African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Teaching strategy

African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

Based on document project "How Did African American Women Shape the Civil Rights Movement and What Challenges Did They Face?" by Gail S. Murray. 2010.

Link to document project.

Jessica Derleth
Binghamton University


For many people the Civil Rights movement is equated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking before the Washington Monument, fire hoses turned on protestors, crowds marching on Washington, and Rosa Parks refusing to relinquish her bus seat. While the importance of these moments should not be ignored, historians have begun to look beyond these iconic moments. In so doing, many have found the Civil Rights Movement to be far more complex: generations of African Americans worked for racial equality well before the 1950s; women served as important local, regional, and national leaders; and many activists struggled with intersecting identities based on race, class, religion, gender, and sexuality.


  • Think beyond the traditional, top-down, leadership-driven, male narrative of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Consider civil rights activism both before the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and after the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
  • Discuss the intersection of multiple identities based on race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Lesson Ideas

1. Written at the turn of the century, document 1A puts a great deal of focus on women and children. Why? What does the author see as necessary for long-term change? Are these issues you have long associated with the Civil Rights Movement (say of the 1950s and 1960s)?

2. In document 7, activist Mary Fair Burks explains that "Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson and members of the Women's Political Council were trailblazers. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a torchbearer." What does she mean by this? After reading pages 71, 75-76, and 79 do you agree? What should be their place in the history of the Civil Rights Movement?

3. Read document 6 and document 8, pages 2-4. At a certain age each author realizes that she is "different" and will be treated unfairly by some because of her race. What about their experiences is similar and what is different? Does it impact them in a lasting way?

4. Read document 14. While the Civil Rights Movement is principally thought of as a struggle for social and political equality for African Americans, race is not experienced separately from other parts of one's identity (i.e.: gender, class, sexuality, etc). How does this document speak to black women's gendered experience in the Civil Rights Movement?

5. The Civil Rights Movement is often viewed in terms of big events and national leaders. Documents 16A-16C and documents 17A-17E provide a more focused view of the logistics, challenges, and planning necessary to coordinate a movement. In pairs have students consider two of the reports/memos to see what "on the ground" challenges organizers of the Civil Rights Movement faced. As a class have students discuss, compare, and contrast what they found.

6. The concept of intersecting identities posits that we do not experience something, such as race, in isolation; rather, our race, gender, class position, sexuality, etc. intersect to shape how we view and experience the world. Keeping this in mind, one third of the class should read document 22, another third read document 23B, and the final group read document 28. First talk in groups, then talk as a class. How does each document address the idea of intersecting identities? Does this impact people's experience with civil rights? Among race, class, gender, and sexuality does one seem to have a stronger bearing on people's lives? Do you think that multiple parts of your identity intersect and impact your life?


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