recognition. Tell students that for a class project they are going to do research and create a single volume to be titled A Children’s Encyclopedia of the Civil Rights Movement. The book, which will be for first-graders, will include alphabetical articles about some of the leaders and the ordinary people who made a difference in the movement.
  2. Ask students to describe the characteristics of an encyclopedia that they use in the classroom, in the library, or at home.
  3. Ask students how they will have to modify the characteristics of an encyclopedia so that first-graders can understand and enjoy one. For example, bring out the point that the writers of the Children’s Encyclopedia won’t be able to use a term such as poll tax without explaining it.
  4. Ask students to suggest names of people they think belong in their encyclopedia. Start a list, which eventually may include some or all of the following names. The asterisks indicate people about whom much material exists; it will be harder but not impossible to find some information about the players without asterisks. (You may want to set maximum word counts for entries on the more well-known and well-documented subjects.)
  • Ralph Abernathy
  • Oliver Brown
  • James Chaney*
  • Eldridge Cleaver*
  • Medgar Evers*
  • Andrew Goodman*
  • Fannie Lou Hamer
  • Martin Luther King Jr.*
  • Viola Greg Liuzzo
  • Malcolm X*
  • Thurgood Marshall*
  • James Meredith
  • Huey P. Newton
  • Philip Randolph*
  • Rosa Parks*
  • Michael Schwerner*
  • Bobby Seale
  • Fred Shuttlesworth
  • Emmett Till
  1. Assign subjects to students. If you want students to work together in small groups, you can consider giving several subjects to each group.
  2. Discuss with your students where they can find biographical information about their subjects: textbooks, nonfiction books of various kinds, already published encyclopedias, videos, Web sites. Indicate that wherever possible students should check more than one source for each person they are researching.
  3. Go over the fundamentals of taking notes from other sources. Stress that the sentences and paragraphs in the students’ encyclopedia will have to be original—not quotations from other sources.
  4. Another factor to consider before writing begins is format for the encyclopedia articles. In doing research, students will have found more biographical details about some subjects than others; they will have to decide whether to use blanks or question marks to indicate missing information. When birth and death dates and places are reported, consider the option of setting them off instead of running that information into the prose of the article. You may use the following format, for example:

Martin Luther King
Born [place] [date]
Died [place] [date]
[Main text of encyclopedia entry begins here.]

Looking at encyclopedias you have available, discuss with students the option of starting an entry with a phrase rather than a complete sentence—for example:   
American cleric committed to nonviolent tactics during the Civil Rights Movement.

  1. Set up a revising-editing-proofreading system so that both students and you have a chance to improve articles for the encyclopedia. Then consider having all the articles typed or word processed in the same type style and size, with the same line length, and paginated so that when bound, the end product will look professional. Ask your students for suggestions for the cover of the encyclopedia. If possible, make a copy of the finished encyclopedia for each student in your class. Work with first-grade teachers to create an opportunity for your students and the younger ones to meet and share the encyclopedia.


Adaptations for Older Students:
Suggest that students prepare their encyclopedia as a functioning, electronic data base in which users can search for a term. Students can set up their data base using a commercially available program.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does racism still exist? What are some of the steps that would be necessary to eliminate racism, not only in the United States, but also in other parts of the world?
  2. Why was segregation still practiced in southern states in the middle of the 20th century, despite the passage of constitutional amendments prohibiting segregation following the Civil War? To what extent were things different in northern states, and why?
  3. What was the impact of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education on life in the United States? Discuss the implications of this decision for the martyrs of the civil rights movement. Consider whether this decision continues to have an effect on civil rights in America.
  4. The families of civil rights martyrs like Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer played an important role in their efforts. Analyze their participation, and consider the extent to which you would have offered similar support had your family members been involved in this way.
  5. The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, is said to have separated “the world of what was from the world of what could be.” Looking back, it is easy to see why—the bridge was a symbol of the hugely unequal and highly segregated worlds of blacks and whites on different sides of the river in Selma during the 1960s. Looking ahead to the 21st century, consider what separates “the world of what was from the world of what could be” in the United States today. What are the obstacles we face, and what changes could help provide a “bridge” to a better, more equal society?
  6. The Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “Freedom is more valuable than life. . . . Dignity was more important than a comfort zone.” Explain what he meant by this statement. To what extent do you agree or disagree with it?
  7. Many of our country’s civil rights heroes have commented that hate is destructive. Compare the role that hatred has played in the civil rights movement in the United States and in human rights violations around the world, such as in Kosovo, Chechnya, and Sierra Leone. (You can find information at the Web site of the Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org.) Analyze the role of hatred in these arenas, and discuss possible ways for resolving some of the issues you discover.
  8. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Given the lengthy period of time it took to convict some of the murderers in the civil rights movement, evaluate whether justice was actually served. What are the effects of a long delay in prosecution on the victims’ families, the perpetrators, and society?
  9. Many people see protecting civil rights as a political problem, but many of the causes of racism and prejudice are personal and societal as well as political. Compare the strengths and weaknesses of personal, societal, and political solutions to civil rights problems. Which are most effective and why?


