Martin Luther King Jr.

Living the Story Classroom Activity

This activity requires middle and high school students to work individually or in teams to research life in their community during the civil rights era, take part in a role-playing discussion about civil rights issues based on their research, and create individual and group presentations on what they have learned. Teachers using this resource should review in its entirety. The evaluation section gives specifics about assessment and includes additional hints for the teacher.

Teachers using this resource should review in its entirety. Students taking part in this activity should first read the historical background, then the detailed instructions.

Grade Levels: 9-12
Resource Types: Classroom Activity

Teacher's Introduction

Project Summary
For this activity, students work in teams of seven. Each member of the team is assigned a particular “role” from the following list:

  • Black Panther Party member
  • white business owner
  • white mother of two
  • black university student
  • black high school student
  • black professional woman
  • town mayor

In the first phase of the activity, each student researches what life was like for a person fitting his or her assigned profile during the civil rights era (approximately mid-1960s). Then the team members meet for a role-playing exercise in which they discuss, from their assigned perspectives, what a recently integrated elementary school should do in response to a race-related rock-throwing incident in which one child was slightly injured. The group writes a report with its recommendation.

After the discussion, the students create individual presentations reflecting on what they have learned and relating it to incidents and issues that affect their lives today. Then the group members come back together to share these individual pieces and combine them into a final group project giving an overall picture of life in their community during the civil rights era. The final projects are to be presented to the class as a whole.

Guiding Questions
After the final research projects are submitted, the teacher will conduct an in-depth discussion on the following questions:

  1. How have I changed the way I think about other people?
  2. What other groups of people are treated unfairly in our schools?
  3. How does the civil rights movement relate to gender, religion, ability, age, socioeconomic status, and ethnic background?
  4. Why are equity and civil rights such difficult issues to resolve in our society today?
  5. Why are assumptions dangerous? What sometimes results from poor assumptions?
  6. What events in the news over the past five years relate to some of the same issues studied in our unit on civil rights?

Project Conclusions
At the end of the project, students will have researched issues relating to ethics and social justice, law, legal rights and responsibilities, community responsibility, Kentucky history, African-American history, tolerance, and injustice. They will have analyzed information, presented and organized it into a workable body of knowledge, and developed conclusions and projects that demonstrate multiple ways of understanding that stem from creative critical thinking and problem solving.

As a result, they will have a more meaningful understanding of the issues Americans faced during the civil rights era and how those events relate to life in Kentucky today. Each student also will have experienced a historical perspective of an individual in Kentucky. Throughout the activity, students will make decisions, take a stand for their beliefs, and justify the decisions they make. Finally, students will get a real-life look at the events experienced and the resulting consequences of an important period in American and Kentucky history.

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Historical Background

In 1945, World War II ended and the soldiers started coming home. African Americans had made significant sacrifices, both on the homefront and in the form of casualties abroad, while fighting for democracy. But they were still second-class citizens in their own country. Though the northern urban areas of America provided some havens where blacks could gain economic advances, education, and a political voice, most of America still oppressed its black citizens. Gradually, groups of African Americans began to organize to fight for legal, social, and economic equality.

They met determined resistance, as opponents of integration cited the “separate but equal” standard established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling to maintain the political status quo and justify segregation. But in 1954, the court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate schools for black and white students were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. Though its implementation would require years of struggle, the ruling officially ended segregation in schools and signaled a new era in race relations, encouraging efforts to integrate other facets of American life.

Over the next several years, events in Kentucky and throughout the United States reflected the climate of unrest and change as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Americans witnessed the struggles and oppression of a black culture stretching toward freedom—in the streets of Kentucky and in the pages of Life magazine. Organizations such as the NAACP, SNCC, the SCLC, and CORE provided a structural framework through which black leaders could effectively organize. States throughout the U.S. experienced marches, riots, demonstrations, burnings, murders, and sit-ins as various factions organized their efforts toward social justice—or the silencing of it.

In November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He had proposed a national civil rights act earlier that same year, and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, took up the cause. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed after the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Congress. Passage of the national legislation lent further momentum to the civil rights cause. A variety of state and federal laws from the 1960s forward provided a measure of muscle to encourage public-domain integration of businesses and government entities.

As the legal barriers to equal treatment fell, the tactics of the civil rights movement began to change. Groups like the Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement took a more militant approach, gaining strength after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., champion of nonviolent resistance, in April 1968. The issues addressed also began to change.

