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Images from the Free to Use and Reuse set of African American Changemakers

Civil Rights and African American Women Changemakers

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This post is by Caneisha Mills, the 2022-2023 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

What happens when you do not accomplish a goal or see a dream fulfilled? Help students understand the importance and impact of the civil rights movement by using primary sources provided by the Library of Congress to contextualize the centuries long struggle for equality.

First, introduce stories from the Library of Congress Free to Use and Reuse: Images of African American Women Changemakers collection of women from the 19th and early 20th century who advocated for equality. Select and pair a few images with short biographies of the women to provide context, highlighting their involvement in the fight for equality.

Pair a poster version of the Primary Source Analysis Tool with each of the selected images and biographies. Break students into small groups and instruct groups to complete a gallery walk. Direct students to record their observations, reflections, and questions on the chart paper with the associated historical figure.

Next, allow students a second look at all of the images to read their peers’ thoughts on each of these women. Then, engage students in a class discussion about the women. Questions that could prompt discussion include:

  • What do these women have in common?
  • Which African American woman has a story that resonated with you?
  • How do their stories influence your understanding of America?
  • What work do you believe remained undone?

The second section of the activity allows students to explore what “remained undone,” which is evident in the Acts of Congress, interviews, manuscripts, newspaper articles, and photographs created during the era of the civil rights movement.

With students, read the opening three paragraphs of the article, Review of the Week: Supreme Court Kills Segregation, which is found in the Civil Rights Movement Primary Source Set. After reading the opening paragraphs of the article, discuss how Brown v. Board connects to the work of women discussed at the beginning of the lesson.

Map of racial makeup of the southeastern United States
Segregation Country Map, illustration for “Review of the Week: Supreme Court Kills SegregationEvening Star, May 23, 1954

Then divide the class into five groups. Assign each group one of the corresponding sections of the article: The Region, The Background, The Five Cases, The Decisions, or The Reaction. Each group should prepare to share the following information with the class:

  • How does this portion of the article inform us about Brown v. Board?
  • How does this portion of the article influence our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement?

After students share their findings with the class, instruct students to research one of the cases bundled within the Brown vs Board case, such as the two cases filed in Delaware. Ask students to do additional research to explore how the court cases connect to the 14th amendment. Or engage students in a short discussion on how the denial of quality education in the 1950s connects to the work of women changemakers discussed earlier.

This is only one way to start a unit on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. If you try these suggestions, or a variation of them, with your students, tell us about your experience! We would love to hear from you.

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  1. And where does this leave us today? Still at the bottom of the totem pole. We can build your communities, raise your children, fight for others’ rights, and yet we still have nothing.

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