2. African Americans and the fight for civil rights (ATL)

This section looks at the different methods used by African Americans to end segregation and achieve equality, and the influence of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on the civil rights movement.

This topic overlaps with Paper 1: Civil Rights and Protest.

Guiding questions:

What were the key milestones in ending segregation in the south, 1955 - 1980?

What was the role of Dr Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement?

What was the role of Malcolm X in the civil rights movement?

What was the role of The Black Panthers in the civil rights movement?

What were the achievements of the Black Power Movement?

What was the role of federal government in the civil rights movement?

1. What were the key milestones in ending segregation in the South, 1955 - 1980?

Do the ATL under guiding questions 1 to 4 on the Rights and Protest section: ATL: Civil Rights in the United States (1954–1965)

These cover the origins and tactics of the civil rights movement and the legal challenges in education.

Also refer to the video page for this section: Videos: Civil Rights in the USA where there are videos and questions on the various tactics used by the civil rights movement, and their impact

2. What was the role of Dr Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement?

Complete tasks 1 to 3 under guiding question 5 on the Paper 1 Rights and Protest page: ATL: Civil rights in the United States (1954–1965) . Also watch the videos on Martin Luther King here: Videos: Civil Rights in the USA


'Martin didn't make the movement, the movement made Martin'. (Civil rights activist Ella Baker)

In pairs discuss what Ella Baker means by this statement. What evidence can you find to both support and refute her comment with regard to King's contribution versus the role of the 'grass roots movement' to the civil rights achievements?

Much had been achieved by the civil rights movement by the time that King was assassinated. However, King's role in these achievements has always been controversial.

Much of the criticism of King at the time came from militant black activists who believed that change was too slow (see below). He certainly did not believe in violence arguing that it would stand little chance of achieving its goals. However, King did not shy away from criticising the US government and many of his speeches and actions can be seen as radical. With his 'Poor People's Campaign', for example, he planned to bring Washington to a standstill by getting representatives of all America's poor living in a temporary 'Resurrection City' in Washington. He argued that this would cause 'massive dislocation... without destroying life or property' and that it would be 'a kind of last, desperate demand of the nation to respond to non-violence'.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch this section of the PBS documentary on Martin Luther King (part 10). Follow with part 11 starting at 2 mins in.

1. What were MLK's arguments against Vietnam?

2. What was the reaction of the press and politicians to this criticism?

3. Why did he take on the 'Poor People's Campaign'?

4. What was the aim of the 'Poor People's Campaign'? (part 11)

5. What actions were taken as part of the 'Poor People's Campaign'?

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

Read this article from History Today magazine.

What conclusions does Peter Ling reach regarding King's role in the civil rights movement and the impact of his later campaigns?

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

Consider the views of historians below on the role of MLK. In pairs, consider the evidence that could be used to support or refute each claim.

Discuss which view you agree with the most.

I believe that people like Rosa Parks made it possible for King to display his singular leadership qualities. The movement would have happened even without King. Without the movement, King would have been an articulate, activist Baptist minister with no holiday named after him'  Professor Claybourne Carson http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/january/carson-king-legacy-01173.html

'King became the lightening rod for the civil rights movement that emerged in the wake of the successful bus boycott. During the 1960s he gave innumerable speeches characterised by oratorical genius, led a succession of mass marches in the heart of segregated America and helped to reconstruct America race relations before his assassination in 1968'. Dr Joe Street http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/46

'By adulating King for his work in the Civil Rights campaigns, we have misrepresented the complexity of those struggles and ignored some of the equally challenging campaigns of his last years' Peter LIng. http://www.historytoday.com/peter-ling/martin-luther-king%E2%80%99s-half-forgotten-dream

3. What was the role of Malcolm X in the civil rights movement? 

Although the civil rights movement saw victories in the legislation of 1964 and 1965, neither the right to vote nor guarantees of equality of opportunity actually helped the economic situation of many African Americans. This led to growing resentment. African American unemployment remained twice the national average; almost one-third of African Americans lived below the poverty line. Schools and social services and housing remained of an inferior quality and the economic gap between the two groups continued to widen. This frustration encouraged a growing radicalism among many young African Americans. The civil rights movement seemed to have achieved very little in all of these respects and they demanded a more radical approach as indicated by Malcolm X's speech below. Racial violence erupted in northern cities in 1965, the worst being in the Watts District of Los Angeles. Out of this anger and frustration, a new approach developed known as 'Black Power' and 'black nationalism'. The term 'Black Power' was coined by Stokely Carmichael who became chairman of SNCC in 1966 (and who then expelled all whites from the membership). The ideas of 'Black Power' and 'black nationalism' can be seen in the actions and beliefs of the 'Nation of Islam' and The Black Panthers.

