The Civil Rights Movement: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X

by Tim Bailey

Unit Overview

This unit is part of the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s Teaching Literacy through History resources, designed to align to the Common Core State Standards. These units were developed to enable students to understand, summarize, and evaluate original source materials of historical significance. Through a step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze, assess, and develop knowledgeable and well-reasoned viewpoints on primary source materials.

Over the course of three lessons the students will compare and contrast the different philosophies and methods espoused by the civil right leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Comparisons will be drawn between two of the speeches that were delivered by these men in which they considered the issue of violent protest vs. nonviolent protest. Students will use textual analysis to draw their conclusions and present arguments as directed in each lesson. An argumentative (persuasive) essay, which requires the students to defend their opinions using textual evidence, will be used to determine student understanding.

Unit Objectives

Students will be able to

  • close read informational texts and identify their important phrases and key terms in historical texts
  • explain and summarize the meaning of these texts on both literal and inferential levels
  • analyze, assess, and compare the meaning of two primary source documents
  • develop a viewpoint and write an evaluative persuasive essay supported by evidence from two speeches

Number of Class Periods

Three class periods, each period fifty to sixty minutes in duration.

Grade Levels

7–12

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9: Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

Lesson 1

Overview

The students will read excerpts from a speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., titled “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” and use a document analysis worksheet to facilitate a close reading of the text and track their understanding on both literal and inferential levels. Student understanding of the text will be determined through classroom discussion and worksheets completed by the students.

Historical Background

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a civil rights leader who followed the philosophy of change through nonviolence, based on the beliefs and methods of Mahatma Gandhi. King promoted resisting racial discrimination through such actions as lunch-counter sit-ins, bus boycotts, and peaceful marches and demonstrations. His objective was to let those who were the violent oppressors show themselves and the world how morally and legally corrupt is the practice of racial injustice. At the time that he delivered this speech in 1966, some people in the civil rights movement were promoting the use of violence as a means to racial equality, but Dr. King believed that violence would give the opposition something to use to rally support against the civil rights movement. 

Materials

Procedure

You may choose to have the students complete the activities of this lesson individually, as partners or in small groups of no more than 3 or 4 students.

  1. Distribute the excerpts from Dr. King’s “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” speech and the document analysis organizer to each student. Discuss the information in the Historical Background, as needed, but do not give too much away. The students should discover the meaning of text as they read.
  2. Read the speech aloud to the students. It is important for the students to experience the language and nuances of the text as the author meant them to be heard.
  3. Decide whether the text is manageable for your students on an independent reading level. If it is, you can skip this step and go on to step 4. If the text level is more challenging for them, then “share read” the excerpts with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while you begin to read aloud, modeling prosody, inflection, and punctuation. Then ask the class to join in with the reading while you continue to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English language learners (ELL).
  4. The students should now read the speech carefully and complete the “Important Phrases” section of the organizer. If you are having students work with partners or in groups, let them negotiate their answers. Every student must complete their own organizer in order to fulfil the assignment, even if they are working in groups.
  5. Have the students move on to the “Critical Thinking Questions,” nos. 1 to 5, in the organizer. Remember to emphasize that they are to use the author’s own words as evidence for their answers.
  6. Class discussion. Have groups or individual students share both their “Important Phrases” choices and the answers to the “Critical Thinking Questions.” Compare those with the responses from other individuals or groups.

Lesson 2

Overview

The students will read excerpts from a speech delivered by Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” and use a document analysis organizer to facilitate a close reading of the text and track their understanding on both literal and inferential levels. Student understanding of the text will be determined through classroom discussion and the organizers completed by the students.

Historical Background

Civil rights activist Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, but Malcolm changed his name because he felt that his last name had been imposed on his family by a slave holder. When Malcolm was young, his family suffered greatly at the hands of white supremacists. His family’s home was burned down, and his father was probably murdered in retaliation for speaking out for African American rights. However, the police called both events accidents. Malcolm joined a controversial group devoted to securing rights for African Americans, called the Nation of Islam. He became a national spokesman for the group but left it after he became disillusioned with its leadership. Malcolm started his own organization and soon became frustrated at the civil rights movement’s lack of progress. When asked what should be done to guarantee equal rights for African Americans, Malcolm X replied, “Our objective is complete freedom, justice and equality by any means necessary.”

Materials

Procedure

You may choose to have the students do the lesson individually, as partners, or in small groups of no more than 3 or 4 students.

  1. Distribute of the excerpts from Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech and the Document Analysis Organizer to each student. Discuss the information in the Historical Background, as needed, but don’t give too much away. The students should discover the meaning of text as they read.
  2. Read the speech aloud to the students. It is important for the students to experience the language and nuances of the text as the author meant them to be heard.
  3. Decide whether the text is manageable for your students on an independent reading level. If it is, you can skip this step and go on to step 4. If the text level is more challenging for them, then share read the excerpts with the students as described in Lesson 1.
  4. The students should now read the speech carefully and complete the “Important Phrases” section of the organizer. If you are having students work with partners or in groups, let them negotiate their answers. Every student must complete their own organizer in order to fulfill the assignment, even if they are working in groups.
  5. Have the students move on to the “Critical Thinking Questions,” nos. 1 to 5, in the organizer. Remember to emphasize that they are to use the author’s own words as evidence for their answers.
  6. Class discussion. Have groups or individual students share both their “Important Phrases” choices and the answers to the “Critical Thinking Questions.” Compare those with the responses from other individuals or groups.

Lesson 3

Overview

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were both important leaders during America’s civil rights movement. However, they each saw a different way of gaining social justice and addressing the challenges facing African Americans. The students will compare and contrast the speeches that they have analyzed and choose the leader whose methods and message they found to be the most convincing. They will then write an essay that argues a point of view in support of one of the texts and refutes the arguments made in the other.

Historical Background

The civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were two sides of the same coin. Both of them fought for equality and justice for African Americans. Both of them saw a need for immediate action in order to secure those rights. However, they differed greatly in their strategy and tactics. They worked from opposite ends of the activist spectrum toward a goal that was shared by both of them. As Malcolm X put it, “Dr. King wants the same thing I want–freedom!” In the end, they would both suffer violent deaths in service to that shared cause.

Materials

Procedure

This assignment may be an in-class essay, which will require students to write under a time limit, or it may be given as a take-home essay.

  • Review and discuss, as needed, the information in the Historical Background sections for Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
  • The students should have the two completed assignments from Lessons 1 and 2 as well as copies of the excerpts from both speeches. They will be referencing them in order to write their essay.
  • The students will write an argumentative (persuasive) essay that addresses the following: “Choose the leader whose methods and message you found to be the most convincing.” The students must use textual evidence from both speeches in making their arguments. It is important that the students not only provide evidence as to why they chose a particular text, they must also refute arguments made in the speech that they did not choose in order to strengthen their position.

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