This unit provides a wide-ranging overview of racial slavery in the Americas and the opportunity for students to consider how the past shapes the present.
February 2023 (updated)
Note: This lesson has been modified and updated to include recent events and developments. An earlier version of a related lesson (June 2020) is available here.
In the aftermath of the Memphis (Tenn.) police killing of Tyre Nichols, Black racial justice activists and their allies across the nation have yet again increased their demands for justice, police accountability, and an end to the systemic racism deeply embedded in the laws, practices, and institutions of the United States.
Racial injustice is not a new phenomenon and neither is Black activism. In fact, the Black activism taking place across the country today has deep roots in the history of the United States. Today’s Black activists and their allies build on organizing strategies from earlier civil rights movements and continue to champion and extend the ideals of racial equity shared with each generation before them.
In order to better understand this history and the positions held by Black-led racial justice movements today, this lesson utilizes an interactive, multimedia timeline to provide an overview of many leading individuals, organizations, and movements that have advanced the push for racial equality in the United States. The interactive timeline begins in the 1950s and continues to the present, with special attention given to twenty-first-century developments in the long fight for racial justice. In addition to its central place in this lesson, the timeline can be used in your classrooms throughout the school year to highlight Black-led racial justice activism.
- Review a timeline of Black-led racial justice activism in the United States from the 1950s to today.
- Identify core themes of the “long” civil rights and racial justice movements in the United States.
- Recognize patterns within and across different periods of activism.
- Collaborate to consider accomplishments of civil rights activists and the enduring obstacles to racial equality in the United States.
- View short videos that introduce the concept of structural racism and discuss the concept in relation to what students learned from the timeline (optional).
Interactive Timeline: Includes videos, images, and information about Black racial justice activism since the 1950s (also embedded below)
Graphic Organizer: Black Activism in the United States
Slideshow: Structural Racism
Video: Why is it difficult to say when the civil rights movement began and ended? (Professor Françoise Hamlin)
Video: What are the legacies of racial slavery? (Professor Anthony Bogues)
Video: What is structural racism? (Professor Emily Owens)
Note: Students will need access to the internet to complete this activity.
Note to Teachers
Remind students that conversations about the movement for racial justice will raise issues related to racism, power, and violence, which can be emotional. It is important to be sensitive to the students in your class and the ways in which these histories might be difficult to study. As you discuss these issues with your class, remind students that it is important to be respectful of the experiences of others, to think before they speak, and to be prepared to support their statements with facts.
We encourage teachers to carefully consider the dynamics of their classrooms as they prepare to use these materials. For example, students with different racial or ethnic identities may experience this lesson differently. Students with different political views may offer contrasting perspectives. Discussions can take unexpected turns. Students may unwittingly offend each other. The process of exploring the unequal power dynamics of anti-Black racism can lead students to lash out in anger or to suffer in silence. Teachers need to be aware of these possibilities and act to make their classrooms a safe place for all students. While we cannot offer a formula for dealing with all situations, being prepared for many possible outcomes will go a long way to helping students consider these critical issues. See Choices’ Teaching About Controversial Issues: A Resource Guide for additional ideas.
You should also read and view all entries on the timeline before sharing it with students to be sure that it is appropriate for your classroom. Note that we do not recommend showing graphic depictions of violence to students. For example, the video of the killing of Tyre Nichols is extremely graphic and disturbing and is not included in the timeline. While some students may have seen this on their own, we advise against showing it in class. As an alternative, some educators have chosen to direct students towards Tyre Nichols’ photography website.
Finally, it is important to emphasize to students that this lesson will not cover all aspects of the fight for racial justice, and that many people and movements not highlighted here played vital roles in racial justice activism throughout U.S. history. Today’s work will help students understand the events featured on the timeline within a certain framework. Additional questions and ideas will no doubt arise and students should be encouraged to explore these in future lessons or through individual research.
Ask students to review the timeline for homework prior to starting this lesson in class. Instruct them to come prepared to identify three significant events and why they found them interesting.
In the Classroom
1. Introduction: Show students the video, Why is it difficult to say when the civil rights movement began and ended? answered by Professor Françoise Hamlin of Brown University.
2. Black Activism K/W/L: Create a Know/Want to Know/Learned chart with three columns on the board. Tell students that they will be reviewing Black activism and social movements for racial justice in the United States since the 1950s. (Define the terms “activism” and “social movement” for the class if needed.) Invite students to share what they know about Black social movements throughout history. Which significant events did they identify as they looked over the timeline the night before, and why?
