Examining the Legacy of the American Civil Rights Era
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As part of their study of Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy (or another work of African American literature set in the post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights era), students will participate in personal reflection and critical research of the current black-white racial divide in America. By examining Wright's book in the context of three contemporary events in American social politics (the election of Barack Obama, the Gates-Crowley incident, and the Jena Six case), students will gain a richer understanding of the work, and what it means to be an American today.
From Theory to Practice
It is "too common a storyline" in high school English classes that "we don't need to talk about race" (29). Kelli Sassi and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas argue that teachers need to find alternative to classroom approaches that typify "colormuteness and colorblindness that merely perpetuate social inequities" (30). Too often, when students read a piece of African American literature set in the post-slavery, pre-Civil Rights era, they feel they can dismiss the social world of the text as merely "historical," something that's corrected now by legislation and improved public opinion. This lesson seeks to bring racial advances and inequity to the forefront, stressing both the gains and remaining goals of the American Civil Rights movement.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
- 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
Materials and Technology
- Copies of Richard Wright’s Black Boy or another appropriate work
Facing History and Ourselves has many resource books, study guides, videos, lesson plans and web links to help students explore the U.S. civil rights movement.
- Select and obtain copies of Black Boy or another work by an African-American author students will read. Students need to read and discuss the work before beginning the activities in this lesson.
- Because of the potentially sensitive nature of some of the conversation in this lesson, consider your students’ readiness for an investigation of the contemporary black-white racial divide in America. Read the English Journal article “Walking the Talk: Examining Privilege and Race in a Ninth-Grade Classroom” for ideas (such as the privilege walk) on how to prepare students.
- Obtain and preview a copy of the documentary Legacy: Black and White in America (optional). If you choose to show the documentary, select scenes that are most relevant for the discussions you wish to occur. You may need to obtain permission for viewing the documentary because of the isolated use of school-inappropriate language in a few scenes.
- Make copies of all necessary handouts.
- Arrange for access to Internet connected computers for Sessions Two and Three.
- develop an understanding of the American Civil Rights movement through research and talk with peers.
- compare and contrast the American racial divide as presented in a work of literature and in contemporary society.
- take on a historical persona to respond to Black Boy in the context of an understanding of the contemporary American racial divide.
- Introduce the lesson by asking students to recall the specific ways in which Richard Wright describes the black/white divide in his autobiography Black Boy. Ask students to consider what characteristics, aspirations, and attitudes can belong to a black American in the world of Wright’s childhood and adolescence? To a white American? Give students time to think and write on this topic.
- Have students form small groups to discuss their initial impressions. Encourage students to return to the text to find specific examples and situations related to their observations. Share with students Selected Scenes from Black Boy if necessary.
- Ask students to share their insights with the class as you record their ideas on the board, an overhead, or chart paper.
- Then have students reflect informally about how life in America now—several decades beyond the Civil Rights Era—is similar to and different from the world in Black Boy. Distribute the American Then - America Now chart to challenge students to think about what might be worse, what might be about the same, and what might be better for young Richard Wright now.
- Give students time to record their thinking the chart, using ideas from the earlier discussion and any of their own new observations.
- Collect their charts and select some contrasting responses to write on a blank copy of the chart. Keep responses anonymous and prepare the chart for projection on an overhead or other means.
- Project the collection of responses on the America Then-America Now Chart and ask students to comment on the varied views held by their classmates. As students are discussing, challenge them to agree upon definitions of key concepts such as racism, segregation, discrimination, desegregation, integration, and equality.
- Point out that the specific social and political actions known collectively as the Civil Rights movement are largely responsible for shifts from life in Richard Wright’s childhood and adolescence to now.
- Inform students that they should think about these varied responses, as well as the many situations Wright depicts in his autobiography, as they research three aspects of the American Civil Rights movement:
- What was promised?
- What was achieved?
- What is still politically and socially elusive?
- Based on what you know about your students, decide whether or not they are capable of going directly to the research and response phase. If you think it would be useful, you may wish to model thoughtful responses to one of the web sites as students observe.