More than a decade after the Brown ruling, white and black children continued to be segregated in school settings throughout the country. The schools reflected the racial makeups of their neighborhoods, and housing patterns were still largely segregated. In the 1970s, courts began to order busing across district lines to force racial integration, sparking sometimes violent backlash in several communities—including Louisville. The ’70s also saw the emergence of the concept of affirmative action: policies and procedures aimed at helping members of minorities overcome historical disadvantages through hiring quotas and other forms of preferential treatment. Called “reverse racism” by opponents, the notion remains a controversial political issue today.

During the period between 1945 and 1965, the eyes of the world were focused on America as the richest nation in the so-called free world struggled to define itself and to live up to its own stated ideals. Though much has changed since, the issues and events of the civil rights era are still very much with us—as this activity will demonstrate.

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Your task is to conduct an in-depth investigation into the lives of a group of people from various backgrounds who lived in Kentucky during the civil rights era. You will be assigned to a group and given a role to develop and research using interviews, historical research, media research, legal documentation searches, and other sources. After you have conducted your research, you will meet as a group to role-play a discussion, from the perspectives of the roles you have researched, of how a local elementary school should proceed in a hypothetical situation involving integration, protests, and a violent incident on the playground.

After the meeting, you will create a digital presentation, a work of visual or performance art, or a piece of creative writing to present to your group. Your presentation should demonstrate what life in Kentucky was like during the civil rights era from the perspective you have been given. Your group will combine all of these reports into a final presentation including the main things each member has learned through the research and interaction. After all the groups give their final presentations to the class as a whole, you will write a research project that demonstrates how social injustice has touched your life and continues to oppress individuals today, using demonstrated events and logical justifications for your arguments. You should include proposed solutions, with real-world examples of how these solutions would affect the lives of students in your school or community.


Different people experienced the civil rights movement in different ways. You will be taking on one of the following perspectives and investigating what life choices and issues a person in those circumstances faced during this turbulent time.

Your class will divide into groups of seven. Each member of your group will either choose or be given a different one of the roles described below to research. You will use the information on this web site, the resources provided in this activity, the Living the Story video, and other community research to develop your identity and presentation. In-depth interviews of individuals in your community will provide you with a more complete understanding of what the particulars of your perspective might look like.

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Roles in Detail

Black Panther Party Member: You are a member of the Black Panther political party and are actively involved in a number of organized efforts to further the civil rights cause. Your brother was lynched in Mississippi 12 years ago, and your mother died shortly after that. You are a member of the Nation of Islam. While you are sympathetic with and supportive of the organizations promoting nonviolent resistance, you contend that real change will not happen without violence. You were reluctantly invited to be a part of the advisory committee to the local elementary school, and you understand that you will have to work with others who do not share your views of how to bring about change.

Business Owner: You are a white man who owns a small diner downtown. The business gets a large percentage of its customers, most of whom are white, over the noon lunch hour. You have a wife and three children and are doing well financially. You have not been involved with the civil rights movement. Your family employs a black woman to help your wife and children around the house. Your children are fond of her, and you often provide extra money to her when she is in need. Yesterday, a group of black students held a sit-in at your lunch counter. Your customers were outraged; many of them left and did not return today, as they usually do. If you contact the police, chances are the demonstrators will be removed, since you have the right to refuse service to disruptive customers. But one of the people taking part in the sit-in is the brother of your domestic employee at home. You are a member of a school advisory committee that will meet this week.

Parent: You are a white woman with two children, ages 9 and 11, who attend a local elementary school. Raised to believe that all people are created equal, you are extremely sympathetic to the cause of civil rights. Your husband is a minister at a local white church. Yesterday, several black children attended class at your children’s school. The local TV station covered the event, and many of the white parents went to the school and took their children home to express their disapproval of integration. Your daughter was playing on the playground during recess when someone in an angry mob of citizens threw a glass bottle at one of the black children. Your child was standing nearby, and a shard of glass hit her on the cheek, dangerously close to her eye. The black child was unharmed, as the teacher ran to her and deflected the bottle. Your 11-year-old son was called a disrespectful name because of his attitude of acceptance toward the black students. Today, neither of your children wants to go to school. You are on the school advisory council that will meet this week.

