Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Civil Rights and the Cold War

Created February 9, 2016


The Lesson


Civil Rights and the Cold War: LBJ and MLK

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meet at the White House, 1966

Credit: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Yoichi Okamoto, photographer. Public Domain.

“Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills, and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.”

—United States Amicus Curiae Brief, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Social studies teachers often think of history as conveniently divided by eras, movements, or themes; one follows another, trends begin and end, and they are more or less self-contained. In the high-school American history class, for example, we often look at the Cold War and civil rights movement as discrete entities, whose separate conflicts involved figures largely unrelated by circumstance. In fact, this could not be further from the truth!

Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson juggled their domestic and international responsibilities; the Supreme Court considered Soviet “propaganda mills” when deciding the case of Brown v. Board; and segregationist rhetoric often equated support for desegregation with the advocacy of communism.

This lesson plan attempts to dissolve the artificial boundary between domestic and international affairs in the postwar period to show students how we choose to discuss history. Students will examine a variety of primary source documents used inside the United States and abroad during the Cold War and the concurrent civil rights movement. The goal is to see how these documents can be used as evidence for both Cold War and civil rights issues in several different ways.

Guiding Questions

  • What is the purpose of each of the primary source documents in this lesson?
  • Can a document address more than one issue (race relations, Cold War)? Why or why not?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify, analyze, and interpret each type of document
  • Identify, analyze, and interpret the historical facts and purposes of each document.

College and Career Readiness Standards

Individual Grade Standard

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

Evaluate authors' differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors' claims, reasoning, and evidence.

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

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


Though the civil rights movement may be something we learn about in history class, it still lies at the center of America’s continuing attempt to live up to its ideals and principles. The movement is a period of American history without clear boundaries, although generally speaking it is understood to run from the 1950s through the 1960s. The central issue of the movement was to end the legal basis for racial segregation and the subsequent struggle to enforce this ruling. Aside from this central goal, the civil rights movement was a social phenomenon that touched every aspect of American life for citizens of all races. Among the best remembered leaders of this era are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; Oliver Hill; Medgar Evers; Rosa Parks; and Thurgood Marshall.

At the same time that the civil rights movement brought domestic unrest to new heights on the domestic stage, the United States was engaged in an extended conflict known as the Cold War internationally. During WWII, the Soviet Union and U.S. fought together in an effort to combat Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers. When the war ended, however, a new bipolar world emerged in which the two superpowers— and nuclear-armed states— struggled against one another to extend their ideological, political, and economic influence. In the United States, especially, politicians were increasingly sensitive to the perceived threats of communist subversion and dissidents operating within the country. Though this threat was often exaggerated, it very much clouded the atmosphere that surrounded government affairs.

The question of race relations often came up in the context of the Cold War, and vice versa. Soviets used segregation and mistreatment of black Americans to support the claim that communism was a more just and equitable socio-political system, and American segregationists invoked the communist threat as a means to discredit the desegregation movement. Conversely, the U. S. government and civil rights leaders appreciated that continued segregation was an ever more embarrassing issue in international politics.

More extensive background information is available in a PDF.

Preparation and Resources

Students will analyze the following five documents:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Review of Documents

Present the five primary source documents to the class for analysis. Some items will take longer to consider than others. The whole activity should be limited to 30 minutes. For each document, start a discussion and ask the class to answer the following questions:

  • Who do you think published or produced this document?
  • What audience do you think this document was intended to target?
  • Would you group this with the Cold War or the civil rights movement?

Focus on how the Cold War elements and civil rights elements in each of the documents shade into one another and interact.

Activity 2. Group Analysis

Divide the class into five groups and assign each group to one of the five documents, allowing 20 minutes for activity. Each group must produce a paragraph or presentation answering these questions:

  • What is the specific purpose of this document?
  • What means does this document use to accomplish its goal?
  • What are the points of view of each document?
Activity 3. Closing Discussion

Open with a short query about the meaning of the term “assumptions” as it pertains to documents. The efficacy of a document depends in part on the assumptions of the document’s author as well as those of the readers. Invite the class to compare and contrast the goals and assumptions made in the document. Focus on how we decide whether a document belongs to the civil rights movement or the Cold War. Is this distinction meaningful? How does this distinction hinge on the reader’s assumptions?

Limit this activity to 25 minutes.


Students will answer the following question in essay, presentation, or video format:

The people who made some of these documents may seem to be living in a different worlds. Why do these documents present such different perspectives? How do you think political goals, assumptions, and facts interact to produce our view of the world? What role do primary sources documents play in either supporting or challenging our views?

Students must use specific examples from the lesson, citing relevant evidence from the primary sources and background information presented on the Cold War and civil rights movement in the textbook.

Extending The Lesson

Students will draw comparisons to political documents—press briefings, news articles, archival speeches, etc., during the current or recent campaign seasons. Are the tactics used today the same or different from those used fifty years ago? In so, how? If not, why? What types of assumptions about society are implicit in contemporary campaign documents? How do these silent assumptions influence our thinking?

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Persuasive writing and speaking
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Michael Hristakopoulos, Volusia Online Learning (Port Orange, FL)


Activity Worksheets