American History as It Happened

MODULE SEVEN: 1966-1990

DBQ Essay


Directions: The following question asks you to write a well-organized, concise essay that integrates your interpretation of Documents 1–8 and your knowledge of the period 1966-1990. The best answers will not only cite key pieces of evidence from the documents but also include outside knowledge of the period.

DBQ: Using the documents below and your outside knowledge, analyze what was changing in African-American life, for the better and/or worse, in the years following the civil rights movement.

Based on the question and the documents, students might come up with a thesis along these lines:

THESIS: In the years following the civil rights movement, the US took significant legal and cultural steps toward racial equality. However, that progress was heavily offset by the despair of unrelenting poverty in black communities.

EXAMPLES of supporting arguments that could be derived from documents:

Document One: Martin Luther King Jr. warned that the civil rights movement could stall and that the “persistent poverty” of the poor was an “incendiary” situation brought about by the nation’s willful neglect.

Documents Two and Five: Black Power—as a phrase, a concept, and an organization—was deeply frightening to white people because it challenged the status quo of racial inequality that had long provided for white prosperity.

Document Three: African-American frustrations erupted in violence in 1967. A subsequent inquiry concluded that the nation is moving toward two separate and unequal societies—one black and one white.

Document Four: Television in the 1960s reflected a materialistic, affluent society devoid of people of color. This portrayal of American “reality” reinforced African-Americans’ sense of social and economic exclusion.

Document Five: See above, Documents Two and Five

Document Six: By 1978, the country provides new opportunities for African-Americans with the elimination of racial barriers in politics, housing, public life, the military, television and movies, and education.

Document Seven: From a black point of view, all American institutions are racist, and the Reagan era is characterized by “brutal contempt for the poor.”

Document Eight: Black incarceration and unemployment are dominant trends. Black poverty is unrelenting, and Reagan’s economic plan not only results in, but depends on this reality.

Here are examples from the documents that a student might offer that would fit the question:

  • Victories achieved by the civil rights movement could not be undone. (1, 6)
  • Frustration with the slow progress toward racial equality prompted some African Americans to embrace a more aggressive approach. (2, 5)
  • American society is inherently poisonous to African-Americans. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7)
  • Television provided a good mirror to chances in American society in the years following the civil rights era. (4, 6)
  • Persistent poverty and economic stagnation in black communities were the primary barriers to racial progress in the post-civil-rights years. (1, 2, 7, 8)
  • Mass incarceration of black men became a new form of racial discrimination, enforcing the white power structure. (7, 8)



The specifics above will help you determine if students have responded to the DBQ with appropriate information. In addition, the College Board offers the following comments on what characteristics define an excellent response to a DBQ prompt.

According to the College Board, excellent DBQ essays should do all the following:

  • Contain an evaluative thesis that establishes the student’s argument and responds to the question. The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place, either in the introduction or the conclusion. Neither the introduction nor the conclusion is necessarily limited to a single paragraph.
  • Describe a broader historical context immediately relevant to the question that relates the topic of the question to historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or after the time frame of the question. This description should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
  • Explain how at least one additional piece of specific historical evidence, beyond those found in the documents, relates to an argument about the question. (This example must be different from the evidence used to earn the point for contextualization.) This explanation should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
  • Use historical reasoning to explain relationships among the pieces of evidence provided in the response and how they corroborate, qualify, or modify the argument, made in the thesis, that addresses the entirety of the question. In addition, a good response should utilize the content of at least six documents to support an argument about the question.
  • Explain how the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to the argument for at least four of the documents.

For more guidance about evaluating responses to a DBQ essay, download this PDF, which includes scoring guidelines.