Travels Through Time: The Impact of Supreme Court Decisions on the Struggle for African American Equality


After the Civil War, African Americans were under attack as they struggled for equal rights in America. Laws were put in place during Reconstruction to assure Freedmen basic civil rights. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments gave former slaves freedom, citizenship, equal privileges in each state under federal law, and the right to vote.

Many southern states made their own laws in order to block the equal treatment of African Americans. Poll taxes, black codes, and Jim Crow laws are examples of laws that denied Freedmen their rights under the Reconstruction amendments.

Slavery, and the study of the Civil War and Reconstruction, is the first introduction to the evils of prejudice for many sixth graders. Teaching students about the laws created to provide equal treatment infers that there was equal treatment. It is necessary to revisit the goals that our country had with the creation of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments as we study each chapter in American history and then discuss the lack of equal treatment that was the reality.

The following lesson is one of a series of three lessons presented periodically throughout the school year. These lessons will reinforce the struggle for equal rights that African Americans face regardless of, or because of, specific Supreme Court decisions. As we teach about the growth and changes in America, it is important to teach the reality of all the human experiences, too. Lessons will be set during Pre-Civil War (the Dred Scott case), and the fifties (Brown v Board of Education). Each lesson will focus on how these specific Supreme Court Decisions affect the actions and behaviors of the country in regard to African American equality.

During the Progressive Era, while the country was creating reforms to make things better for all citizens, African Americans were still struggling for equality. Reformers were improving the problems of overcrowded cities, unregulated industry, and corruption in government. African Americans were benefiting from these changes, too, but they were living separate lives. Since segregation was constitutional, their struggle to fit in to white America in the early 1900s was much harder. In 1896, the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson supported the segregation that the Jim Crow laws of the South had started. A precedent was set for the whole country that condoned racial segregation. The Supreme Court decision made segregation constitutional in public facilities as long as they were equal -- but they were hardly ever equal. We will explore the results of this decision and its inevitable inequalities. We will see how a Supreme Court decision can impact the actions and behaviors of a whole nation, maybe more so than an amendment to the Constitution.

Each of these equal rights lessons will have the same format. The classroom will be transformed into a simulated time machine. As the students enter the class on the day of the lesson, they will be prompted to begin the usual procedures for the time travel lesson (see lesson plan procedures.) In the midst of our Progressive Era studies, this lesson will bring a sense of humanity and realism to the time period. There were different ways of thinking in the African American community during the Progressive Era: work towards living in harmony with whites, or make your own way, fight discrimination, and become successful within the black community. Segregation was on the minds of everyone in the black community as well as in the country.


  • To explore and identify the challenges that African Americans have faced as they've struggled for equality throughout American history.
  • To examine and predict the effectiveness and the impact of Supreme Court decisions on the equal treatment of African Americans over time.
  • To understand the obstacles that African Americans faced during the Progressive Era in the early 1900s because of segregation and the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v Ferguson.


Additional Resources

For comprehensive background information on segregation throughout history for teachers and/or students visit the Key Events page from PBS's Jim Crow site.

For short descriptions of all of the landmark Supreme Court decisions discussed in this lesson, see the interactive feature in the Supreme Court issue of History Now (April 2008).

For some information on the amendments in simple terms and the Plessy case visit the sites below:


Start this lesson's PowerPoint presentation. Students will enter the classroom and see the swirling time travel icon on the screen (the first slide.) This will prompt them to take their time traveler positions. They will sit on top of their desks and hold onto the sides as we prepare to travel back in time. The teacher will shut off the lights for effect. Using a wireless or standard keyboard for the computer, the teacher will advance the PowerPoint slides and narrate using the information on the screen.

The PowerPoint is created to guide the students through the struggle for equality during the Progressive Era making stops along the way to see how the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson affects the feelings and behaviors of Americans. The PowerPoint is comprehensive, but teachers can decide whether or not to include some additional thoughts or answer a question from an interested student during the presentation. The slides will explain the separate but equal decision in the Plessy case, the results, and some feelings of Americans around the country. The last slide has some Essential Questions that will tie the whole journey and its information together.

When the time travelers return to the present, students will be asked to sit in their seats. The teacher will pass out a hard copy of the Essential Questions that remain on the screen. Groups or partners can work together to come up with thoughtful answers to the questions based on their travels through the time period and what they have witnessed. Class discussion to follow.


Answers to the Essential Question handout and discussions that follow today or tomorrow.


Finish Essential Questions if needed.