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Primary Sources and Social Justice: A New Article in Teaching Tolerance Magazine

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Flag flies from NAACP headquarters in New York, ca 1936
Flag flies from NAACP headquarters in New York, ca 1936

A black flag emblazoned with stark white letters that read, “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.” A newspaper article written by a suffragist on hunger strike describing being force-fed by her jailers. Photographs of weary children on a poster underneath the title “Nearly Two Million Child Workers Under Sixteen Years To-day.”

What do these items have in common? They’re all primary sources, the raw materials of history, and they all provide opportunities for students to explore social-justice struggles in the nation’s history.

Strategies for bringing primary sources to bear on social-justice issues are at the centerpiece of a new article from the Library of Congress in the Spring 2015 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine. Primary sources are especially powerful in examining the work and legacy of those working for social change, as firsthand testimony and original artifacts not only make past debates and conflicts more concrete and immediate. They also remind students that substantive social change is possible, however daunting the task may seem.

When working with primary sources from social-justice struggles, such as the NAACP flag, teachers can ask students to consider questions like these:

  • Who created the item?
  • What was the item’s intended purpose?
  • What was happening when the item was created?
  • Why do you think the item’s creators chose this particular strategy?
  • Can you find any items from the present that use similar strategies to try to bring about social change?

The Library is co-facilitating a series of free teacher professional development webinars with Teaching Tolerance this spring that invite participants to work with civil rights-related primary sources from the Library’s collections. Teachers exploring social-justice issues might also want to consult our blog post on teaching difficult subjects.

If you’ve taught about social justice using primary sources, please let us know about it in the comments.



  1. I also like that goes to the SNCC magazine from 1965-68 that proves that the Civil Rights Movement only lasted through the Voting Rights Act of 1965

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