History as It Happened

MODULE SIX: 1945-1965

This module looks at different tactics and strategies that Civil Rights leaders used to advance the cause of equal justice for African-Americans—including filing court cases and lawsuits; boycotts of segregated businesses; protest demonstrations; voter-registration drives; civil disobedience; and more.

Your students will review excerpts from The Nation’s coverage of these strategies, then enumerate, compare, and assess those strategies. Students and teachers have links to PDFs of every article cited in the document section.

Students work with this content to practice skills for the DBQ portion of the AP American History exam. The DBQ practice question to be answered is:
Was the overall strategy of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and early 1960s successful? Describe at least four tactics that civil rights leaders deployed during the period and evaluate their contributions to the movement’s effectiveness.

PERIOD SUMMARY: In the years after World War II, African-Americans’ battle for civil rights increasingly took center stage in American life. Critical moments from that period include Brown v. Board of Education (the unanimous 1954 decision by the US Supreme Court that found “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional); local boycotts of segregated buses in many cities, including Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; bus trips made by trained volunteers (“freedom riders”) to southern states, challenging segregation in public places; the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (site of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.); Fannie Lou Hamer’s founding of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and the passage of critical federal legislation, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Mississippi in June 1964 sparked national outrage and an extensive federal investigation. The era also saw the unprecedented mobilization of young people in support of racial justice and equality, highlighted  by the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which emerged from the first wave of student sit-ins and was founded at a 1960 meeting organized by Ella Baker at Shaw University.

▪ Lesson objective and standards
▪ Standards
▪ Material list
Class discussion questions, pre- and post-reading
▪ Vocabulary definitions
Documents (Nation excerpts) and DBQ question
▪ Practice Exercises for students
Answers to all exercises

OBJECTIVE: Explore the tactics and successes of the civil-rights period from 1945 to 1965, offering students the chance to review, analyze, and construct an argument outlining choices that civil-rights leaders made.


NAT-4.0: Analyze relationships among different regional, social, ethnic, and racial groups, and explain how these groups’ experiences have related to US national identity.
—POL-2.0: Explain how popular movements, reform efforts, and activist groups have sought to change American society and institutions.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

MATERIALS: Seven Document Excerpts

  • Document One: “Negro Rights and the Supreme Court” by Earl Dickerson, The Nation, July 12, 1952
  • Document Two: “Washington in Focus” by Max Freedman, The Nation, April 16, 1955
  • Document Three: “The Montgomery Boycott” (unsigned editorial), The Nation, February 11, 1956
  • Document Four: “Prison Notes of a Freedom Rider” by Robert Martinson, The Nation, January 6, 1962
  • Document Five: “Freedom Riders to the Polls” by Staughton Lynd, The Nation, July 28, 1962
  • Document Six: “Hammer of Civil Rights” by Martin Luther King Jr., The Nation, March 9, 1964
  • Document Seven: “Mayor Daley Meets the Movement” by Lois Wille, The Nation, August 30, 1965


Before reading, ask:

  • What was the civil-rights movement? What were its goals? Did the goals change over time
  • What tactics did leaders use to advance the civil-rights cause?
  • Was the overall movement successful? Why/why not?

Have the class read the student-page content (including introduction and the seven document excerpts). Encourage students to read and attempt to answer all scaffolding questions (“As You Read: Things to Look For”).

After reading, ask:

  • Were you surprised by any information in the documents? Identify specific events or developments that you found surprising, and explain why.
  • Which tactics do you think were most effective? Why?
  • Why are court cases important? What problems did activists encounter even after they won court cases?
  • Can you point to examples of how the civil-rights activists adapted their tactics over time and/or in response to their adversaries’ actions?
  • What was the “new force in American life” that Dr. King refers to in Document Six?

AS YOU READ: Things to Look For (These scaffolding questions are provided to students on their Web pages)

Review the dates of publication of each of the seven documents, all of them excerpts from The Nation. Why is it important that the first document is dated 1952, and the second document dated 1955? What other significant elements can you point out about the dates of the articles?

Identify types of actions taken by civil-rights advocates in each document. How many involved bringing court cases? Direct action? Political organizing? Civil disobedience?

Two of the documents refer to the same idea about litigation. One notes “a century of litigation”; the other refers to “One hundred years.” What is the meaning of that phrase? How did civil-rights organizers attempt to counter it?

Numerous examples of “unequal justice” are mentioned. Identify each as you read the excerpts.


Note: The student site contains a list of these words; only the teacher site includes the definitions.

Direct action: Any action seeking to achieve an immediate or direct result, such as a strike or picketing—especially an action against an established authority or powerful institution

Due process: A course of formal proceedings (such as legal proceedings) carried out regularly and in accordance with established rules and principles

Freedom riders: People who challenged racial laws in the American South in the 1960s, originally by refusing to abide by the laws designating that seating in buses and other locations be segregated by race

NAACP: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a civil-rights organization that was founded in 1909 to fight prejudice, lynching, and Jim Crow segregation, and to work for the betterment of “people of color”