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You Don't Have to be Famous to Change History: Unseen Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Created by:
Susan Foreman
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

Susan Kane
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

Civil Rights

Grade Level:
9 to 12


The success of the Civil Rights Era was no doubt due to many strong leaders. Nonviolent protests such as sit-ins, freedom rides, boycotts, and marches took place throughout the country over the course of several decades. Most students think only of the March on Washington, led by Dr.King, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks' refusal to give her seat to a white passenger. On a larger scale, however, the success of the movement can be attributed to ordinary citizens willing to make extraordinary sacrifices.

In this lesson, students have the opportunity to learn about Jo Ann Robinson, James Meredith, Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers, four forgotten heroes of the Civil Rights Movement who were integral to its success, especially in the south. This lesson is based on analysis and interpretation of a variety of primary source documents, culminating in an interview where students role play the hero they have been assigned. This activity enables students to learn about some of the lesser-known heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and demonstrate an understanding of the strategies they used to improve the world around them. A follow-up activity challenges students to write an action plan addressing the continuing problems of discrimination in American society, and should prompt them to consider their capacity to facilitate change within their community and examine their own social responsibility.

Historical Context

The struggle of African Americans to obtain civil rights is evident throughout United States history, but gained new momentum on the national stage when the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 that segregation in public schools--regardless of whether facilities were comparable--was unconstitutional. This is often referred to as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the iconic leader of the movement along with Rosa Parks, whose refusal to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Although the accomplishments of these two individuals are important, the struggles and sacrifices of many ordinary citizens contributed to the success of the movement as well. These forgotten heroes identified problems that existed in their communities and sought to facilitate change.

Before Rosa Parks, there was Jo Ann Robinson. Robinson was an educated woman, a professor at the all-black Alabama State College, and a member of the Women's Political Council in Montgomery. She tried to start a protest after being abused by a bus driver and was shocked when other Women's Political Council members brushed off the incident as a fact of life in Montgomery. After the Supreme Court's Brown decision in 1954, she wrote a letter to the mayor of Montgomery, W.A. Gayle, asking for changes to the bus system and informing him of a planned city-wide boycott of the buses. She took the arrest of Rosa Parks as an opportunity to enact the boycott. On the day of Parks' arrest, Robinson printed and distributed 35,000 flyers encouraging African Americans to boycott the bus system. Her efforts spawned a protest that lasted just over a year and eventually led to the desegregation of Montgomery's bus system. Robinson is clearly a leader as demonstrated by her courage, perseverance, and determination in the face of insurmountable odds. She is also an example of an average citizen who recognized an injustice in society, and took action to rectify the situation.

Fannie Lou Hamer was also from humble origins. The granddaughter of slaves in Mississippi, Hamer worked from the age of six as a field hand, and continued to work on a farm in several different capacities throughout her adult life. Although she only completed the sixth grade, she was active in the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, where speakers addressed self-help, civil rights and voting rights. In 1962, at the age of 44, Hamer attempted to register to vote and was beaten by police and jailed. She and her family lost their jobs as a result. It was at this time that she became an integral part of the campaign launched by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, serving as a field secretary. She traveled across the country, helping blacks register to vote and eventually organizing "Freedom Summer," an effort to expand black voter registration in the state. She also helped organize a legally constituted "Freedom Democratic Party" that would challenge the whites-only Mississippi Democratic party and establish "freedom schools" to teach reading and math to black children, and open community centers where indigent blacks could obtain legal and medical assistance. Hamer testified at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City regarding the dangers and difficulties of black voter registration. The violent backlash against "Freedom Summer" led to the death of 3 civil rights activists, but also laid the foundation for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Hamer was an ordinary American citizen without a following or a platform. She took action, however, within her own life to initiate change that eventually led to change for all.

James Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1933. While attending Jackson State College from 1960-62, Meredith attempted to become the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi. Twice rejected in 1961, Meredith filed a complaint with the district court that argued he had been denied admission because of his color, but was rejected by the district court. On appeal, the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court reversed this ruling. By a 2 to 1 decision the judges decided that Meredith had indeed been refused admission because of his race and that Mississippi policy was tantamount to educational segregation. Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi was opposed by state officials and students, but the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, sent federal marshals to protect Meredith from threats of lynching. During riots that followed Kennedy's decision, 160 marshals were wounded and two bystanders killed. Despite this opposition, Meredith continued to study at the University of Mississippi and successfully graduated in 1964. On June 5, 1966, Meredith started a solitary March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, to protest against racism. Soon after starting his march he was shot by a sniper. Other civil rights campaigners decided to continue the march in Meredith's name. After hospital treatment Meredith rejoined the March Against Fear on June 25, 1966. The following day marchers arrived in Jackson, Mississippi. Meredith's determination to secure his education at the University of Mississippi and his continued efforts in the Civil Rights Movement show the power of one individual and the effect they can have on the larger community.

Medgar Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi in July, 1925. He served in the United States Army during World War II and after he returned in 1946 found employment selling insurance. Evers joined the NAACP and helped organize chapters all over Mississippi. In 1954 the NAACP employed Evers as its full-time state field secretary. His principal responsibilities included monitoring, collecting and publicizing data concerning civil rights violations. Although the national leadership of the NAACP opposed mass direct action, Evers also organized and participated in sit-in protests against segregation in Mississippi. As a result of this Evers suffered several beatings and time in prison. Despite repeated warnings from local white racist groups, Evers continued to organize protests against Jim Crow laws in Mississippi. In 1963 Lena Horne arranged to speak on the same platform as Medgar Evers. That night he was murdered in the driveway of his home. Byron de La Beckworth, a white segregationist, was charged with the crime, and although the case initially ended in two hung juries, he was convicted in a third trial held in 1994. Evers' actions, which resulted in his death, were unquestionably brave. His choices demonstrate both a sense of social responsibility and commitment to change within society.

The Civil Rights Movement has countless examples of individuals who are forgotten heroes. The lessons that these leaders provide are applicable today and can be used to reduce further ongoing, unjust discrimination. Society continues to struggle with a variety of issues including LGBT rights, disability rights, immigration, religious freedom, hate crimes, and injustices with the legal system. Citizens today can use the lessons from average citizens during the Civil Rights Movement to address these and other challenges that continue to plague the country.


racial discrimination, segregation, social justice, leadership, courage, commitment

Goals and Objectives:

Following this activity, students will be able to:

1. Identify pertinent biographical information about a Civil Rights activist.

2. Describe methods and strategies used by Civil Rights activists to facilitate change.

3. Analyze primary source documents and their significance to the Civil Rights Movement.

4. Compare and contrast the characteristics that each activist possessed.

5. Acknowledge their own social responsibility and their ability to facilitate change.


STANDARD 6.1 U.S. History: America in the World. All students will acquire the knowledge and skills to think analytically about how past and present interactions of people, cultures, and the environment shape the American heritage. Such knowledge and skills enable students to make informed decisions that reflect fundamental rights and core democratic values as productive citizens in local, national, and global communities.

STANDARD 6.1.12.C.13.a: Explain how individuals and organizations used economic measures (e.g., the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit downs, etc.) as weapons in the struggle for civil and human rights.

STANDARD 6.1.12.D.13.a: Determine the impetus for the Civil Rights Movement, and explain why national governmental actions were needed to ensure civil rights for African Americans.

STANDARD 6.3: Active Citizenship in the 21st Century. All students will acquire the skills needed to be active, informed citizens who value diversity and promote cultural understanding by working collaboratively to address the challenges that are inherent in living in an interconnected world.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Computers with internet access or hard copies of primary sources in appendices.

Data Collection Sheets & Reporter Notes.

"We Shall Overcome" - speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=130J-FdZDtY.

Appendix A: "Medgar Evers." 2010. Biography.com. 9 Jul 2010, 08:22, available online at http://www.biography.com/articles/Medgar-Evers-9542324.

Appendix B: Medgar Evers, Why I Live in Mississippi.

