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Lesson Plan: The Children's Crusade & the Role of Youth in the African American Freedom Struggle

AN illustration of three young black marchers linked by the hand as they face fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama

Young activists faced firehouses as they marched to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama. 

Drawing by Evan Bissell


Young people played an essential role in the African American Freedom Struggle, participating in many of the major campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as initiating personal protests against racial injustice. From Barbara Johns leading a strike of her fellow students at Moton High in protest of the inequities between black and white education, to the children of Birmingham who were arrested en masse as they protested the city’s segregation policies, the contributions of young people were critical to the movement’s success.

As students learn about the role of youth in the movement, they will find that while Martin Luther King, Jr., was indeed a source of great inspiration for many people in the struggle, the movement was made up mostly of ordinary citizens who exhibited extraordinary courage and strength in their efforts to bring about social justice. Names like Barbara Johns, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith will most likely be unfamiliar to your students. These young women participated in acts of resistance and civil disobedience before Martin Luther King, Jr., gained national prominence for his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Exploring their contributions to the movement not only clarifies King’s place in history, it reminds young people of their potential to affect change in the world.

Student Objectives

  • To help students see beyond the dynamic leaders of the movement, and focus instead on the many contributions made by people who are not included in the history books.
  • To make connections between the role of youth in the African American freedom struggle and the role of youth in current struggles for justice and equality.
  • To encourage reflection on the events of the African American freedom struggle as they apply to our own lives
  • To evaluate and interpret primary source documents
Erin Cook, updated by Mira Foster
English Language, U.S. History
6-8, 9-12
Teaching Standard: 

Era 9: Postwar United States, Standard 4a

Essential Question

What unique contribution did young people make to the Children’s Crusade specifically, as well as the broader African American freedom struggle?