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Lesson Plan: Civil Rights or Human Rights?

Illustration of crowd at the March on Washington. Tens of faces look up, people listening to the speakers at the March.

The crowd listens intently at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 28 August 1963

Drawing by Evan Bissell based on a photo by Bob Fitch

Introduction

Why have the international dimensions of the African American struggle for human rights been neglected in most high school history courses? Teachers tend to present the "Civil Rights Movement" as a distinctly American event, from "Montgomery to Memphis," with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as its crowning moment.  The term "civil rights" limits our understanding, since it refers specifically to rights guaranteed by the Constitution or protected through legislation.  It fails to encompass the cultural, social and economic goals of the struggle. Desegregation and voting rights were a means to achieve broader goals, such as overcoming social forces that limit freedom and opportunity.

Not only did the goals of the African American Freedom Struggle extend beyond civil rights, they were often inspired by the anticolonial struggles of the 20th century. To conceptualize the African American Freedom Struggle as part of a global movement for human rights invites a deeper understanding of the international events of the last century. But, what steps can we, as educators, take to reframe the traditional "civil rights" narrative?

Author: 
Andrea McEvoy Spero
Subject: 
English Language, U.S. History, World History
Grades: 
6-8, 9-12
Teaching Standard: 

10.4, 10.9, 11.1, 11.10, 11.11, 12.3, 12.9

Essential Question

In what ways was the African American Freedom Struggle, better known as the Civil Rights Movement, part of a global movement for human rights in the 20th century?

Sub Questions

  • What are the major events and goals of the African American Freedom Struggle and how are they related to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
  • What were the international dimensions of the African American Freedom Struggle in relation to other movements against oppression?
  • Why did Malcolm X ask African leaders in 1964 to investigate human rights violations in the United States?
  • Is the traditional framing of the struggle as a "Civil Rights Movement" accurate?