JFK, Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights Movement

I was an original 'Freedom Rider.' I was attacked and beaten by the Klu Klux Klan [sic] in Alabama; and I walked among the giants of the Civil Rights Movement and I felt at home. The lumps and bruises on my head are a daily reminder of my commitment and my obligations."

— Charles Person, "My Reflection of Years Gone By," Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, linked to EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters

Most lessons on the 1960s Civil Rights Movement focus on key national leaders-Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and President John F. Kennedy. This lesson is no exception; however, it will also look at less well-known members of the civil rights struggle, those whose courageous actions triggered a federal response. This lesson will help students learn more about these members of the grassroots civil rights struggle through the use of primary documents, audio sources, and photographs.

The first part of this lesson focuses on the Freedom Riders. It demonstrates the critical role of activists in pushing the Kennedy Administration to face the contradiction between its ideals and the realities of federal politics. In this case, the Kennedy Administration finally acted in defense of individual rights at the risk of offending powerful Southern politicians.

The second activity revisits the famous Birmingham Movement of 1963. It allows students to learn something about the grassroots protests against segregation and exclusion, the reaction of Alabama and Birmingham officials, and President Kennedy's public response-a renewed commitment to civil rights.

Finally, the 1963 March on Washington remains a touchstone of the Civil Rights Movement, and the "I Have A Dream Speech" will be familiar to teachers and students. Here, that speech is contextualized by three other speeches: President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 speech on civil rights, the John Lewis speech given at the March (in the slightly censored version demanded on the day of the March), and a Malcolm X speech critiquing the March. Collectively, these readings will give students a fuller perspective on the "I Have a Dream" speech, one shaped by the diverse viewpoints of contemporaries.

Guiding Questions

How did students, civil rights activists, state and local officials in the South, and the administration of President Kennedy come into conflict during the early 1960s?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to

Describe three specific moments in the Civil Rights Movement: the Freedom Rides, the 1963 Birmingham Movement, and the 1963 March on Washington

Contrast the different roles of activists such as the Freedom Riders, demonstrators in Birmingham, and leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X

Analyze and evaluate the relationship between civil rights activists and the Federal Government, specifically the Kennedy Administration