Black Lives Matter rallies and demonstrations. Students protesting on college campuses. Talk about events like these floods the news and our social media feeds. While certainly an issue of relevance, black activism is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, the black activism taking place across the country today has deep roots in the history of the United States. Today’s activists build on organizing strategies from the civil rights movement and continue to champion ideals of racial equity shared with each generation before them.

In order to better understand this complex history and the positions of black activists today, it is important to examine significant events leading up to the present. This timeline provides an overview of many leading people and actions that steered towards racial equality in the United States beginning in the 1950s and continuing into 2016.

While this timeline covers many influential moments related to the history of black activism in the United States, it is by no means exhaustive. As you review the timeline, it is important to note that many people, in addition to those highlighted here, played a vital role in activist efforts throughout history.


Students will:

  • Review a timeline of black activism in the United States from the 1950s to today
  • Identify core themes of the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements
  • Recognize patterns among and create slogans for different decades of activism
  • Collaborate to consider accomplishments of civil rights activists and the enduring obstacles to racial equality in the United States.
  • Evaluate different platforms for activism and the role of social media in protest


Black Lives Matter: Continuing the Civil Rights Movement, an interactive timeline with videos and images.

Graphic Organizer: Black Activism in the United States

Note: Students will need access to the internet to complete this activity.


Ask students to skim 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

Optional introduction: Show students the video, Why is it difficult to say when the civil rights movement began and ended? answered by historian Françoise Hamlin of Brown University.

1. 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. Invite students to share what they know about black social movements throughout history. Which events did they identify as they looked over the timeline the night before, and why?

Next, ask students what they know about “Black Lives Matter.” What is Black Lives Matter? What do students think the movement’s goals are? What have students seen on social media or in the news? How have different people of varying backgrounds responded to the movement? As students respond, fill in the “Know” section of the chart.

Note: Under the “Want to Know” section, prior to asking students what they hope to learn, you may choose to raise the common question, “Why not, ‘All Lives Matter’?” One approach is to simply ask students to keep this in mind as they move forward, but to refrain from sharing their thoughts until the follow-up discussion so that they each can form their own opinion before discussing.

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?

2. Exploring the Timeline

Tell students that they will each be exploring different decades of the timeline in groups.

Group One: 1950s-1964

Group Two: 1965-1969

Group Three: 1970s and 1980s

Group Four: 1990s and 2000s

Group Five: 2010s

Divide students into groups of three or four, and distribute the handout, Graphic Organizer: Black Activism, 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 decades on their organizers.

The groups can now start to look over their assigned cluster of decades on the timeline together. (If your students do not have access to technology in the classroom, you may wish to view the timeline as a class or otherwise adapt this step of the exercise to better fit your class’s needs.) As students examine the timeline’s events, they should take note of the important people, groups, and events that took place in their assigned decades. Once students have recorded the major events from their decade, instruct them to write a slogan representing the main goals and desires of activists at the time.

3. Identifying Main Themes

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.

Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter—Return to the slogan question: why does the modern movement emphasize “Black Lives Matter” rather than stating that “All Lives Matter”? Ask students if their opinions on this have changed since examining the timeline. If so, why? What power does “Black Lives Matter” hold in particular? What is problematic about the phrase “All Lives Matter?”


4. Concluding Discussion

Can students identify similarities and differences between social movements from the different decades of U.S. history? What might account for these similarities or differences? How do people organize and contribute to social movements? What tools and techniques do they use to advocate for a cause? How have these strategies changed throughout history? What does it mean for a social movement to be successful? What factors might hinder the progress of certain social movements?

Extra Challenges

  1. 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.
  2. Ask students if there are any present-day events taking place in their region or at school that could be added to the timeline. Is there an active voice for racial equality at school? If there is, 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.
  3. Instruct students to pick a date from the timeline that interests them and research what else was happening in the country at that time. Have students write about any similarities or differences that they notice between the general state of the country and the political agenda of black activists at the time. Ask students to conclude by speculating what these similarities and differences mean.

Banner photo: Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Fibonacci Blue

Back to top