The Nation of Islam was a religious sect that rejected Christianity in favour of Islam and preached that all whites were devils. In the 1960s, Elijah Muhammad was the leader and its membership grew greatly during this time largely due to the preaching of one of its ministers, Malcolm X.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

From a speech by Malcolm X to the Northern Negro Leadership Conference, Detroit, November, 1963

The white man knows what revolution is. He knows that the black revolution is worldwide in scope and in nature. The black revolution is sweeping Asia, is sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America.

Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way.

Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms, singing 'We shall overcome'? You don't do that in a revolution. Those Negroes aren't asking for a nation - they're trying to crawl back to the plantation'

  1. What can we learn from this source about Malcolm X's views with regard to protest?
  2. What are his criticisms of Martin Luther King's ideas on non-resistance?

One of Malcolm X's most famous speeches was his 'The Ballot or the Bullet' speech of 1964. See below for an activity on this; a PDF on the activity is also attached.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

Here are two extracts from a speech by Malcolm X that became known as the ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’ speech.  You can read the whole speech here.

 Read the extracts below and then answer these questions:

1. Why does Malcolm X reject America and American values?

2. What 'fronts' does Malcolm X want to fight on?

3. What is the meaning of Black nationalism according to Malcolm X?

4. What did Malcolm X mean by 'the Ballot or the Bullet'

If we don't do something real soon, I think you'll have to agree that we're going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It's one or the other in 1964. It isn't that time is running out -- time has run out!

And when I speak, I don't speak as a Democrat, or a Republican, nor an American. I speak as a victim of America's so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy; all we've seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who...has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism, we see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don't see an American dream; we've experienced only the American nightmare. We haven't benefited from America's democracy; we've only suffered from America's hypocrisy. And the generation that's coming up now can see it and are not afraid to say it.

...I don't believe in fighting today in any one front, but on all fronts. In fact, I'm a 'Black Nationalist Freedom Fighter'...So today, though Islam is my religious philosophy, my political, economic, and social philosophy is Black Nationalism....The political philosophy of Black Nationalism only means that the black man should control the politics and the politicians in this own community...The time when white people can come in our community and get us to vote for them so that they can be our political leaders and tell us what to do and what not to do is long gone....The economic philosophy of Black Nationalism only means that we should own and operate and control the economy of our community'.

Malcolm X speech questions and activity

Task Three

ATL: Research skills

Research the career and beliefs of Malcolm X and his involvement within the Nation of Islam.

Create a fact sheet to summarise the main events in his life; include key quotes.

(Note the video section on Malcolm X from 'Eyes on the Prize' which can be found here: Videos: Civil Rights in the USA)

Task Four

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

Divide into pairs. One of you should be Malcolm X and the other should be Martin Luther King. The two men met briefly on only one occasion.

Act out the conversation that you think they might have had. Make sure that each of you puts forward their beliefs on how best to carry forward the civil rights movement, their criticisms of the other's views.

Their own life experiences are also relevant to their views, so don't forget to refer to these as well. (note that this can be spontaneous or you may want to write up a script and then perform it to the rest of the class.)

4. What was the role of The Black Panthers in the Civil Rights Movement?


What is the message of this photo regarding the nature of The Black Panthers?

The Black Panthers were a paramilitary group which was founded in Oakland, California. It was co-founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. They were black nationalists and also anti-colonialist. They linked the African American struggle for freedom in America with the fight against colonial domination in Asia, Latin America and Africa, looking to figures such as Mao Zedong for inspiration and stressing solidarity with oppressed people around the world. They were also inspired by Marx's anti-capitalist views and thus the belief that change would only come with violent revolutionary action. Newton and Seale followed the Marxist emphasis on the working class and attempted to organise the African American working class through the Black Panthers.

Their 'uniform', display of arms and willingness to use violence to achieve their ends meant that they were a high-profile group in the late 1960s.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch the following excerpt from 'Eyes on the Prize' on the Black Panthers.

