The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Month: January 2017

Oral Histories: Students in the Civil Rights Movement

On August 28, 1963, before a crowd of over 200,000 people in Washington D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the most famous speech of the U.S. civil rights movement. “I have a dream,” he declared, “that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

The March on Washington has become one of the most celebrated moments of the civil rights movement, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the movement’s most famous leader. But the story of the fight for civil rights has more to it than large marches and speeches on national television.

Often out of sight of the national media, most civil rights activity occurred in local communities, in states like Mississippi, where thousands of everyday people organized themselves to fight against racial injustice. Instead of one national civil rights movement led by a few, we can think of the struggle of the 1950s and 1960s as a series of local movements for racial justice with many participants and leaders.

Judy Richardson was an 18-year-old when she join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and went to Mississippi to struggle for racial justice. You can get a sense of her experience in the video below.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was just one chapter in the black freedom struggle. As many historians have noted, African Americans have been fighting for their freedom since the first slave ships arrived in the Americas. The Civil War ended slavery in the United States, but emancipation did not bring equal rights or economic opportunities to black people. While the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s spurred the federal government into action and won many legal rights for African Americans, challenges remain today.

The Choices Program has a free online lesson “Oral Histories: Students in the Civil Rights Movement” that includes videos and stories of students who went to Mississippi, including those of Judy Richardson, John Lewis, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, and Charlie Cobb. The lesson offers insight into the broad-based nature of the civil rights movement and its role in local communities.

The activists in the videos were not much older than high school students when they joined SNCC. The videos and lessons challenge students to consider important questions:

Did they relate to the SNCC veterans’ stories about joining the movement. Can students imagine themselves participating in the civil rights movement if they had been alive?  Do any students consider themselves activists now? What current civil rights issues or other political issues inspire students in the class? Is there a cause that students can imagine themselves dedicating their lives to? What lessons can students learn from these student civil rights activists?

A Digital Tool for Connecting with Stories of Immigrants

At a time when the refugee crisis and issues of immigration permeate social media and political debates, I wanted to put forth another resource that may provide teachers with an entry point for leading a one-day spotlight on the diversity of immigrant experiences or for continuing a longer discussion on this complex topic. This is applicable to all-ages and may be relevant to Social Studies, History, Language Arts, English as a Foreign Language, and Technology classes:

Ordinary Objects, Extraordinary Stories: Your Story, Our Stories invites teachers to “turn students into historians” using object and first-person accounts (often written by other students) to explore the still-unfolding history of immigration. The site welcomes people to post photographs of an object that illustrates a their family’s story of moving to a new country and experiencing different cultures.

For example, sixteen year-old Blaake-Kirstyn posted a story about her family recipes passed down from her great-great-great-grandmother who was a house slave on a Georgian plantation. Syrian refugee Zeina Joud tells a story about the fur coat that she had to leave behind when she fled her homeland. Fatemeh Jahanshahi shares the experience of a Taxi driver that she met in Iran.

You may wish to have your students interview a family member and share their own connections to immigration here to contribute and to see their work preserved in a digital museum exhibit that connects our shared history to today.

If you enjoy this resource, you may be interested in “Define American” videos of student immigrants sharing their stories and the Understanding Immigrant Experiences lesson plan in which students assess primary resource in our U.S. History unit Immigration and the U.S. Policy Debate.

The Tenement Museum also offers lesson plans for teaching with objects, primary sources, and oral history. The following questions can help spark constructive student dialogue:

What historical trends are revealed by the stories?

What is cultural identity and how does it shift over time?

What does it mean to be American?

How does personal history relate to American history?

Do you have any objects in your home that tell an immigrant’s story? Share your thoughts and classroom success stories on our Facebook or Twitter page.


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