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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Change and Resistance: Civil Rights Movements Across the Nation


Grade Level

  • High School

Classroom Connections

  • English Language Arts
  • Literature
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History

Curriculum Snapshot

  • School integration and the demand for educational reform: Little Rock, Boston, and Los Angeles
  • Voices of change and the use of argument: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Malcolm X’s The Ballot or the Bullet speech, the National Organization for Women’s Statement of Purpose, and the Alcatraz Red Power Movement’s Alcatraz Proclamation

Video Connection

Achieving equal access to civil rights for all Americans and meeting the mandate of “justice for all” (stated in the Pledge of Allegiance as well as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights) has been a continual struggle of the nation. The Civil Rights Era in American history usually focuses on the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s because it marks a time when many civil rights movements erupted on televisions and news outlets throughout the nation. Civil rights were sought for decades before this era and continue today; however, this period marks a particularly powerful nexus of activism and social change. This historical era is commonly taught in middle and high school social studies and history courses. The National Center for History in the Schools identifies this period of US history as Era 9, Standard 4: “The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.” Related works of literature and other texts are sometimes used either in social studies or US history courses, or in English language arts and American literature classes.

The Civil Rights Era and, in particular, the African American struggle for equality are often taught with a focus on people and events in the southern region of the United States. Other regions in the United States—north and west—also reacted against racism and institutionalized inequality through violent and non-violent protests. This collection of photographs and activities offers the chance to explore and compare events across three regions of the country. While the collection explores the African American equality movement through the lens of school integration, it also offers ways to consider the unique but related struggles of other groups: Chicanos, women, and Native Americans.

Signs of the times are shown here, as about 150 women marched through downtown St. Louis and visited the Mayor’s office as part of women’s liberation demonstration on the 50th Anniversary of ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. The women carried signs supporting legalized abortions, children’s day care centers, revolution, and passage of equal rights amendment by Congress.
Date: August 26, 1970
Location: St Louis, Missouri
Photographer: unknown
Source: Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images


“You are on Indian Land,” Occupation of Alcatraz.
Date: Circa 1970
Location: San Francisco, California
Photographer: Michelle Vignes
Source: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

The photography of the Civil Rights Era—and indeed the ongoing and contemporary quest of many people for equality—is vast and rich. This photo collection is not intended to be comprehensive. Rather, it provides several specific photographs and ways to use them in the study of particular topics. Hopefully, it will also serve as a model for creating collections of your own around additional areas of your curriculum.

Key Learning Targets

Students will:

  • Realize that attempts to change the status quo are difficult and often encounter resistance.
  • Be able to explain civil disobedience and give historical examples of it.
  • Be able to explain how the events known as “Little Rock 9” and “Boston School Desegregation” are two examples of violent resistance against court-mandated school integration.
  • Be able to discuss how the Chicano School “Blowouts” in East Los Angeles were different from—but related to—events surrounding school integration in Little Rock and Boston.
  • When shown examples of a letter, a speech, a statement of purpose, and a proclamation, be able to explain how each is effective or ineffective.
  • Be able to suggest reasons why school integration caused violent reactions in the South and North, and be able to support their reasons with evidence.
  • Compare and contrast the African American struggle for equality in Little Rock and Boston, the Chicano American movement for equal treatment in public schools in Los Angeles, the second-wave feminists’ quest for equal opportunity for women, and the Native Americans’ call to attention of their history and their present plight.
  • Be able to identify components of an effective argument by noting claims, warrants, and use of evidence in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Malcolm X’s The Ballot or the Bullet speech, the National Organization for Women’s Statement of Purpose, and the Alcatraz Red Power Movement’s Alcatraz Proclamation.

Essential Questions

Essential questions help organize the content and topics. Exploring the concepts of change and resistance through this collection of photographs will allow students to consider the following questions:

  • What strategies did oppressed groups use to demand an expansion of rights and equal treatment?
  • What are strategies that people can use today to seek societal change and/or expansion of equal rights?
  • Why does the push for societal change often meet with resistance?
  • Why does resistance to change often result in violent responses?
  • What are some reasons that societal changes take so long?

Prerequisite Knowledge

Before viewing the photographs and doing the activities, students should be able to:

  • Understand American history up to 1960, including the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education (1955).
  • Articulate the origins of the postwar civil rights movement.
  • Explain the resistance to civil rights in the South between 1954 and 1965.
  • Understand the leadership and ideology of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement and evaluate their legacies.
  • Understand the reasons for, and the effectiveness of, the escalation from civil disobedience to more radical protest in the civil rights movement.
  • Have a general understanding of the major social, economic, and political issues affecting women in the 1960s and 1970s, and explain the conflicts these issues caused.
  • Understand that African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans were in a quest for civil rights and equal opportunities that became unified during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.


National History Standard (NCHS)

U.S. History Era 9, Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

U.S. History Era 9, Standard 4A: The student understands the “Second Reconstruction” and its advancement of civil rights.

U.S. History Era 9, Standard 4B: The student understands the women’s movement for civil rights and equal opportunities.

Common Core

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3: Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language of a court opinion differs from that of a newspaper).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.5: Analyze in detail how an author’s ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs, or larger portions of a text (e.g., a section or chapter).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.9: Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”).

References and Further Readings

“The Alcatraz Proclamation: A Primary Document Activity.”
Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Common Core State Standards (2014).

“Teaching is a Fight: An Interview with Sal Castro.” Rethinking Schools. Winter 2010.
(Note: Castro was one leader of LA school “blowouts.”)

“Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement 1965-1985″: multi-part documentary series

Boston Public Library: resources on Boston school desegregation

Global Non-Violent Action Database, entry for LA school “blowouts”

“East L.A. Blowouts: Walking Out for Justice in the Classrooms.” KCET Public Broadcasting.
March 7, 2012.

University of Illinois at Chicago timeline and chronology of second wave feminism

Beals, Melba Pattillo. Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.

Beals, Melba Pattillo. White Is a State of Mind: A Memoir. Putnam Adult, 1999.

Lukas, J. Anthony. Common Ground This Pulitzer Prize volume follows how busing affects three Boston families, one Irish American from Charlestown, one African American from Roxbury, and one urban professional living in the South End. (1985)

Lupo, Alan. Liberty’s Chosen Home: The Politics of Violence in Boston2nd ed. Beacon Press, 1988.

Formisano, Ronald. Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s2nd ed. This was an attempt to view the issue beyond the usual racial prism. (1991 and 2001)

Series Directory

Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum


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  • ISBN: 1-57680-905-6