Closer Readings Commentary

NEH’s Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle

Five state-of-the-art documentary films are the centerpiece of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Web project, Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle.

The films, The AbolitionistsSlavery by Another NameFreedom RidersFreedom Summer and the Loving Story, tell inspirational stories—sometimes thrilling, often-times heartbreaking—about the long struggle for civil rights in America. These streaming documentaries show how notions of human equality and inalienable rights have continually inspired grass roots activists, members of religious groups, college students, and ordinary men and women to challenge injustice and build a better nation.

The website contains streaming versions of all five films. In the "For Teachers" section there are resources to use in the classroom:  vivid and absorbing video clips accompanied by short, contextual introductions and followed up by questions for active student viewing. There are also background essays on the larger historical context within which these stories enfolded, important primary sources, and lesson plans for teachers from both EDSITEment and the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

These educational resources document the efforts of individuals to bring about equality under the law for all races through the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment both during the Reconstruction Era and into the 20th century. In the process, these films put an unforgettable human face on the abstract principles of our Constitution.

Because each film explores different time periods, from the antebellum abolitionist movement (The Abolitionists) through the Reconstruction/Jim Crow era (Slavery By Another Name), and into the turbulent 1960s (Freedom RidersFreedom Summer, and The Loving Story), Created Equal can be used throughout the school year to enrich history and social studies or your literature and language arts classes.

Racism, equal opportunity and equality

The struggle to repudiate racism, provide opportunities and protections for African Americans, and enact legislation to support racial equality is the common thread running through the films. The overarching issues and guiding themes that resonate across the films and invite classroom discussion are:

  • The Power of the Individual and of grass roots activism to bring about legal reform
  • Equality under the Law as an ideal and a reality
  • The Strategy of Nonviolence

How to use Created Equal to meet Common Core Standards

The Common Core State Standards require that history be taught along with the acquisition of a series of increasingly complex skills to build student literacy. In combination with the Standards, the resources on this website will help create a more literate student: one who—by being able to argue and defend an assertion based on evidence gained from an experience with a diverse collection of complex, informational texts—has a deeper understanding of our national history.

The Common Core Literacy Standards in Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening can be addressed using the thematic content presented by these first-rate documentaries. After viewing a series of recommended clips and thinking through the accompanying questions, students can participate in an informed discussion of the central themes of the civil rights struggle and then engage in writing activities using evidence from the history that they saw presented in the films.

The Common Core writing standards for history require the acquisition of certain higher order skills, such as evaluation and presentation of evidence, in order for students to be able articulate an argument or conclusion. Multi-sided nature of the films and the accompanying educational materials invite an accounting and evaluation of their diverse sources of opinion.

Here are a few standards that come into play with Created EqualReadingWritingSpeaking and ListeningHistory/Social Studies:

SL. 8.2: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

RH. 6-8.7: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

SL. 11-12.5: Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

RH.11-12.9: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Ideas for Writing Projects

Moreover, an educator can find within Created Equal’s three main themes a number of essay prompts for engaging students in a substantive essay writing project. Here are some ideas:

The Power of the Individual and of Grass Roots Activism to Bring about Legal Reform:

  • Make an argument that seemingly ordinary people have played a pivotal role in the pursuit of racial justice.
  • How has strength of character in different individuals advanced the cause of equality? Provide examples of those people and their strengths.

The Strategy of Nonviolence:

  • How effective has nonviolence been at different times in the pursuit of racial equality?
  • Across all five films there are those who fight for racial justice. What do they have in common? How do their methods differ?

Equality under the Law as an Ideal and a Reality:

  • How has the law been used to reinforce racial inequality?
  • How successful was legislation as a tool to undermine racist practices?

These are just a few of the possible questions that a teacher could have students pursue following a close study of the films. Of course, integrating other primary source print materials that tie into the films is another way of addressing both close reading of complex texts and as adding to the richness of your civil rights curriculum.