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?