- Direct students to the Civil Rights Era websites and allow students to search and browse the resources for answers to the three overarching questions, using the Analyzing the Civil Rights Era chart to record their findings.
- As students are researching, circulate among them, answering questions and encouraging depth of responses.
- At the end of the session, have students in groups of three share their findings.
- For the next session, ask students to begin synthesizing their understanding by writing a paragraph that captures what they learned from their research and conversations with classmates.
- If you opt to show the documentary Legacy: Black and White in America, do so after this session. Ask students to focus on the same three questions as they view and take notes on the film.
- Begin this session by having several students read the paragraphs they wrote. Facilitate a conversation about the goals and accomplishments associated with the Civil Rights movement. You may wish to consult resources from the Facing History, Facing Ourselves collection on Civil Rights to help shape the discussion.
- Explain to students that in this session, they will explore one of three contemporary events that will inform their understanding of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement.
- Direct students to the collection of websites on the election of Barack Obama, the Gates/Crowley incident, and the case of the Jena Six.
- Using the Contemporary Event Research chart have each student in the groups from the previous session investigate one of the three contemporary events (either you or the students will need to decide who researches which event). Let students know that they will share what they learned with their group members in the next session.
- Give students time to research the websites and thoroughly answer their research questions.
- Ask students to reconvene their groups of three and participate in a focused comparative historical analysis. Considering key events from Black Boy and the Civil Rights Era, the information and perspectives from the documentary (optional), and each of the events they researched in the previous session, have them respond to these Comparative Historical Analysis Questions:
- How do these events illuminate the current state of the racial divide in America?
- How do these events change your own attitudes or assumptions about race?
- What are the lessons to be learned from each of these events on their own, and taken as a whole?
- After students have time to share their own thoughts, ask a volunteer from each group to share three key ideas from their group’s discussion.
- Record these thoughts on the board, an overhead, or chart paper.
- For the next session, students should write a brief reflection that explains what they learned from their research and conversations with the group and full class. The content of these reflections will vary highly based on the inquiry nature of the lesson, but encourage students to continue to clarify their current understanding of the black-white divide in America and to assess their own assumptions about race, identity, and opportunity in America.
- Begin the session by asking a few students to read their reflective writing.
- Then return to students their observations about Black Boy on the America Then – America Now Chart from Session One.
- In light of the learning and conversations from Sessions Two, Three, and Four, have them review their observations and respond to the novel in one of the following ways:
- Assuming the persona of Richard Wright, write to the American citizens of the present about the most pressing aspect of the racial divide. Suggest solutions for bridging that divide.
- Assuming the persona of a citizen of the present (you may choose the citizen’s racial and class identity), write a letter to Richard Wright explaining why or why not he should be hopeful about the future (the citizen’s present).
- Assuming the identity of Barack Obama, Professor Gates, Officer Crowley, or one of the Jena Six, explain how the events of Black Boy help shape your understanding of the contemporary racial divide.
- In addition to writing a response to the novel, ask students to write a reflection on what they learned through this lesson. Encourage them to comment on what frustrated and angered them, in addition to what new insights they gained and what viewpoints were confirmed.
- Though this lesson focuses specifically on the black-white racial divide, students can examine other divisions that have a legacy of social and political movements associated with them. Possible topics include the women’s rights movement, the Mexican immigration controversy, and the movement for gay marriage rights.
- Students can compare the portrayals of post-slavery/pre-Civil Rights movement America by reading an additional text from the list of works by an African-American author to further enhance the impact of this lesson.
- Encourage students to identify a particular instance of the black-white racial divide in their school or community. After interviewing students or community members, have them write a newspaper article or letter to the editor addressing the issue.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Provide feedback to students’ response to the novel. The nature of the assignment makes objective evaluation, as with a rubric, complicated. Provide comments that assess students’ ability to take on the persona they chose, their insight into the novel, and their ability to apply what they learned through their own research and that of their peers.