Closer Readings Commentary

10 Outstanding Historical Documentaries on Civil Rights

Now more than ever, teachers are looking to find excellent African American primary sources in all media. Riveting historical films from the long history of slavery, race and the struggle for civil rights, such as 12 Years a Slave and Selma, are pretty much the first choice for those who want to engage students. Yet cinematic resources of the quality necessary for meaningful learning can be hard to find in the universe of the World Wide Web—and are usually expensive to rent or own.

Every February as we honor the African American experience, EDSITEment offers some of these films in its Guide to Black History Month Teaching Resources: a collection that not only bridges the gap between the expanding academic scholarship of the black experience and the need for this history to be more widely taught at the K–12 level, but also meets the demands of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards.

However, we wanted to do more, so we’ve decided to go one better and highlight some of the most significant historical documentaries of the civil rights movement that have been supported by NEH and are still available to stream in your classroom.

Here at EDSITEment, we’ve curated a full list of NEH-supported films available to stream* (in whole or part), as well as others that are available through subscription services or freely obtained on the Web.

Begin by considering one or more of these top-notch documentaries for your classroom:

  1. The Abolitionists*
  2. Reconstruction: The Second Civil War
  3. Slavery By Another Name*
  4. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
  5. Simple Justice*
  6. Freedom Riders*
  7. Freedom Summer*
  8. The Loving Story*
  9. Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin*
  10. August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand*

Lessons with videos…

In addition to full-length documentaries, we’d also like to recommend some short instructional videoscovering the antebellum period that were designed especially for use with lesson plans and form invaluable tools for integrating African American history across the curriculum and throughout the school year.

From Harriet Jacobs to Francis Watkins Harper

  • Introduce students to the experience of childhood spent in slavery through the memoirs of two remarkable women Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly 

  • Watch David Walker and John Day debate the best choice for nineteenth-century African Americans: to stay and fight for freedom and equality or to immigrate and build a new society elsewhere

  • Meet Thomas Day a successful free black furniture maker and businessman who stood “in the middle” of competing forces in nineteenth-century America: between black and white, slave and free, North and South, and Africa and America

  • Listen to Francis Watkins Harper’s poem “Learning to Read” in which the character of Aunt Chloe, an elderly former slave, conveys the value of literacy to blacks during and after slavery.

Primary sources and the movies

Discussions around fictional films that are themselves primary sources—or are recognized as reflecting pivotal experience in black history—are also high on the list of most-desired classroom resources, particularly as history moved through the 20th-century. Here are lesson planning resources that will buttress discussions of African American history in the age of cinema

The NAACP, anti-lynching legislation, and the Scottsboro trials

  • Have students explore segregation from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the modern civil rights movement with a lesson on the controversial film Birth of a Nation and the protests organized against it by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;

  • Focus on the NAACP’s lobbying efforts on behalf of anti-lynching legislation in the 1920s and 1930s;

  • Make your class reading of To Kill a Mockingbird even more vivid by studying the two historical trialson which it was based.

We feel confident that this special collection will help you build your students’ historical knowledge of the African American quest for full and equal citizenship by giving them in-depth practice with complex primary and secondary sources and that, in so doing, will help them achieve two of the fundamental learning shifts called for by the Common Core English Language Arts Standards.