Students trace the history of the Black freedom struggle from Reconstruction through the 1960s. Readings and activities focus on the grassroots movement to achieve civil rights for African Americans.
This lesson has been modified and updated to include recent events and developments. The updated version (February 2023) is available here.
In more than 580 cities and towns across the United States, hundreds of thousands of Americans have gathered together to protest the police killing of an African American man named George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protestors’ calls for justice, police accountability, and for an end to the systemic racism deeply embedded in the laws, practices, and institutions of the United States mark some of the most widespread protests the country has seen in half a century. The protests should be seen in the long arc of history and as part of the long Black freedom struggle, a struggle that began when the first Black people arrived on these shores as captives more than four hundred years ago.
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 activists build on organizing strategies from the civil rights movement and continue to champion and extend ideals of racial equity shared with each generation before them.
In order to better understand this history and the positions of Black activists and social movements today, it is useful to examine significant recent events leading up to the present. The timeline in this lesson provides an overview of many leading people and social movements that steered towards racial equality in the United States beginning in the 1950s and continues to the present.
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 and movements, in addition to those highlighted here, played vital roles in activist efforts throughout history.
Note on Remote Teaching
This lesson can be completed in a remote learning environment. We recommend doing a class video session to introduce the activity and using a shared digital document to create the K/W/L chart. Students can investigate the timeline on their own and share their findings and create their slogan with their group using group chat sessions or virtual hangouts. A class video session to share their findings and slogans and conduct a concluding discussion is recommended.
- Review a timeline of Black activism in the United States from the 1950s to today
- Identify core themes of the civil rights, racial justice, and Black Lives Matter movements
- Recognize patterns within and across 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 protests
The above interactive timeline includes videos, images, and information about Black activism since the 1950s.
Note: Students will need access to the internet to complete this activity.
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
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 events did they identify as they looked over the timeline the night before, and why?
Next, ask students what they know about the Black Lives Matter movement. What is Black Lives Matter? What do students know about the movement’s origins and goals? What have students seen on social media or in the news? How have different people of varying backgrounds responded to the movement? Have they seen the phrase “Black Lives Matter” during the recent protests? What have students seen or heard about the protests against the police killing of George Floyd? Do students view these protests as connected to the Black Lives Matter movement? 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 each be exploring different time periods 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: 2010 to 2020
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 decades on their organizers.
The groups can now start to look over their assigned cluster of years/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 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 go along with their slogan.
4. Identifying Important 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.
5. 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? What themes and issues from the Black freedom struggle seem to repeat over the decades?
Ask students to assess the role of the Black Lives Matter movement today. What impact do students believe that Black Lives Matter has had on American society? Do students think that street protests have been or will be effective? What makes protest effective? Black Lives Matter and other activists have brought attention to police brutality against people of color. What have students learned about the history of police violence against Black people? Why do students think police brutality and police killings continues? Challenge students to identify the types of changes that need to be made for it to stop. Encourage them to also think about hurdles or obstacles to enacting these types of changes.
Finally, have students consider how 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? What ideas do students have for making social movements for change successful?
- 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.
- Is there an active voice for racial equality at the students’ 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.
- 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.
Image credit: Victoria Pickering (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://bit.ly/2AIN0uG