Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

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Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

Beneath the surface of many landmark Supreme Court decisions, including Gayle v. Browder, are fascinating stories about everyday people who had the courage to bring legal action against injustice.

1. Have your students conduct research projects about the following cases that resulted in historic rulings affecting civil rights. Specifically, ask your students to investigate the stories behind the cases. Who were the plaintiffs and how did their names become part of legal and civil rights history? Some examples include:

  • Plessy v. Ferguson (1892)
  • Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948)
  • Sweatt v. Painter (1950)
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

For resources on these cases, you can turn to the Washburn School of Law’s Brown v. Board of Education site, Street Law’s Landmark Cases site and the Sweatt v. Painter archive at the University of Denver College of Law.

You may also want to extend the scope of this activity by including famous civil liberties cases, such as Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and Tinker v. Des Moines (1963).

2. Discuss with your class different roles activists can play. Some are "born to lead," to be the "face" of a movement. What qualities must an individual have to be a successful leader of a social movement? Who are some who meet these requirements? (Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinhem and César Chávez are just a few examples.)

3. Ask students to review the chapter on the Civil Rights Movement in their social studies textbooks. Do they see many women mentioned, besides Rosa Parks? If so, who?

Two African American women who made important contributions were Fannie Lou Hamer and and Ella Baker. Hamer’s speech at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention resulted in two members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party being seated in the Mississippi delegation. Baker was a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was not an advocate of the "one great leader" model of social change, but believed that ordinary people must be empowered to demand justice.

Have your students to select a woman from the Civil Rights Movement who does not appear in their textbook — or at least is barely mentioned. Ask them to write a one page persuasive essay on why her story should be incorporated into your book.

The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute offers an excellent curriculum on women in the Civil Rights Movement called American Women Who Shaped the Civil Rights Movement Explored Through the Literature of Eloise Greenfield. In addition, you may want to check out Jo Ann Robinson’s memoir The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started it which provides a valuable account of how Robinson and her colleagues helped design and execute the Boycott.

The women of the Civil Rights Movement were fighting discrimination on two fronts. In addition to challenging oppression by White America, they were also struggling for a place at the table within African American organizations. In this 1964 position paper, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) details the mistreatment of women civil rights workers by their male colleagues in the Movement.