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Use Primary Sources to Engage Students in Learning about the Civil Rights Movement

As educators, we should be teaching Black history throughout the year—not just during the month of February. Black History Month should not be the first time nor the only time that our students learn about Black History because Black history is American history.

Teaching Black History in One Month is Problematic

If we only discuss Black history as a side-note lesson during the month of February it, unfortunately, reinforces that people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. or the Civil Rights Movement are just trivial moments in history. It is important to be mindful that teaching Black history during one month of the year creates marginalization and sends the message that this is just a diversion from the normal curriculum because it’s not worth including in the regular curriculum.

Focus on Culture, Achievements, and Contributions

As well, if the only focus is on the oppression of African Americans, then we have failed to provide our students will an understanding of the rich culture, achievements, and many contributions that BIPOC brings to our society.

Great Leaders Do Not Make History All by Themselves

Black history is American history, and while textbooks often provide limited information, there are other ways that we can teach and reinforce that Black history is American history. Black history is also so much more than the civil rights era, but this movement in history is important for our students to understand more fully.

It is also important to remember that great leaders do not make history all by themselves. While we may be familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.’s, I Have a Dream speech, there is so much more to this day, the days leading up to the March on Washington, and the impact that followed.

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement and the March on Washington

The March on Washington was an event thoroughly planned and detailed and took a massive effort. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech is not just a simple story.

This is one of the reasons that I decided to take a more in-depth look at the March on Washington and teach through primary sources and a photo gallery walk.

Teach with Primary Sources

It’s easy to just skip to Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech, but I like to discuss with my students the hard work and effort that was made by countless people leading up to the March on Washington, which provided the platform for this speech to be heard.

I start by having my students analyze the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Organizing Manual. This was the booklet that provided the details and final plans for the march and was handed out to organizations, in church services, meetings, and to individuals all over the country. Within this document are so many important details about this iconic event.

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement with Primary Sources

This pamphlet is helpful for our students to understand the Who, What, Where, and Why of the March on Washington. This pamphlet explains the specific demands made of Congress, and how those demands would be presented to Congress. The pamphlet also goes into details of how to publicize the event, and even details of how to arrive by bus, train, plane, or car. A complete schedule is included, and security and safety precautions and even details of how to exit the event at the end of the day are provided.

My hope is that students will realize that people didn’t just show up for this event. It was well organized. It was meant to be peaceful without problems of misconduct. People raised funds by selling buttons in order to get to Washington. Proclamations for Jobs and Freedom Day were requested of city officials, the press was kept informed, and the march was made known. A lot of time, effort, and careful planning went into this event, which was an important step in the Civil Rights Movement.

I have provided a set of questions for my students to complete as they review the manual. It is helpful to give our students a framework when analyzing primary sources. I also provide my students with a glossary of terms that they can refer to as they analyze the document. My goal is to meet my students at all reading levels. As well, we should not assume that all students come with the same background knowledge, and providing a glossary of terms can help students dive deeper into the text.

Take a Gallery Walk to Analyze Historical Photos

After my students have reviewed the March on Washington pamphlet, they complete a gallery walk. A gallery walk is a way for students to silently view primary source images that are centered around a specific topic or theme set up just like a museum or art gallery. After viewing and analyzing a collection of images, they draw a conclusion or answer an over-arching question. If you want to learn more about how I set up a gallery walk, check out this post: What is a Gallery Walk?

Teach the Civil Rights Movement with Primary Sources

Photos Can Help Tell More of the Story It's easy to just skip over the entire March on Washington and jump right to Martin Luther King Jr’s speech. However, the march was an entire organized day. There were food worker crews that provided meals to marchers who were out in the August sun. There were over 2,000 trained marshals to ensure the day went smoothly as this event was attended by more than 200,000 people. The March included music performances by William, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, and gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson who sang “How I Got Over.”

More than 3,000 members of the press covered the event. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the closing speech at the event, which was carried live by TV and seen by President John F. Kennedy, who arranged a special meeting after the event. The success of this march helped push legislation that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It's Not a Simple Story

If we fail to recognize all that went into this event--the many people who gave speeches, the marchers who made their voice known, and the many risks people were willing to take, we are teaching our students that this was just a simple story—but it is not a simple story. The platform from which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his speech was made possible by many who worked countless hours behind the scene that have gone without recognition. We need to be sure that our students have a complete history.

Civil Rights Movement Activities with Primary Sources

Getting Involved in Special Interests Today

I also believe it is imperative that we connect this event to the present. We can help our students make connections with the past to create a better and brighter future. At the end of the lesson, I ask my students to not only reflect on what they learned, or what surprised them, but I ask them to brainstorm ways that they can make an impact with special interests today.

This could include a discussion with connections to Black Lives Matter, as well as activism in other special interests too. When our students have a thorough understanding of this event, and can make connections to the present, we are empowering them to be more actively engaged in their own civic learning and movement.

You can find this ready to go March on Washington Lesson Here:


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