Appendix C: Denver March, Meeting Honors Evers.

Appendix D: "A Letter to Medgar/by Charles Evers."

Appendix E: "Fannie Lou Hamer." 2010. Biography.com. 9 Jul 2010, 09:31, available online at http://www.biography.com/articles/Fannie-Lou-Hamer-205625.

Appendix F: Photo of Fannie Lou Hamer Testifying: "Fannie Lou Hamer." 2010. Available online at http://www.biography.com. 8 Jul 2010, 02:08.

Appendix G: Interview With Fannie Lou Hamer - 1972.

Appendix H: Fanny Lou Hamer. Testimony, July 22, 1964.

Appendix I: Jo Ann Robinson Biography.

Appendix J: Letter to the Mayor of Montgomery.

Appendix K: Flyer Distributed Advertising Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Appendix L: Quote from the Memoir of Jo Ann Robinson.

Appendix M: "James Meredith." 2010. Biography.com. 9 Jul 2010, 10:06. Available online at http://www.biography.com/articles/James-Meredith-9406314.

Appendix N: Pulitzer Prize Winning Photograph of James Meredith. Available online at http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/james-meredith-shot/.

Appendix O: Lyrics to the song Oxford Town by Bob Dylan. Available online at http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/oxford-town.

Appendix P: I Can't Fight Alone: James Meredith Calls on All Blacks to Participate in the Struggle for Racial Equality. Available online at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6326.

Appendix Q: Action Plan Handout.

Appendix R: Data Collection Sheet & Reporter Notes.

Details of Activity

PART 1: Activating Prior Knowledge (10 minutes)

Students view a video clip of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his well-known "We Shall Overcome" speech (available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=130J-FdZDtY, and below as web resource 1). The clip is less than three minutes and, after watching, students should brainstorm a list of potential questions they would ask Dr. King if they had the opportunity to interview him. This list can be compiled on the board.

PART 2: Researching the Activists (15-20 minutes)

Divide students into groups of four. Each group will be given a packet containing the biographies of four Civil Rights activists and three corresponding primary source documents per activist (Medgar Evers, Appendices A-D, Fannie Lou Hamer, Appendices E-H, Jo Ann Robinson, Appendices I-L, and James Meredith, Appendices M-P). Each student will assume the role of one activist from the packet. Students should become familiar with the activist by reading and highlighting the biography. After completing this task, they will then analyze and interpret the three primary source documents related to their figure. The information gained from the biography and primary sources can be compiled in a worksheet which will be used to assess the students understanding (posted here as Appendix R).

PART 3: Conducting the Interview (10 minutes)

Each group should divide into two pairs. Each student within the pair will alternate acting as a reporter. Reporters will interview their activist partner using the questions generated on the board as a guide. The reporter will record the answers given during the interview which will later be submitted as an assessment. After five minutes, students will switch roles (the form for collecting these questions and answers is the second part of Appendix R).

PART 4: Wrap-Up (10 minutes)

Students will reconvene in their original groups of four. Each student will take turns introducing the activist they interviewed and highlighting their contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, each group will reflect on the questions: What characteristics do each of these activists possess? What methods and strategies were used by Civil Rights activists to facilitate change in their society? Where do we still see discrimination in our society today? What steps can each of us take to reduce discrimination in society?

Practice and Reinforcement

Each student will complete an Action Plan worksheet (posted here as Appendix Q) identifying discrimination issues that exist within their community or school. Students will then construct potential solutions and obstacles they might face. Action plans will be presented to the class.


1. Students will role play and assume the part of the activist they researched. Have students engage in a discussion about current issues in our society.

2. Students will create a multi-media presentation about the activist they researched using Photo Story.


Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1985, Item No.: EYES600,3 DVD Set.

Library of Congress Civil Rights Resource Guide; Created by Angela McMillan, Digital Reference Specialist. http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/civilrights/home.html

Southern Oral History Program; Center for the Study of the American South. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://www.sohp.org/

Web Links:
Martin Luther King, Jr, "We Shall Overcome" speech

Supplementary Materials






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