Make notes on the actions and aims of the Black Panthers. Also make notes on how the Black Panthers use the media to help gain publicity.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and research skills

1. Look at the Ten Point Plan of the Black Panthers.

In pairs, discuss how you would describe these aims. Divide them into political, social and economic aims.

2.  On the same website as above, read the list of Black Panther community programmes:

Research more about these 'survival programmes'.

How do these programmes link to their original aims? How successful were these programmes in helping working class African Americans?

(Note: Make sure you investigate the campaign that looked at sickle cell anaemia, a medical condition that predominantly affects African Americans)

3. Research the Black Panther 'patrol the pigs' campaign (also mentioned on the video above). What was the aim of this campaign and how successful was it in achieving those aims?

4. From your research, give examples of how the Black Panthers used the media to further their aims.

5. What were the achievements of the Black Power Movement?

Both SNCC and the Black Panthers were successful in organising high-profile campaigns to address the issues facing northern African American communities. As you have seen, the Black Panthers were involved in various economic and social campaigns to improve the lives of working class African Americans. Another aim followed by the Black Panthers and by SNCC was to get African Americans to control their own communities. For example, SNCC's Free D.C. Movement was an attempt to bring 'home rule' to the African American community of Washington D.C. This resulted in much success; by the end of 1966 the African American citizens of Washington D.C had won the right to elect their own school boards.

Black Power also had a profound impact on African American identity. Leaders of the Black Power movement emphasised the study of African American history in order to connect African Americans with their past and to see the importance of their heritage. Thus many African Americans such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali gave up their original names which had been given to their families by slave owners. The Afro hairstyle also became a popular symbol of African American identity.

Task One

ATL: Research and thinking skills

1. Watch the following video. What impact did the Black Power movement have on African American fashion and culture?

2. Also research the impact of the Black Power movement on music, and on media portrayal of African Americans.

3. Create a wall display to show the cultural impact of the Black Power movement.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

This is a very good overview of the background to and the significance of the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games.


What factors inspired Tommy and Lee to make their famous salute? What was the impact of this salute?

6. What was the role of federal government in the civil rights movement?


'..how could American democracy be a beacon during the Cold War, and a model for those struggling against Soviet oppression, if the United States itself practised brutal discrimination against minorities within its own borders?' Historian, Mary L. Dudziak

According to this quote, how did the Cold War contribute to the actions of Presidents of the United States in improving civil rights?

Task One

ATL: Research skills

Research how each of the US Presidents after 1945 contributed towards civil rights legislation or improved race relations. Use the bullet points below as a guide for points to research. Click on the eye to see points that you could consider for each President.

Make notes for each president under the following headings:

a. concrete improvements that they played a role in enacting/supporting

b. their motivations in each case

c. the extent of their genuine commitment

d. factors that might have prevented them from doing more

e. the extent of their overall contribution.


Points to consider:

  • Establishment of a committee on civil rights
  • Executive order 9981


Points to consider:

  • Attitude towards the Brown decision on education
  • Little Rock
  • Civil Rights Act of 1957
  • Civil Rights Act of 1960


Points to consider:

  • Election campaign
  • Appointment of blacks in the US government
  • The issue of James Meredith
  • Attitude towards a Civil Rights Bill
  • Executive Orders 10925 and 11063
  • Actions towards events in Birmingham, 1963
  • Intervention against George Wallace and enrollment of students into the University of Alabama
  • Speech of 11 June 1963


Points to consider:

  • The Great Society
  • Civil Rights Act, 1964
  • Voting Rights Act. 1965
  • The Kerner Commission and its impact


Points to consider:

  • Attitude towards integration of schools
  • Philadelphia Plan of 1969

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read Kennedy's 1963 speech on civil rights. The full text of this speech can be found here.

    You can also hear the speech on the link below.

    1. What does Kennedy say are the problems that America faces with regard to civil rights?
    2. What does he suggest are the solutions?
    3. Highlight the parts of the speech that you find particularly convincing. What rhetorical techniques does Kennedy use to make his speech persuasive?

      Task Three

      ATL: Thinking skills

      Read the speech by Johnson on civil rights following Selma which can be found here.

      1. What arguments does Johnson make for the passing of the Voting Rights Act?

      2. How would you describe the style of this speech?

      This is an extract from the speech:

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