Civil Rights Toolkit

The African-American Civil Rights movement is typically seen as having taken place mostly in the 1950s and 60s, when a confluence of social and economic factors enabled political change. The movement, however, has much deeper roots, and thus our toolkit starts in the 19th Century, some two generations before leaders like King, Parks, and others were born. Viewing the Civil Rights movement as a generational one provides a broader perspective on the ideas and people at the foundation of this work to achieve “a more perfect union” for all Americans.

Guiding Questions

  1. In the years following emancipation, African Americans soon realized the absence of slavery did not equal the presence of freedom. Indeed, Frederick Douglass warned that slavery “has been called a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see…in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.” Though physically free, African Americans lacked an education, financial security, economic opportunity, and political rights. The civil rights movement started by ex-slaves organizing and demanding greater access and opportunity in these areas and more. Based off of these primary sources, what were some of the battles African Americans fought to overcome the various “names” of slavery?
  2. What ambiguities or potential sources of controversy with respect to the rights of the freed people are found in the Fourteenth Amendment? How did the U.S. Supreme Court interpret that amendment in Plessy v. Ferguson? In what respects did the Brown v. Board Court overrule its Plessy decision, and in what respects did it leave its Plessy ruling intact? Finally, how do these Constitutional amendments and Supreme Court decisions fall short of Stokely Carmichael’s goals?
  3. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Movement splintered into fractious divisions which steered the movement in more radical (socialist and nationalist) directions. Explain this shift and the distinction between the more conservative and radical leaders.
  4. In this list of primary sources the speeches share common themes of freedom, equality and the ‘American dream.’ Identify the ways in which each speaker defines these concepts and document how these definitions vary among each speaker.

Suggested answers

Essential Documents

  1. Black Codes of Mississippi, 1865
  2. What the Black Man Wants, 1865, Frederick Douglass
  3. Plessy v. Ferguson, excerpts, 1896
  4. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Platform, 1909
  5. “To Secure These Rights,” The Report of President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, 1946
  6. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka I and II, excerpts, 1954
  7. “I Have a Dream” Speech, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  8. The Ballot or the Bullet, 1964, Malcolm X
  9. Commencement Speech at Howard University, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson
  10. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, 1967, Stokely Carmichael



  1. Documents in Detail: Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
  2. Documents in Detail: MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
  3. Moments of Crisis: Bloody Sunday in Selma
  4. Landmark Supreme Court Cases: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
  5. Landmark Supreme Court Cases: Brown v. Board of Education
  6. Documents in Detail: MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail
  7. American Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower

Lesson Plans

  1. Competing Voices of the Civil Rights Movement – a two-lesson series examining the diverse voices and ideas that animated the African-American Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America
  2. Malcolm X and Civil Rights – a comparison of Malcolm X’s ideas with those of other prominent Civil Rights leaders
  3. Civil Rights in the Progressive Era – use documents from Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois to learn about the earliest Civil Rights activities in the 20th Century
  4. Brown v. Board of Education – this multi-day lesson explores the context around and impact of the landmark court case
  5. Civil Rights in the 1960s – The focus of this lesson is to understand different approaches to the Civil Rights Movement—notably the contrasting styles between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X
  6. Civil Rights Through Speeches – Help students understand the differences between various Civil Rights leaders by comparing their words in various great speeches