This lesson uses video segments from the PBS series Finding Your Roots to explore the American civil rights movement of the 1960s through the personal experience of one of its most prominent leaders—Congressman John Lewis.
In the Introductory Activity, students are challenged to complete a prohibitively difficult “Literacy Test” once administered to African Americans attempting to register to vote in the Jim Crow South. They then explore an interactive website to gain a wider understanding of voting challenges for African Americans during Jim Crow.
The Learning Activities focus on the early life of Congressman John Lewis—following him from a boy coming up against racial segregation for the first time as he tried to get a library card to the civil rights champion who led the famous March on Selma. The March was a turning point for the movement which led directly to the passage of the Voter Rights Act of 1965 which overturned the last official vestiges of Jim Crow.
The Culminating Activity reminds students that the voting rights Lewis and others fought so hard for are commonly ignored by many potential voters today, and invites them to learn more about various organizations looking to raise turnout at the polls.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
- Outline the challenges faced by African Americans seeking to vote in the Jim Crow South.
- Discuss the spiritual and religious dimension of the civil rights movement.
- Explain the philosophical and practical rationales of non-violent protest.
- Discuss the “gray” nuances which have traditionally characterized certain black/white race relationships in the South.
- Describe the efforts and methods of contemporary organizations to increase voter turnouts.
(2) 45-minute class periods
For each student:
For the class:
Part I: INTRODUCTORY ACTIVITY
- Divide the class into five groups and give each one page of the Literacy Test Student Organizer. Explain that you do not expect them to know all the answers on the test and that they will not be graded on it, but they will have 5 minutes to answer as many questions as they can.
- After five minutes have passed, ask students what they thought of the test. (Accept all answers, but explain that most students—indeed, most adults—would be hard-pressed to correctly answer more than a few of these questions.) Ask students what they think the purpose of this test is. (Accept all answers.) Explain that the test—of which each group has only seen a fifth--was just one part of an official “Literacy Test” administered to African American citizens attempting to register to vote in 1965 Alabama. Further explain that the larger test was only an addendum to a four page application applicants had to fill out (underpenalty of perjury)—an application they would only ever have seen after first running a gauntlet of social and institutional intimidation intended to discourage African Americans in the South from thinking that they had any right—or reason—to vote.
- Explain that this kind of discrimination and harassment was common in the American South during a defined historical period that has come to be known by an unofficial name. Ask students what they think this era was called? (Jim Crow.) Ask students what “Jim Crow” meant. (“Jim Crow” was a set of laws and social customs mandating racial segregation. It became shorthand for an entire era of the American South following Reconstruction and prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.) Distribute the Voting Under Jim Crow Student Organizer. Have students log onto “Voting Then, Voting Now”, and tell them to select the “Try To Vote” activity. Explain to students that the “Literacy Test” they have just looked at was taken from this activity, and allow them ten minutes to play through the rest of the interactive while completing their Student Organizer.
- After ten minutes have passed, go through the Voting Under Jim Crow Student Organizer with the class. Ask for volunteers to answer questions, correcting mistakes and offering clarification as necessary. Explain that the remainder of the lesson will be taking a closer look at one of the key figures in the civil rights struggles that culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—John Lewis.
Part II: LEARNING ACTIVITIES
- Ask the class which African American civil rights leaders they can name. (Accept all answers, compiling a list on the board.) Provide a focus for the first video segment from Finding Your Roots by asking students who the “Big Six” were. Play the Only In America Video.
- Review the focus question: who were the “Big Six?” (The “Big Six” were the original leaders of the civil rights movement.) Who was the most famous among them? (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His name may well have been the only one the students were able to come up with before the segment.) Explain that in today’s lesson, they are going to learn about John Lewis, who was first inspired by King, then a student of King’s, and ultimately King’s peer in the civil rights movement. Tell students that there is much to be learned about the origins and nature of the civil rights movement from John Lewis’ personal background and experience,which they will be taking a closer look at in the next video segment. Provide a focus question for the segment by asking students when John Lewis first encountered the reality of racial segregation. Play the video segment A Long Struggle.
- Review the focus question: when did John Lewis first encounter the reality of racial segregation? (When he was denied a library card and told that the library was for whites only.) Ask students how they think they would have responded to this if they’d been in Lewis’ place. (Accept all answers.) How did Lewis’ family respond? (They said “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get into trouble.”)A sk students why they think Lewis’ family discouraged Lewis’ outrage at racial injustice. (Accept all answers, but suggest that in mid-century Alabama, it was a very dangerous thing for an African American to complain about—much less reject—the written and unwritten laws of Jim Crow.)