Next, ask students what they know about Black-led racial justice movements during their own lifetime (such as Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives, etc.). What do students know about these movements’ origins and goals? What have students seen on social media or in the news? Have students witnessed or participated in racial justice protests or other forms of activism before? If so, when and in what context? What have students seen or heard about the protests against the police killing of Tyre Nichols? What about previous protests against police violence (such as the protests after police killed George Floyd in 2020)? As students respond, fill in the “Know” section of the chart.
Continue by completing the “Want to Know” section. What other questions do students have about recent political events regarding race and the history of movements for racial justice in the United States?
3. Exploring the Timeline: Tell students that they will be exploring different time periods from the timeline in small groups.
Group One: 1950s–1964
Group Two: 1965–1969
Group Three: 1970s and 1980s
Group Four: 1990s and 2000s
Group Five: 2010–2016
Group Six: 2017–2023
Divide students into groups of three or four, and distribute the handout, Graphic Organizer: Black Activism in the United States, to each student. Assign each group a time period, and explain that once the class reconvenes, students will fill in the information for the remaining time periods on their organizers.
Alternatively, you can adapt the lesson by identifying specific themes or topics and assigning each group one or more of these themes or topics to explore across the time periods. For example, one group could assess legislation and court rulings across all of the time periods, another group could focus on protests, marches, and mass demonstrations, another on policing and criminal justice reform efforts, etc. (Note: There may be some overlap between themes/topics, and not every timeline entry will fit a thematic group, but this alternative allows teachers to choose the topics students focus on and potentially reduce the number of timeline entries each group works on.)
The groups can now start to look over their assigned time period (or themes/topics) on the timeline. As students examine the timeline’s events with their group, they should take note of the important people, groups, and events that took place in their assigned time period. Once students have recorded the major events from their time period, instruct them to write a slogan that reflects the main goals and desires of activists at the time. As an alternative, you may want to instruct students to create a poster or protest sign to represent or accompany their slogan.
4. Sharing Information: After students have completed their respective sections of the handout, bring the class back together and have each group share some of their findings. Along with sharing some of the information that they recorded from the timeline, ask each group to share the slogan that they wrote and explain its significance. As each group presents, ask the rest of the class to fill in the relevant section of their organizers.
Once students have shared their findings with one another, return to the K/W/L chart on the board. Invite students to contribute what they learned from exploring the timeline as you fill in the “Learned” portion of the K/W/L chart.
5. Concluding Discussion: Lead a discussion in which students identify similarities and differences between social movements from the different periods of U.S. history. What might account for these similarities or differences? What themes and issues from the Black freedom struggle seem to repeat over the decades?
How have the goals and strategies of the movements changed or remained consistent over time? What does it mean for a social movement to be successful? What have the movements accomplished, and what do students think remains to be achieved in this long fight for racial justice?
You may wish to extend the concluding discussion by introducing students to the concept of “structural racism” and its significance as a primary legacy of racial slavery in the United States and elsewhere. Using the provided slideshow, project the definition of structural racism at the front of the classroom and ask one or more students to read it aloud. You may also wish to play one or both of these videos (What are the legacies of racial slavery? [Professor Anthony Bogues] and What is structural racism? [Professor Emily Owens]) or ask students to read aloud one or both of the quotes excerpted from the videos. Use the provided discussion questions from the slideshow to lead a concluding class discussion.
- Encourage students to conduct an interview with someone who has participated in any form of activism intended to overcome racial inequalities, recently or at some point in the past. If possible, you may wish to have students record or film these interviews and then share them with the class.
- Ask students if there are any present-day events taking place in their region or at school that could be added to the timeline. Have students write a very short description of the event and its significance.
- Are there active voices for racial equality at the students’ school? If there are, what or who facilitates awareness and activism for racial equality on campus? If not, what is the significance of this absence? You may also wish to have students write the steps that it would take to organize a group or event for discussion and further learning about racial inequality and to circle the three most important steps for a plan of action.
- Instruct students to pick an event, individual, or organization from the timeline that interests them to research more deeply. Have students write about their chosen subject and their/its impact on the civil rights/racial justice movement. You may also instruct students to investigate events, individuals, or organizations today that are similar to their chosen topic.
- Divide students into small groups to conduct research and create presentations on various perspectives on police and criminal justice reform efforts at the local, state, and/or national levels. Have each group present their findings to the class, and lead a discussion in which students identify policies, programs, and laws that they think could be particularly effective.
Image credit: Victoria Pickering (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://bit.ly/2AIN0uG