University Student: You are a black high school graduate with an excellent academic record. You are attending classes at the University of Louisville—one of a handful of black students who have been allowed to register and attend classes. You are extremely well versed in science and the arts. But you have had trouble in a variety of other areas that have made your success at the university questionable. You attended high school at a segregated black high school. Now you must take a one-hour bus ride each morning and afternoon to get to and from campus. You have the grades you need to receive a full academic scholarship to the university, and you would like to join the debate team and a fraternity. Your friends have been pressing you to organize a group to assist the small number of black students on campus. You have been invited to take part in an advisory committee at the local elementary school.

High School Student: You are a black high school student attending a formerly all-white school that has recently been integrated. Until yesterday, you yourself attended a black high school, where you were active in sports, journalism, and a math club. When you arrived at your new school yesterday, you encountered an angry group of white adults and had to be escorted into the school by local police. The officer who helped you get into the school spat on you as you walked through the door. Now the principal has asked you to sit on an advisory committee at the local elementary school.

Woman: You are a black woman who attended college up North and came to Kentucky with your husband, who works in the military. You are a nurse and are looking for work, but you have been unable to find a job that will provide you with a decent income. You have been offered several jobs, in segregated facilities, that pay less than you anticipated and would require you to catch a bus at 4:00 a.m. and not return home until 7:00 p.m. You have no friends in the area and a lot of time on your hands. The military provides you with housing, and you and your husband have enough money to make it without a second income for a year or two. You have been offered a janitorial position at the officers’ club on the base. You are taking part in an advisory panel to discuss the movement with others in your new community.

Elected Official: You are the mayor of a town whose population is approximately 70% white and 30% black. Elected by a narrow margin this year, you are up for reelection next year and are beginning to develop your platform. The schools have recently been officially integrated, but the white schools remain white and the black schools remain black due to the geographical layout of the city. Many businesses still display signs that designate the color of patrons who are welcome, even though local organizations are trying to pass public accommodations laws. Your chief of police is very prejudiced against blacks, and the police force has been less than sympathetic to the civil rights cause. You have the authority to place people in positions of power in local government. An organized group of African Americans has come to you to solicit your support for integration efforts. Many members of this group will be going door to door and working with a famous black leader to get blacks registered to vote. You have been invited to sit on an advisory panel that will meet at the local school.

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Begin by talking to people in your community who were born between 1935 and 1960 to find out what the community was like at that time. Find someone who fits the profile you have been assigned. Ask them what a typical day was like during the civil rights era and how it compares to the present time. Write down the typical activities of that person, and keep a journal of aspects and issues you may not have thought about in today’s society that were issues during the civil rights era. Make notes on things that strike you as unjust or unfair. In your interviews, ask people why they think we have problems with race relations today and how these problems could be eliminated or deflected in the future.

To develop a picture of the community as a whole during the civil rights era, go to your county courthouse or library and investigate what businesses existed, who they catered to, and where people lived. Make notes on how the community was segregated and which businesses catered to different racial groups. Find out about public domain laws and integration of schools. Find out what organizations existed to support—and to oppose—the civil rights movement. You may want to e-mail or set up a listserv to discuss the issues among the other students in the class who are researching the same perspective.

Once you have gathered information on your perspective, you will come together as a group to role-play an advisory committee meeting to discuss the playground incident described in the profile of the Parent. Your teacher will moderate the meeting.

As a group, construct a list of problems related to the incident and either come up with solutions or construct a statement of disagreement among the advisory council members. If there is a statement of disagreement, the disagreeing parties will need to justify their stands. Record the justifications with the statement of disagreement. If the advisory group develops a plan, write it down and include reasons why you believe the plan will be effective.

Once the group is finished, you will prepare your individual presentation. You may choose from a variety of forms: a digital presentation, a visual or performing arts piece, a creative writing piece, a position paper, or even a music video. You must show evidence that your project is supported by thoughtful and complete research. Then present your project to your group.

After all the members have made their presentations, the group will combine elements of all of them into one project, to be developed and polished for presentation to the entire class. This final product should give a well-rounded picture of life during the civil rights movement.

After all the groups have completed and presented their projects, your final assignment is to write a piece discussing what you have learned about the civil rights movement, how it was a necessary part of this country’s development, and how it relates to issues our country may be struggling with today. You may choose to write a personal narrative that includes insights on how social justice or prejudice has touched your life and what civil rights issues we face today in American society, an editorial, or a newspaper article. Your conclusions and main points should be backed up with supporting evidence and a firm stand on what you believe. Include a section that proposes solutions for the future and backs up those solutions with logical arguments on why specific solutions will be necessary to the peace and security of neighborhoods and schools.

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