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Bringing the Civil Rights Movement into the Classroom

By Larry Miller

I start by introducing students to some of the key battles in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. An invaluable resource throughout the unit is the "Eyes on the Prize" series, a two-part film documentary that begins with the Emmett Till murder in 1955 (see below) and goes through 1985. The first, "Eyes on the Prize: American's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965," is a six-segment documentary that first aired on PBS. "Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965-1985" is broken into eight parts of roughly one hour each. Both documentaries have extensive accompanying material in print.

I also use Free at Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle, a 104-page magazine-sized booklet that begins with a section on slavery and ends in the 1960s. It tells the history of the movement by focusing on individuals who gave their lives to the struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.

I edit selections from "Eyes on the Prize," keeping the length of each segment between 10 and 20 minutes. I then follow with a reading from the booklet Free At Last that has a short description of each of the events just covered in the documentary.

Each day after showing the video segment and doing the reading, I hold a discussion where I ask for students' impressions and thoughts. Then I have students write in their journals, giving their thoughts about what they just viewed, read, and discussed. I repeat my instructions for writing in journals each day, and I also write them on the board: "Don't just describe what you see or hear. Include your reactions and emotional responses, the questions the video and reading raise for you, and your thoughts on how you might have responded if you were there at the time." While students are doing this I walk around class and read their reactions as they finish.

Then at the beginning of class the next day I read from three or four of the journals, both to sum up discussions and spark new lines of inquiries. Here I talk to students about the tactics used in the particular struggles we are observing and studying.

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