This lesson explores the historical complexity of the struggle to desegregate schools. Students will examine the geographic scope of racism, the conditions that prompted both activism and litigation, and how laws changed over time.
Four role-plays will help students understand some of the people and issues that triggered the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, the nation's divided response to the Supreme Court ruling, and finally, how the legacy of Brown affects African Americans as well as other non-white minorities today. Each student will prepare for the role-plays by researching a historical figure. Then students will work in small groups toward a final presentation in which they will present their characters as well as the issues and positions each one represented.
- Identify, research, and report on the people legal cases and conditions that led to, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case
- Explore and describe the impact of segregation on both African Americans and other non-white minorities
- Identify legislation, court decisions, and other strategies that either supported or undermined the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education
- Examine and describe the impact of Brown 50 years after the ruling
Grade Level: 9-12
- Four to five class periods
- Alternatively, you can divide the lesson to coincide with the time period that you are teaching.
- Brown: A Landmark Case QuickTime Video*
- Documenting Brown 3: Gong Lum v. Rice PDF Document
- Brown Reactions: Zora Neale Hurston PDF Document
- Mendez v. Westminster: Desegregating California's Schools QuickTime Video
- Simple Justice 1: A Handful of Lawyers QuickTime Video
- Simple Justice 6: Justice Warren Reads the Decision QuickTime Video
- Sherman Oaks, a Model for Integration Real Audio
- Bus to the Burbs QuickTime Video
- Desegregation in San Francisco Real Audio
- Hyde County School Boycott Flash Image
- Reconsidering Brown HTML Document
* This video has expired. We are in the process of making it available again.
Before the Lesson
Examine the resources ahead of time to familiarize yourself with the lesson content and the complexity of segregation in education over time. Read the background article for each resource, and consider additional questions for discussion you may want to address. Read and print the PDF documents, watch the videos, and listen to the audio segments. Make copies of the background essays that students will reference in researching their characters.
Using the background articles for reference, provide an overview of the Brown case, the issues that led to the lawsuit, and the resistance that civil rights activists faced in trying to implement desegregation. View Brown: A Landmark Case together as a class, and explain that the struggle for desegregation began much earlier and involved many people in different parts of the country. Next, explain that each student will be assigned a historical character that s/he will research and represent in a group presentation.
The following role-plays examine the struggle to desegregate schools at four separate points in time. The goal of this lesson is to give students a deeper understanding of the different positions over time by putting themselves in someone else's shoes. When assigning characters, consider mixing gender, race, and ethnicity so that students can learn about a position in society different from their own.
Divide the class into four groups and assign each student one of the historical characters listed for that group (see below). This lesson is designed for a class of about 25 students; if you have more students, feel free to add characters for each era. Note that the role-plays are listed in chronological order. Students should begin their research by looking at the relevant Teachers' Domain resources (indicated in parentheses), including the background essays. Depending on the number of computers in your classroom, you may want to show several of the resources in class, and print and distribute the background essays for each character in the role-plays.
Role-Play 1: Living with Plessy
Each student in this group will research and present one of the following characters from the era preceding 1954, when the "separate but equal" doctrine sanctioned legalized segregation:
- Harry Briggs (Harry Briggs, Sr. and Eliza Briggs PDF Document)
- Gonzalo Mendez (Mendez v. Westminster: Desegregating California's Schools QuickTime Video)
- Gong Lum (Documenting Brown 3: Gong Lum v. Rice PDF Document)
- Governor Earl Warren (Mendez v. Westminster: Desegregating California's Schools QuickTime Video)
- Orange County school official (Mendez v. Westminster: Desegregating California's Schools QuickTime Video)
- Thurgood Marshall (Simple Justice 1: A Handful of Lawyers QuickTime Video)
Role-Play 2: A Landmark Decision
Each student in this group will research and present one of the following characters from the Brown case, and the public reaction in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling (up until 1957):
- Thurgood Marshall (Simple Justice 1: A Handful of Lawyers QuickTime Video)
- John Davis (Simple Justice 3: The Trial Begins QuickTime Video)
- Chief Justice Earl Warren (Simple Justice 6: Justice Warren Reads the Decision QuickTime Video)
- Zora Neale Hurston (Brown Reactions: Zora Neale Hurston PDF Document)
- Constance Baker Motley (Implementing Brown QuickTime Video; Brown: A Landmark Case QuickTime Video)
- Burke Marshall (Burke Marshall PDF Document)
Role-Play 3: Implementing Brown
Each student in this group will research efforts to desegregate schools in the aftermath of the Brown ruling. Some students will represent hypothetical figures from different regions of the country, while others will research and represent actual historical figures.
- Melba Pattillo Beals (Melba Pattillo Beals QuickTime Video)
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Implementing Brown QuickTime Video; Ike and Little Rock QuickTime Video)
- Vanessa Venable (Vanessa Venable PDF Document)
- An African American student from Hyde County, NC (Hyde County School Boycott Flash Image)
- An African American student from Boston (Boston Desegregation QuickTime Video)
- Senator James Eastland (Brown: A Landmark Case QuickTime Video; White Resistance QuickTime Video)
Role-Play 4: Current Desegregation Strategies: How Far Have We Come?
Each student in this group will research current conditions and desegregation strategies in a different region of the country, and present the views of one of the following characters:
- The principal of Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (Sherman Oaks, a Model for Integration Real Audio)
- A Chinese American student from San Francisco (Desegregation in San Francisco Real Audio)
- A Latino student from Boston (Desegregation in San Francisco Real Audio)
- Professor Gary Orfield* (Reconsidering Brown HTML Document)
*Orfield's commentary provides a background narrative on current conditions.
The presentations can take the form of a skit, debate, mock trial, or oral history presentation. For each of the simulations, students should research the context and issues for their character, prepare an opening statement to introduce their character, and address the following questions from their character's perspective:
- What impact does segregation have on you?
- What are your thoughts on school desegregation?
- What does "separate but equal" or "desegregation" mean for you?
- What public stand or action do you, or would you, take?
- What risks do you face? What do you stand to gain?
- What larger issues are important to you?
- What do you expect your local, state, or federal government to do?
- What would you like the courts to do for you?
- What democratic values are most important to you?
You may want to schedule one or two group presentations for each day, or pause for a day after the first two group presentations to reflect on the questions and issues. After each presentation, allow time for questions. Students who are not presenting should take notes and/or think of questions for the presenters. Presenters may question other each another staying in character.
After each group finishes, ask the students who are listening to the presentations to reflect on who the most compelling character was, why, and what they learned from the presentation.
After the presentations, ask students to reflect on what they've learned and to consider the following questions from their own present-day perspective:
- Is your school integrated (in terms of race, ethnicity, class, etc.)?
- What are examples of integration or segregation in your community?
- What factors influence your school's demographics?
- What strategies would you support to make schools more integrated, and why?
- What are the challenges and benefits of each strategy?
- What roles do the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government play in the issue of school desegregation?
- What can an individual and community do to effect change?
Check for Understanding
Ask students to pick two people from the list of characters, preferably two people who represent different points of view. In a written essay, students should describe who the people were, the issues they faced, specific legal action they took or supported, and how the laws changed. Students should also explain whether they disagree or agree with the position each character took. In making their arguments, students should incorporate examples from their present-day school experiences, making connections between past and present events and conditions.