- Ask students how long Jim Crow laws had existed in the South by the time young John Lewis encountered them at the local library. (Since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s.) Ask students what they think happened to African Americans who challenged these laws. (Accept all answers, but point out that during the decades of Jim Crow, thousands of African Americas were killed in “lynchings” conducted by white mobs.) Ask students if they think it is usually easier to adapt to such an established reality rather than try and change it. (Accept all answers, but suggest that most people, whatever their era, politics, or principles, are mostly concerned with the day-to-day reality of living their lives—going to work, feeding a family, etc.—and are unable or unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to attempt larger social change.) Ask students what they think might have made John Lewis different.(Accept all answers, but suggest that his early calling to preach was a good indicator of Lewis’ concern for larger themes of morality and justice beyond his own worldly existence.)
- Have the class count off by threes—1s, 2s, and 3s. Tell the students that they will now be role-playing one of three figures in a hypothetical discussion around an African American family’s kitchen table shortly after a run-in with Jim Crow laws like John’s incident at the library. “1s” will role-play the teen, trying to balance his/her moral principles and anger against practical realities and seeking direction from the others. “2s” will role-play the teen’s mother or father, warning against trouble. “3s” will role-play a college-aged sibling or cousin encouraging the teen to reject and resist Jim Crow. Write the following question on the board:“How would you react to being denied access to something as basic as a library card because of your race?” Explain that the Circle Dialogue or “Wisdom Circle” strategy that the class will use to probe their emotional understanding of the issue is one frequently used in high-stakes conflict resolution settings and that the goal is to hear each individual and build on what they’ve had to say. A more independent variation on the activity will happen later in the lesson,but for this first time, the teacher should actively guide the process and begin by saying, in the role of the teen, “You’re never going to believe what happened to me today. I tried to get a book out of the library but the librarian said that it was only for white people! I should’ve said something to her but I was just so humiliated (or angry, or shocked).” The conversation should then continue around the circle, with each student taking a turn at adding on to the discussion from the perspective of his/her assigned role. If a student gets stuck, encourage him/her to restate points/feelings expressed by others in that role that seemed convincing or compelling. After the discussion has made it all the way around the circle, wrap up the activity by asking students why they think Lewis’ family discouraged Lewis’ outrage at racial injustice. (Accept all answers, but suggest that in mid-century Alabama, it was a very dangerous thing for an African American to complain about—much less reject—the written and unwritten laws of Jim Crow.)
- Write the following quote from John Lewis on a blackboard or whiteboard:“I could no longer be satisfied or go along with an evil system. In spite of all of this, I had to keep loving the people who denied me service.” Ask students what they think Lewis meant by this. (Accept all answers, buts suggest that it is a variation on the Christian teaching of “hate the sin, not the sinner.”) Ask students if they agree with this position. Why or why not? (Accept all answers.) Present a mini-lecture introducing the relationship between non-violent protest and the Christian principles espoused by prominent civil rights leaders. Explain Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s identity and training as a Baptist minister, drawing a line between Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek” when struck and King’s advocacy of non-violence as a strategy for protest. Discuss other religious metaphors in King’s teaching, such as his frequent comparison of Africa nAmericans’ post-emancipation quest for civil rights to the wanderings of the Jews after escaping slavery under the Egyptian Pharaohs, and his warning to his followers that, like Moses leading his people to the promised land, “I might not get there with you.” Explain that the civil rights struggle, although conducted in order to achieve secular rights, was largely motivated and galvanized by men and women of religious faith like Dr. King and Mr. Lewis.
- Ask students what role they think religious faith might have played in the civil rights movement aside from the advocacy of non-violence. (Accept all answers, but suggest that just as Gandhi had encouraged harmony among both his fellow Hindus and India’s Muslim population, Dr. King’s vision—his famous “dream” of America—was of a united nation, beyond race, healed by forgiveness.) Ask students if they think this dream was universally shared by civil right sactivists. (No. Some civil rights leaders, most notably Malcolm X when he first came to national prominence, saw their mission in much more oppositional terms as an ongoing struggle—not necessarily non-violent—between blacks and whites.) Ask students which vision of race relations they think exists in America today. (Accept all answers, but suggest that while race relations still have a long way to go, most people would agree that they have made progress since the 1960s.) Suggest that achieving this progress has not only been a matter of resolving difference among people today, but of accepting a past that is more grey than black and white. Provide a focus question for the next segment by asking how John Lewis’ great-great-grandparents, Elizabeth and Tobias Carter, came to own their own house so soon after being freed from slavery. Play the video segment Relationships.
