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Civil Rights in the 1960s - Key Events and Philosophies

written by: Andrew Otocka • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 12/10/2013

During the 1960s, America's issues with the treatment of its African-American citizens built to a crescendo. Splits in the movement occurred.

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    1963 March on Washington Dr. Martin Luther King leveraged media coverage and his own considerable oratorical powers and moral force to lead a large nonviolent movement that culminated with the March on Washington and his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.

    However, nonviolence did not appeal to all. In particular, residents of de facto segregated ghettos in northern cities flocked to a different, militant banner. Leaders like Malcolm X and organizations like the Black Panthers struggled to create a new identity for their followers, one that did not rely upon either Christian morality or even the urge to partake in the "American Dream."

    The most important results of the movement in the decade were two pieces of landmark legislation, as both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. However, many of the significant economic inequalities that existed went unaddressed. This, coupled with the assassinations of both Dr. King and Malcolm X and violent race riots in the latter half of the decade, left the movement rudderless and incomplete.

    Objective: Students should be able to highlight the philosophies and some of the major events in the struggle for civil rights during the 1960s.

    Materials: Classroom computer with speakers and Internet connection.

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    Lesson Procedure

    Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X meet before a press conference, March 1964 1. Like the previous lesson on Vietnam, it is impossible to capture all of the significant content surrounding this topic in one lesson, so I have chosen a few events, people, and ideas to try to cover the basics. This idea truly should be taught over the span of a week or even longer.

    2. Show students footage of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech and Malcolm X's "By Any Means Necessary" speech. They can be found here:

    and here:

    (Both are abridged versions. There are full-length ones also available on YouTube if you wish to use them.)

    Have students compare and contrast the tone and content of each speech. Talk about the difference of experience between African-Americans living in the Jim Crow south and those living in de facto segregation in northern cities. Make the point that legal equality can be enforced (and would be), but that economic inequality and bigotry are much more difficult to address through legislation.

    3. Have students read excerpts from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965, which can be found here:

    and here:

    It would be best to pick shorter excerpts, since the document is very long, especially if you have lower level readers.

    Ask students: what does the document do? What problems does it address? What kinds of problems would it not be able to touch?

    4. Have students read the platform of the Black Panther Party, which can be found here:

    Ask students: what kinds of problems are in evidence in this document? Whose words are closely followed in parts of this document? Why?

    5. Finally, show students footage of Walter Cronkite announcing King's assassination in 1968, which can be found here:

    Then show them footage of some of the resulting riots, which can be found here:

    Finish by again drawing the distinction between the problems that were addressed in the 1960's and the ones that were not.

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    Potential Assessments for Unit on the 1960s

    1. Essay question: Compare and contrast the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson. Focus upon each administration's goals and record of success or failure.

    2. Essay question: Describe the development of American commitment to "saving" South Vietnam. Why did America fail to attain this goal?

    3. Research project: Have students research Vietnam protest songs and present them to the class with lyrical analysis.

    4. Research project: Have students profile lesser-known civil rights activists like Stokely Carmichael or H. Rap Brown.

    Download this list of potential assessments.

The 1960s: Conflict, Rebellion and Change

In this collection of history lesson plans, we focus on the major personalities and events of the 1960s - including the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement.
  1. The Kennedy Presidency: A High School History Lesson Plan
  2. Major Historical Events During the Johnson Presidency
  3. High School Lesson Plan: The Vietnam War
  4. Anti-War Sentiment and the 1968 Chicago Protests
  5. Civil Rights in the 1960s - Key Events and Philosophies