December 13, 2002

Exploring Topics of Civil Rights from 1948-1964

Grades:  6-8, 9-12

Subjects:  Civics, Current Events, Language Arts, Social Studies

Related New York Times Article
"A Sanitized Past Comes Back to Haunt Trent Lott — and America, By ROBIN TONER", December 16, 2002

Overview of Lesson Plan:: In this lesson, students will revisit issues of civil rights in the U.S., using the recent national discussion of retiring Senator Throm Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat Presidential campaign as a starting point.


Students will:

  1. Reflect on and debate the notion of “historical amnesia” in the United States.
  2. Examine the recent controversy regarding Senator Trent Lott’s statement supporting Senator Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat Presidential campaign by reading and discussing “A Sanitized Past Comes Back to Haunt Trent Lott—and America.”
  3. Explore and research topics of civil rights between 1948-1962, using primary documents representing different perspectives.
  4. Respond to Senator Lott’s remarks in a reflective essay.



  1. WARM-UP/DO-NOW: Before class, tape labeled poster boards in each corner of the classroom. Then write the following quote from today’s New York Times article on the board: "Americans often tend to sanitize their past, smooth the edges, develop a happy amnesia about the hardest parts...” Ask students to respond to this quote by walking to the corner that best represents their opinion (Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree). Allow students a few minutes to articulate and defend their positions. Encourage them to share specific examples, if possible. After students have been seated, engage them in a brief “background” discussion regarding Senator Trent Lott’s remarks at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. You may wish to read Senator Lott’s remarks (quoted in today’s New York Times article), then ask why a statement supporting Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential campaign for the segregationist Dixiecrat Party might be considered controversial in 2002.
  2. As a class, read and discuss “A Sanitized Past Comes Back to Haunt Trent Lott—and America,” focusing on the following questions:
    1. Why is the Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” often applied to the South, as the article states?
    2. With what subjects in the “crash course” were politicians and the American faced after Senator Lott made his statement?
    3. What took the reaction to Lott’s statements so long to build?
    4. Who eventually spoke out against Senator Lott?
    5. According to the article, what kind of a public image has Senator Strom Thurmond had in recent times? How does this image differ from the Senator’s political career?
    6. According to the article, how does Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s posthumous image differ from the public image he had during his lifetime?
    7. What are some issues King supported that are not part of his contemporary portrait?
    8. To what might we attribute this “blurring” of recent history, according to the article?
    9. What does James W. Loewen refer to as “a parade of dead facts”?
    10. Based on the recent controversy, what did many Americans discover about the history of U.S. political parties that they had either forgotten or had never learned?
    11. How did black and white Americans react to Senator Lott’s remarks?
  3. Divide students into five groups. Explain that a publisher has hired them to contribute to a textbook chapter on Civil Rights in the United States, covering the time period listed in the article they have just read (1948 to 1964). Their assignment is to write two- to three-page "profiles," with accompanying timelines of key events, about one of the following topics mentioned in the article: the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, Dixiecrats, Senator Strom Thurmond, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Each group must be sure to include in its research two primary documents or sources that represent different perspectives on these organizations or people. Encourage students to avoid generalizations and abridged accounts by keeping in mind the notion of "blurring" the past(the article notes the sanctification of Dr. King as one such example).
  4. WRAP-UP/HOMEWORK: After completing research and compiling information, groups will write and lay out their chapter "profiles," combining text, primary documents, and timelines. In a future class, allow groups to present their profiles, and discuss what other topics, events, or key figures they might include if they were to complete this chapter of history. Individually, each student should also write an essay responding to Senator Lott's recent statement regarding Senator Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat Presidential campaign.


Students will be evaluated based on their participation in the opening Warm-Up exercise and discussion, group research about civil rights topics, presentation of group “chapter profiles,” and final response essays.

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  1. Expand your research and “chapter profile” assignment to include other controversial topics in recent American history and foreign policy that might have been “sanitized.” Some possible topics include: Whitewater, Iran-Contra Affair, U.S. involvement in the coup of Allende in Chile, My-Lai in Vietnam, Bay of Pigs invasion, and civil rights activist E.D. Nixon.
  2. Read Howard Zinn’s “Twentieth Century America: A People’s History,” and compare one of its chapters to a chronologically analogous chapter in your own U.S. history text. Write a comparative analysis of issues addressed on this time period in each.
  3. Senator Lott mentioned the Dixiecrats as supporters of “states’ rights.” Research states’ rights versus federal rights in the United States, and create a wall chart that outlines examples of each (as well as rights in which the jurisdictions “overlap”).

Global History- How do you think the world events of the past year will be portrayed in world history textbooks twenty to thirty years from now? Write the introduction to a chapter from a 2032 history textbook titled “The Early Years of the Millennium.”

Journalism- In January 2001, Georgia changed its state flag by removing the Confederate “battle cross” and replacing it with the state seal. Recently, the Supreme Court discussed the Constitutionality of cross burning. Research these controversies and the debates surrounding them, then write an editorial for your school’s paper on the symbols, their history, and the First Amendment.

Math- Based on the most recent demographic data, calculate the exact numbers represented by the statistical data in article (examples include “more than half of all Americans alive today weren’t even born in 1964," "nearly 80 percent weren’t born in 1948,” etc.).

Teaching With the Times- Read the “Week in Review” article, “It’s 1948, Meet President Strom Thurmond,” corresponding to the article you read in class. In an open forum discussion in class, debate the notion of entertaining “what if?” questions in history. How might these questions be helpful? How might they be harmful?

Copyright 2002
The New York Times Company


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