Top of page

Selecting and Using Primary Sources with Difficult Topics: Civil Rights and Current Events

Share this post:

This blog post was written by the Library’s Danna Bell and Anne Savage.

The past two summers, the Library hosted teacher institutes focusing on the African-American civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. As we prepared to explore this powerful and complex period in history, however, events erupted in the present day that seemed to echo those of the 1950s and 60s: deadly conflicts between police and civilians of African-American descent, demonstrations–both violent and non-violent–in response, and fierce debates over the importance and nature of public protest. We realized that our institute participants would likely be as aware as we were of the parallels, and that, through careful use of historical primary sources, we could support teachers in helping students learn about not only past struggles for civil rights, but also about sensitive topics connected to ongoing events.

The Rosa Parks papers at the Library of Congress and the Library’s exhibit on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 offered rich starting places for selecting primary sources for the institutes. As we identified primary sources, some of our usual guidelines on selecting primary sources seemed especially important, such as finding primary sources that represented varied viewpoints to bring complex stories to life. We also applied guidelines gleaned from a webinar series (recordings available here) that we had co-presented with Teaching Tolerance.

Discussing our comfort levels with the topics and the primary sources we might use helped us to be aware of our own perspectives and biases, as well as the biases and perspectives found in the primary sources.

Lynchings by States and Counties in the United States 1900-1931
Lynchings by States and Counties in the United States 1900-1931

Circle of Viewpoints
The results of a Circle of Viewpoints routine

We deliberately scaffolded the activities, first inviting participants to connect with a primary source of personal interest and then to connect with other participants with similar interests. We waited until the third day to introduce items on lynching, and even then, started with text and a map rather than an image. The Project Zero thinking routine called Circle of Viewpoints allowed participants to see a primary source from different points of view and to speak from those points of view.

After we had selected primary sources and developed lesson plans, we wanted to create a safe space for participants. We:

  • developed discussion guidelines for ourselves and participants;
  • shared a system of hand signals for indicating levels of comfort in discussing an issue; and
  • planned plenty of time for discussion and breaks to allow participants to process their emotions and integrate what they learned with their prior knowledge.

Several months after the institutes, we checked in with the participants and asked them how they made use of what they learned. They reported that:

  • Students benefited from considering different perspectives rather than having the teacher teach on a specific subject.
  • Showing what happened in the past helped students learn that people have struggled in the past for similar reasons. Learning about the struggle may be hard but can also be empowering.
  • Seeing some images outraged the students and made them want to work to create change.
  • Students needed to sort out issues and develop their own thought processes.

Teaching about difficult topics using primary sources can help students connect the past to the present. Analyzing primary sources can help students talk objectively. The observe, reflect and question technique found in the Library’s primary source analysis tool may make students comfortable and willing to ask questions that can bring difficult topics forward in a more relaxed way.

Looking at events through the lens of history can make approaching a difficult topic easier. Remember to listen to your students, use some of the techniques listed above, including those found at Teaching Tolerance, and create an environment of trust and support. It may be difficult but provides an opportunity to grow in knowledge and maturity.

How will you help students become comfortable in discussing difficult topics?

Comments (7)

  1. Great post! While we often see final products and lesson plans, it is wonderful to see the process that other teachers go through to develop classroom learning activities and choose materials for students.
    Thank you!

  2. What grade level is this lesson for?

    • We highlighted the activities we used as part of a summer institute specifically for teachers about the civil rights movement. That said the techniques we presented in this post could be used with students from any grade level. Kindergartners can be taught to let a teacher know their level of comfort or understanding on a specific topic. Building a scaffold of sources starting with a more neutral source and then building up to a source that may cause an emotional response can be beneficial to all students. There are some images and resources from the LC website I would not use with younger students. It is up to you to determine what sources you would use based on your experience with your students and the community where you live. I encourage you to join the webinar on selecting primary sources taking place on 4/14 as it will discuss techniques you can use as you incorporate primary sources into classroom activities.

  3. Thank you for sharing invaluable feedback from teachers about how they created safe spaces and applied what they had learned about using primary sources to teach difficult topics. Honestly, this is one of the most enlightening posts I have read in this blog, and that’s saying something!

  4. I think a vital aspect of teaching difficult topics is one that requires a great deal of time and that is creating a supportive environment. Right from the very first day of school there has to be a focus on how topics will be handled and discussed. It is important to develop an environment of respect, being willing to share all feelings but hear all feelings as well. Students need to be taught how to express alternative points of view in appropriate ways so that people can offer differing opinions. It is an on-going process but, if done well, students can feel safe, feel valued, hear varying perspectives…even ones that make them uncomfortable but realize the value in that as well.

  5. Can you please tell me what the primary source is in the middle of the poster? I would like to use this same document in my civil rights unit to identify POV, but I cannot see what the reading is.

    • I checked with a colleague and she thinks it is the letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White from 1936 detailing her lobbying efforts for federal action against lynchings.You can find it at

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *