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menuAmerican Social History Project  ·    Center for Media and Learning

The Movement Before the Movement: Civil Rights Activism in the 1940s

In this activity, students read cards about various civil rights protests and events during the 1940s. For each event, students match the issue (voting rights, fair employment, fair housing, or segregation in public places) at stake, identify the key people involved and what region of the country it took place in. After students have completed all the cards, an optional writing task asks students to synthesize the historical content by writing a letter to a relative serving overseas describing the efforts of civil rights activists in the 1940s. There is some assembly of materials required for this activity. This activity has optional Smartboard elements but can be completed without a Smartboard.


Objectives

Students will be able to describe key ideas about the civil rights movement of the 1940s:

  • The fight for civil rights happened all over the United States.

  • Ordinary people played an important role in the civil rights movement.

  • The need for labor led to conflict between black and white workers over jobs, housing, and transportation.

  • City, state, and federal governments began to pass laws banning discrimination.

Students will be able to match specific information in a secondary source with broader categories and concepts.  

Students will be able to write explanatory text that summarizes a series of historical events. 

Instructions

Preparation: To prepare materials for this activity, teachers should print out and cut apart a set of cards for each student or group of students in the class. The teacher may want to print the cards on cardstock and/or laminate materials for durability. There are 14 event cards and corresponding "who", "what", and "where" mini-cards. The teacher may wish to reduce the number of event cards depending on ability of students or time allotted.  

Step 1: Ask students to think about basic rights--what should a person in the United States be able to do? List the rights on the board: i.e., get hired for any job they are qualified for; live any place they can afford; vote if they meet age and citizenship requirements; eat in any restaurant they choose; sit anywhere they want at the movies; etc. After brainstorming some of these concepts, tell students that they will be looking at how African-American activists in the 1940s worked to gain those rights. 

Step 2: Review the "what" mini-cards representing fair housing; voting; fair employment; and segregation in public places so that students understand what each symbol represents. Then show the map and review the four shaded regions that are represented on the "where" mini-cards: Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. 

Have a student select one event card from the deck and read it aloud. Ask the group for answers to the "who", "what", and "where" categories. Demonstrate that they will need to fill in the "who" on the blank line provided. 

Divide students into small groups of 3-6 students. Hand out complete decks of event cards and sets of mini-cards to each group. Ask the students to work together in their groups to add the who, what, and where mini-cards to each event card. Allow time for students to work. 

  • The teacher can differentiate the activity by giving some students fewer cards. 

Step 3: After students have completed their decks of cards, ask for volunteers to summarize the event and who/what/where details for each card. As they do, mark each location on the map (in Smartboard, if using) and note recurring themes in the events such as:

  • The significance of World War II for creating conditions for conflict between black and white workers but also opportunities for black workers to make demands for equal treatment.

  • The gradual nature of the demands

  • The mixture of local direct action campaigns and federal court cases

  • The involvement of young people

  • When activism failed or succeeded

  • The geographic diversity of the movement and how demands were similar or different in different parts of the country

Pass out the graphic organizer and review the four historical understandings on it. Ask students to review their cards and find examples of events that match each of the four historical understandings, making notes of those events in the space provided. Some events may match more than one historical understanding. 

Step 4: (Optional) Post or pass out one of the following writing prompts (also included in list of materials): 

LETTER

It is a few years after World War II. You are an African American living in the United States. Your older brother joined the army back in 1942 and is now stationed overseas in Europe, where there is no legal racial segregation. On days off, black and white soldiers can eat together at restaurants, go to any movie theater or club, and sit anywhere on the local trains and busses. Your brother will be returning home soon and wants to know whether or not conditions have improved for African Americans. Specifically, he wants to know:

  • Where are civil rights activists having success in fighting segregation?

  • Who is supporting their efforts and who is opposing them?

  • What effect has World War II had on race relations between whites and blacks in the United States?

Write a letter to your brother in which you answer his questions and describe your own role in the civil rights activism of the 1940s.  

PARAGRAPHS

Organize your cards by what was being demanded (Jobs, Access to Public Places, Voting, Housing) What patterns do you see in this arrangement of cards by what? Write a paragraph using your own words to explain the patterns you see in the cards. You must write a topic sentence and provide at least three supporting details from the cards. 

Organize your cards by where the events took place. (North, South, Midwest, West). What patterns do you see in this arrangement of cards by where? Write a paragraph using your own words to explain the patterns you see in the cards. You must write a topic sentence and provide at least three supporting details from the cards. 

NOTE: These cards can be used to help open up discussions of various aspects of civil rights activism. For example, you could have students identify all of the cards that mention World War II and ask them to consider why that event might have played a role. You could also ask students to find all of the cards where the effort failed as a way of looking at why activism doesn't always succeed. Or you could prompt students to sort the cards based on where the activism was seeking change (e.g., courts, local government, federal government, local business, etc.) as a way of helping them understand the range variety of avenues that activists use to bring about social change.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “The Movement Before the Movement: Civil Rights Activism in the 1940s,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 14, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1839.

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