You can evaluate each encyclopedia entry using the three-point rubric:

  • Three points:comprehensive content (based on available sources); coherent and unified paragraphs; error-free grammar, usage, and mechanics
  • Two points:adequate content; paragraphs occasionally lacking coherence and unity; some errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
  • One point:insufficient content; weak paragraphs; many errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics

You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining how many facts should be required for “comprehensive content.”


Symbol of Civility
Remind your students of the power of a symbol by considering some of the more familiar and forceful symbols throughout history and in today’s world. Discuss such symbols as the peace symbol, the cross, the star of David, the Nazi swastika, the Black Panther fist, the burning cross, and the red AIDS ribbon. Talk about the ways in which messages are conveyed by symbols. (You may also consider some familiar commercial logos, which communicate without words—for example, McDonald’s arches and the Nike swoosh.) Ask your students to create their own symbol to represent the idea of carrying the campaign for civil rights into the twenty-first century. Have them write descriptive paragraphs explaining the elements of their symbols.

Would He Still Have a Dream?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is perhaps the most well known figure of the Civil Rights Movement in America, and his “I Have a Dream” speech, as it is commonly known, is one of America’s most heralded speeches. Ask your students to read or listen to that speech. You might want to have students take turns reading each section aloud so that they can dramatize the energy of King’s words. When the reading is complete, ask your students to analyze and discuss the essential elements of his message.

  • What key images and phrases did he choose?
  • What was the overall emotional tone of his words?

After the discussion, ask your students to imagine that Dr. King has returned to today’s world. Invite them to write the speech he might deliver today.

Suggested Readings

Bayard Rustin: Behind the Scenes of the Civil Rights Movement
James Haskins. Hyperion, 1997.
In this moving biography, Haskins tells the story of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and personalizes more than 50 years of U.S. history. It is an excellent resource for high school research featuring a bibliography, an index, and an insert containing black and white photographs.

The Civil Rights Movement
Peter B. Levy. Greenwood Press, 1998.
This one-stop reference is ideal for student research of the civil rights movement. It contains an index, glossary of terms, speeches by George Wallace and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and biographies of civil rights leaders. It includes the stories of martyrs killed for their active involvement in the cause such as Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and James Chaney.


Access this resource at:

The Civil Rights Movement


The National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum offers a virtual tour which examines the complete history of civil rights in the United States.

Southern Poverty Law Center
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a non-profit organization, whose programs include Teaching Tolerance and the Intelligence Project. The Center sponsors the Civil Rights Memorial, which celebrates the memory of 40 individuals who died during the Civil Rights Movement

We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement
This site provides extensive information and photographs for 41 significant places in the civil rights movement

Encyclopedia Britannica: Eras in Black History, 1954 - Present
This site offers detailed factual and pictorial information about black history during this time period

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
This site offers a journey from the era of segregation to the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and the worldwide struggle for civil and human rights.


civil rights

Definition: The nonpolitical rights of a citizen; the rights of personal liberty guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress.

Context: The civil rights movement was an effort to establish citizenship rights for blacks—rights that whites took for granted, such as voting and freely using public facilities.


Definition: The act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually; prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment.

Context: The 15th Amendment prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

hate crime

Definition: Any of various crimes (as assault or defacement of property) when motivated by hostility to the victim as a member of a group (as one based on color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation).

Context: Federal hate crime laws were used to bring some of the murderers in the civil rights movement to justice, since state criminal courts had failed to do so.


Definition: A person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle.

Context: Perhaps the most famous martyr of the civil rights movement was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life was taken so early.

poll tax

Definition: A tax of a fixed amount per person levied on adults.

Context: The poll tax was a voting fee charged to reduce the number of blacks that were eligible to vote.


Definition: The separation or isolation of a race, class, or ethnic group by enforced or voluntary residence in a restricted area, by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities, or by other discriminatory means.

Context: The state-sanctioned segregation in the South was intended to keep the races apart, particularly in Alabama, where Birmingham was the most segregated city in the South.

Content Provider

Discovery Education

Discovery Education offers a breadth and depth of digital media content that is immersive, engaging and brings the world into the classroom to give every student a chance to experience fascinating people, places, and events. All content is aligned to state standards, can be aligned to custom curriculum, and supports classroom instruction regardless of the technology platform.

Whether looking for a digital media library service, an implementation to help you transition your classroom to a 21st century environment or to move completely to replace textbooks with digital resources, Discovery Education offers a continuum of solutions to meet your district's specific needs. In addition, we offer real-time assessment services and a variety of professional development to ensure effective implementation in the classroom. You know your needs. We know our services. Together we can create an effective solution.

And, add the vast number of additional classroom instruction opportunities available such as virtual experiences, compelling Discovery talent, free lesson plans and materials, and a variety of contests and challenges and with Discovery Education teachers are truly able to give students opportunities to soar beyond the traditional textbook for endless possibilities.

Credits: Tish Raff, assistant principal, member of the associate faculty of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, educational consultant, and freelance writer.

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