May Day Repost: Students and Civil Disobedience

In honor of May Day, we’re sharing one of our most popular posts, Students and Civil Disobedience. To all those out today, sending strength, safety, and solidarity!

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Here’s a roundup of some of the material out there for introducing students to civil disobedience in a variety of historical settings. The material here is appropriate for middle and high school students.

  • From PBS Learning Media, a lesson plan called “Peaceful Protests.”
    • Integrated around video clips from the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, focused on Liberian women and the actions they took to help end that country’s civil war, this lesson plan is aimed at high school students, grades 9-12.
    • Note that some of the links are not functional! In particular, the article 198 Methods of Peaceful Protest is now found here, not at the link listed.
    • However, this lesson plan is still worth checking out, as it contains a wealth of resources that are still accessible and a nice, clear frame.

Students learn about nonviolent resistance movements that have taken place around the world and, using video segments from the PBS program Women, War & Peace:“Pray the Devil Back to Hell” explore how women’s nonviolent protests helped bring about the end of a bloody civil war in Liberia in 2003. In the Introductory Activity, students learn about nonviolent resistance, conduct research about nonviolent protest leaders in different countries and time periods, discuss the goals and impact of their actions, and place them on a timeline.

In Learning Activity 1,students learn about actions that Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberia took to protest the civil war in their country. In Learning Activity 2, students explore different methods of nonviolent action and read and discuss the letter Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from jail in Birmingham, Alabama, as well as the statement from Alabama clergymen which prompted him to write the letter.  In the Culminating Activity, students examine nonviolent protest movements throughout history and discuss the goals and impact of those efforts. The lesson concludes with students writing and discussing reflection essays about the use of nonviolent resistance, citing examples studied in this lesson.

  • “A Time for Justice” comes from Teaching Tolerance and is aimed at students in middle and high school, grades 6-12. It’s centered around Teaching Tolerance’s film A Time for Justice about the Civil Rights movement. The unit contains five discrete lessons.
    • The unit is clearly aligned to Common Core Standards and includes a glossary and list of resources at the beginning of the lesson.

It has been more than half a century since many of the major events of the modern civil rights movement For today’s students—and some of their teachers—it can seem like ancient history But the civil rights movement transformed the country Through the persistent use of nonviolent strategies—including marches, court cases, boyco s and civil disobedience—brave black and white Americans joined forces to pursue the legal equality that the Constitution guarantees to all persons

This teaching guide provides lessons and materials about the modern civil rights movement—from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision in which the Su- preme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, and the passage, in 1965, of the Voting Rights Act The unit encourages students to imagine what life was like in the Jim Crow South, to understand why so many people were willing to risk their lives to change it, and to explore how they went about doing so.

  • Finally, “Slavery and Civil Disobedience: Christiania Riot of 1851” comes from Patricia (Kate) De Barros at Magothy River Middle School. The lesson centers around a riot that followed the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
    • The lesson contains detailed background information that can be used by educators and students alike.
    • The lesson itself is based around short biographies of people involved in the Underground Railroad. Students work as critical historians and compare and analyze different views of the Christiania Riot in order to draw their own conclusions.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made it legal for slaveholders to pursue escaped slaves into any state or territory in the union. This meant that runaway slaves now had to reach Canada to avoid the threat of recapture. Immediately this law sparked outrage among abolitionists who viewed the law as further protection of the immoral institution of slavery. They vowed to engage in a form of civil disobedience; knowingly breaking the law that they felt was unjust.

One of the first tests of the act came in September of 1851 in Christiana, Pennsylvania when a slave owner arrived with a group of men to retrieve six of his escaped slaves. A local vigilance group was protecting the six, who were being safeguarded in an area home. A heated exchange between the two sides resulted in a violent riot. One account says that as many as 50 blacks came from the surrounding areas to aid the vigilance group. The slave owner asked some local white men to help him capture his slaves per the Fugitive Slave Act and they refused. The slave owner was killed in the struggle. Five white men and 38 black men were arrested for treason.

The first trial lasted three weeks and returned with a verdict of “not guilty.” By the end of 1851, all charges against every defendant were dropped. This was a tremendous victory for abolitionist groups who saw it as vindication of their stance that it was morally acceptable to ignore the law. In this lesson, students will examine primary and secondary sources detailing differing accounts of the incident in Christiana. They will summarize the conflicting views and analyze the validity of their sources. At the completion of the lesson students will form a written response as to whether they think non­compliance with slave laws was acceptable or not.

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