- Review the focus question: how did John Lewis’ great-great-grandparents, Elizabeth and Tobias Carter, come to own their own house so soon after being freed from slavery? (They were given the house and the land it was on by their former owners in recognition of Elizabeth’s loyalty when confronted by Union soldiers during the Civil War.) What is Lewis' reaction to hearing this? (He is unbothered. “It’s relationships,” he says. “If you’re around people, you become family.”) Ask students if any of them would feel differently from Lewis if they were hearing this story about their own ancestors. Why or why not? (Accept all answers, but suggest that some people might be embarrassed to hear that an enslaved ancestor had defended her owner’s home from soldiers of the liberating Union army.) Return to the Lewis quote on the board and ask if Lewis'reaction to learning about how his ancestors came to be landowners is in keeping with the remarks he made as a younger man about “loving those who deny him service.” (It is.) What does this suggest about Lewis’ understanding of civil rights and his vision of society more generally? (Accept all answers, but suggest that Lewis understands civil rights—and by extension, a civil society—to be based not only on justice, but on acceptance, empathy, love, and forgiveness.)
- Explain that John Lewis’ positive vision of what society could be was brutally tested during the 1960s civil rights struggle he helped lead. Provide a focus for the next segment by asking what Lewis carried in his backpack as he and the other marchers reached the outskirts of Selma, and why. Play the The Most Powerful Instrument Video.
- Pause at 01:25, after John Lewis recalls the sheriff giving the protesters three minutes to disperse and return to their church. Review the focus question: what did Lewis carry in his backpack as he and the other marchers reached the outskirts of Selma, and why? (He carried two books, an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, and toothpaste, because he thought he and the other marchers would be arrested and sent to jail.)
- Havet he class count off by threes—1s, 2s, and 3s. Divide the class into groups of three with each number represented in each group. Tell the groups that they will now be role-playing one of three figures in a hypothetical discussion among the protest marchers facing that “sea of blue.” “1s” will role-play a devoted disciple of non-violence. “2s” will role-play a protester more inclined towards Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” approach to civil rights. “3s”will role-play a protester uncommitted to either philosophy but seeking voting rights and looking to the others for direction. Write the following question on the board: “How should we react to the 3 minute ultimatum from the Alabama State Police?” Encourage circular discussion within each group for three minutes—the time limit given to the actual protesters by the Alabama State Police—urging students to draw upon what they have learned so far in this lesson. At the end of three minutes, ask several groups to briefly report what action they decided to take. Provide a focus for the remainder of the video segment by asking students what the protesters actually did for those three minutes, and what happened afterwards. Play the The Most Powerful Instrument Video through to the end.
- Review the focus questions: what did the protesters actually do for those three minutes, and what happened afterwards? (They knelt to pray, after which they were attacked and beaten by the Alabama State Police.) Ask students if they think the non-violence of the marchers suggested weakness or victimization. (Accept all answers, but suggest that on the contrary, the marchers’ refusal to meet violence with violence was a sign of their moral strength.) What, according to Lewis’ interview at the time, had been the purpose of the march? (“To dramatize to the nation, and dramatize to the world, that hundreds of thousands of Negro citizens in Alabama…are denied the right to vote.”) Ask students if they think it succeeded in this. (Yes.) Explain that the images from Selma helped galvanize popular support throughout the nation for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Ask students if they think the confrontation outside Selma that day would have had the same impact on the nation if Lewis and his fellow marchers had responded less passively to the troopers’ aggression. (Accept all answers, but suggest that the image of dignified and peaceful protesters enduring unprovoked blows from troopers’ truncheons made a powerfully compelling contrast between the moral righteousness of the protesters and the brute force of the segregationists.) Ask students if they can think of other political movements in the years since 1965 that followed the successful example of non-violent protest established by John Lewis, Martin Luther King, and other civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 60s. (Answers will vary but should include the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and Occupy Wall Street.)
Part III: CULMINATING ACTIVITY
- Ask students if they think the tactic of non-violent political protest employed by John Lewis and the other leaders of the African American civil rights movementof the 1950s and 1960s are universally applicable to other contexts and challenges? (Accept all answers.) Ask students if they can think of other campaigns of non-violent protests occurring in their own time around the world? (Answers will vary.)
- Divide the class into three groups and assign each group one of the following four modern day campaigns of very different but (mostly) non-violent protest:
- Occupy Wall Street
- The Arab Spring
- Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace
- Million Hoodie March
Write the following questions on the board to be researched and answered by each group:
- Who were the protesters?
- What were their goals?
- What challenges did they face that were different from those faced by the African American civil rights movement?
- How did they attempt to overcome these challenges? Did they use tactics or technologies that were unavailable to John Lewis and his colleagues?
- Were they successful?