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Teaching with the News

Fifty Years after the March on Washington: Students in the Civil Rights Movement


Students will:

Note: Teachers will need to be able to project video in their classrooms. Alternatively, students will need access to the internet to complete this activity.


Student Activist Stories

Letters from Freedom Summer

In the Classroom:

1. Understanding the Civil Rights Movement

Begin the class by writing the phrase “Who participated in the civil rights movement?” in the center of the blackboard. What was the purpose of the civil rights movement? Who participated in the movement? How big do students think the movement was? How long do they think it lasted? Which events from the civil rights movement can students recount?

Remind students that fifty years ago Martin Luther King Jr. gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington. (If students are unfamiliar with the March on Washington, you may want to have them explore the online resources listed below.) What do students know about Martin Luther King Jr.? How was he involved in the civil rights movement? Now tell students that there were many ways people, some who were their age, became involved in the movement.

2. Stories from the Movement

Distribute a copy of “Student Activist Stories” to each student. Tell the class that they are going to watch stories of people who joined the movement when they were in high school and college. Have students watch the videos below. As they watch, students should take notes in the graphic organizer and do their best to answer the questions on the handout.

Note: Watch John Lewis’s videos first as he provides an important definition of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “snick”).

Representative John Lewis

How and why did you first get involved in the civil rights movement?

What was the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project?.

Judy Richardson

How and why did you first become involved in the civil rights movement?

What was your daily work like in small communities in the South?

Charles E. Cobb, Jr.

How and why did you first become involved in the civil rights movement?

What kind of hostility did you encounter in Mississippi?

3. Sharing Responses

Have students share their reactions to the videos. Did they notice patterns between the experiences of the activists? How did each end up working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee? What sorts of experiences do they describe? Were they exposed to violence? What did they learn from their time as organizers? What emotions did they feel?

Ask students to make connections between the videos and what they know about the civil rights movement. Do students recognize any of the names or events in the videos? Did students learn any interesting information from the videos that they had not known before? How was the work of these activists different from national leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Why was their work important?

4. Making Connections

The activists in the videos were not much older than high school students when they joined SNCC. Ask students if they related to the SNCC veterans’ stories about joining the movement. Can students imagine themselves participating in the civil rights movement if they had been alive? Why or why not? Do any students in the class consider themselves activists now? What current civil rights issues or other political issues inspire students in the class? Is there a cause that students can imagine themselves dedicating their lives to? What lessons can students learn from these civil rights activists?

5. Extra Challenge: Letter Writing

Play the following video:

What was the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964? [Ekwueme Michael Thelwell – 3:27]

Ekwueme Michael Thelwell describes the transformative experience that many northern college students had going to Mississippi for the Freedom Summer Project. Distribute “Letters from Freedom Summer.” Tell students that the handout includes letters written by Freedom Summer volunteers.

Ask students to read the letters, and then write a fictional letter to their friends or family explaining their involvement with a social movement or a political cause, past or present. The letter could be about their work in Mississippi for Freedom Summer in 1964, or about working on a contemporary issue. Students may wish to write the letter as if they are on their way to join the movement for the first time. What are their motivations for becoming involved? What challenges do they expect to face? Other students may want to write the letter as if they have been an activist for some time. What is the day-to-day like? How has their perspective changed from this experience? All students should address why the cause is important to them. Tell students to be prepared to share a portion of their letter with the class.

Online Resources

March on Washington

“I Have a Dream...” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Time Magazine: One Dream

50th Anniversary website (comments at the bottom are mostly from people who participated in or watched the March on Washington)

Civil Rights Movement

50 Years Forward

PBS: Freedom Riders

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History