Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement in the Elementary Classroom

My Visit to the National Civil Rights Museum

A few summers ago, I got to visit the amazing National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennesse. The museum was built on the site of Martin Luther King Jr's. assassination at the Lorraine Motel in 1968. The museum took almost the entire day to go through as it has two parts. This is because they later acquired the former hotel across the street where James Earl Ray stayed. Ray fired a single shot from his hotel room's bathroom window at King who was standing on a balcony outside his second-story room alongside other leaders of the African American Civil Rights Movement.  My hope is to provide teacher background by relaying what I learned at this museum and share some resources for teaching this history at the end.

The original museum begins by chronicling the history of slavery and racism against African Americans. Violence and hatred by groups like the Klu Klux Klan, and segregation through out much the south, alongside many stories of hate crimes such as Emmett Till led to the Civil Rights Movement. Most historians sight the beginning of the movement with Brown v. Board of Education a case brought before the Supreme Court that declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954. But several years earlier a landmark case in California over segregated schools was brought by the parents of Sylvia Mendez. Several organizations came to their aid including Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP.  Later on this case would help them win the national debate. (You can read more about this case in the book Seperate Is Never Equal linked to at the end.) Often the schools where students of color were required to attend were dilapted and contained old and outdated materials if any. In 1960, Ruby Bridges was not allowed to attend her neighborhood school as they had refused to integrate. Progress was slow as it had been six years since the Supreme Court ruling. Inequity in education, and racism were the catalyst for many early protests.

The museum also covers the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began with Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat and that was preceded by other brave black women who began protesting, in the same way, a year earlier. 15-year-old Claudette Colvin and 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith who were also arrested for challenging the Montgomery bus segregation. They were encouraged to take these actions by Jo Ann Robinson the leader of the Woman's Political Counsel who was the first to demand a bus boycott. Since Rosa Park was also part of the NAACP her protest received a larger audience and soon Martin Luther King Jr. joined to help lead the boycott.

Jim Crow laws were enacted to segregate and limit rights for people of color in the south. An interesting fact I learned is that the term Jim Crow was a pejorative term for black people that originally derived from a white actor's performance in blackface intended as an insulting caricature of black people. Many painful stories of protestors and counter-violence that activists endured during the fight against Jim Crow Laws are shared. Children were even jailed for protesting segregation. Major events like the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, the Freedom Riders bus tour and the March on Washington are chronicled. The passage of the Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and the Nobel Peace Prize that King received are also covered. Finally, the first museum ends with the events of the I Am A Man protest led by Martin Luther King on behalf of black Memphis garbage workers and the site of his assassination outside his hotel room on April 4, 1968.


The second part of the museum I mentioned is at the site of the hotel where the shooter stayed. This side covers more about the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr's. death. A wealth of information and evidence about the shooter James Earl Ray is presented. and a view of his hotel room next to the bathroom he shot out of is visible. It was very chilling and disturbing whereas the prior exhibits brought mostly tears, anger, and confusion at the mistreatment of others. The rest of this museum which is smaller than the first side covers the lasting affects of the movement and how the changes affected other minorities and America.  If you get a chance I highly recommend a trip, because you will learn so much that you may have missed out on in your own schooling and because you can take what you learn and come back to share it with your students.

How I teach what I've learned and resources I use

At the bottom of this blog, I link to some wonderful books that I have found to be effective in my own third-grade classroom to teach students about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. We cover these topics in a few ways. First students have access to many biographies of famous Americans that include African Americans and we teach students how to read them as part of our Reading Workshop unit on biographies in December. Students must also complete a research project on someone they read about. We use mentor texts that include Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks among others like Cesar Chavez for some of our read alouds and to model the research project. Second, after this unit concludes we began our Social Justice unit that begins in January and it includes many of the mentor texts below, that cover the Civil Rights Movement and more. (More about the biography project options and social justice lessons will be shared in a future blog post so please follow me or subscribe if you want to be notified about these posts.)

For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I play my students the speech below called, "My Little Girl" where King tells the story of how he had to explain to his daughter why she couldn't go to Fun Town a local amusement because of segregation.  If you want the text of this speech I found it here. I like playing this speech for my students because it really helps them to understand segregation. They can relate to the idea of going somewhere fun and the idea of not being allowed to go really speaks to them. You can also hear King's heartbreak at having to tell his daughter why and my third-grade students pick up on that and become very empathetic with some even tearing up at the thought of being excluded for their skin color.  The classroom discussion that follows is always very powerful and meaningful. Finally, after some read alouds about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and/or watching these videos that I have saved on my YouTube channel they fill out this free poster /graphic organizer from Curriculum Castle.

Here are the books I recommend and use in my classroom. These are Amazon affiliate links and I earn a small commission of a few cents if you buy through these links. Your support of my blog and classroom are very much appreciated!