The Civil Rights Movement as a Turning Point: A Document-Based Question Activity

Essential Question

In what ways did the Civil Rights Movement mark a turning point in United States history?


In this activity, students examine ten primary source documents to consider the extent to which the Civil Rights Movement altered the trajectory of United States history. This activity is based upon a Document-Based Question (“DBQ”), which is an assessment method commonly used in upper division and advanced placement courses. In a DBQ, students are presented with 6-10 documents from varied sources, and are asked to synthesize the documents with their own knowledge to write a coherent thesis-driven essay. The goal of the activity is to challenge students to think critically and to consider viewpoints that are frequently inconsistent and contradictory.

The documents for this activity are drawn from those that might be typically found on an advanced placement history test, supplemented by materials featured in Teachrock lessons. As such, this activity may be used as a means to prepare students for an advanced placement test, or as an assessment tool at the end of a Civil Rights unit. A variety of approaches are provided that allow teachers to use the documents to engage their students in the classroom.

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Upon completion of this activity, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • W.E.B. Du Bois’ “A Negro Nation within a Nation”
    • Charles Wesley’s “The Negro Has Always Wanted the Four Freedoms”
    • Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come”
    • Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington Address
    • James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”
    • Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics”
    • The Kerner Commission Report
    • Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”
    • The Beatles’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement
    • Segregation in the South
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will evaluate how Americans responded to the United States’ engagement  with Vietnam by analyzing a variety of historical documents.



  1. Pass out to students Handout 1 – “The Civil Rights Movement as Turning Point: A Document-Based Question.” Teachers may then choose from a variety of activities that draw upon the handout:

Activity 1: AP Test Preparation

  1. Students follow the directions on the handout and individually craft an essay in the allotted time.

Activity 2: The DBQ Timeline

  1. Before class, make copies of the documents and cut them so that each one is on a separate piece of paper. In addition, print slips of paper with major events from the time period the DBQ covers. For instance, the slips might include:
    • The Voting Rights Act
    • The Montgomery Bus Boycott
    • The March on Washington
    • Integration of Ole Miss
    • Busing riots in Boston
    • The Watts Riots
    • The Children’s March in Birmingham
    • Any other civil rights milestones your class studied
  2. Have students work in small groups to arrange the primary sources and the events in a timeline. After they have successfully completed the timeline, ask them to reflect (either orally or in writing) on one or both of these questions:
    • On the whole, did the Civil Rights movement make progress during this time period? Support your response with at least three pieces of evidence from your timeline.
    • How did musicians’ views on race change over the course of the Civil Rights era? Find examples from the documents that support your response.

Activity 3: HIPPO Analysis

  1. Split the class into 3-5 groups, and assign each group 1-2 documents from Handout 1. In addition, pass out Handout 2 – “The HIPPO Technique for Analyzing Documents.”
  2. Ask student groups to analyze the document(s) assigned to them using the HIPPO process.
  3. Have each group explain their document(s) to the class, based upon their HIPPO analysis.

Activity 4: The Cocktail Party

  1. Cut out the documents and give each student a single one.
  2. Tell students they have eight minutes to analyze their assigned document. Students should examine and research some or all of these elements of their document:
    • Who created it? (Students should research the authors’ backgrounds if possible.)
    • When was it created? Was it created in response to any particular historical events? What kind of civil rights issues still existed at this time? What successes had been achieved?
    • Where was it created? Is there any significance to that place?
    • What is the content of the primary source? What is the author’s main point? Is there anything surprising?
  3. Tell students they may write notes on their primary sources to help them remember the key points, but encourage them to become ‘experts’ on their documents.
  4. After the eight minutes have expired, it is time for the cocktail party. Students will circulate amongst themselves in order to learn about the documents from one another.
  5. Explain these ground rules:
    • Meet in pairs only
    • The person with the earliest birthday discusses his/her document first
    • No talking to yourself . . . or someone who read the same document as you did
    • At the end of one minute, it is time to move on. (Teacher should monitor time and give a 30-second warning.)
  6. When students have had the opportunity to meet with readers of all the other documents, have them return to their seats. Depending on the size of the class, you can have students discuss as a whole or you can have them work in small groups. Pose the following questions in order to debrief and highlight the purpose of the activity:
    • How did intellectuals and writers feel about the progress of the civil rights movement? Were there significant differences between their opinions?
    • How did the musicians react to and promote the civil rights movement? Were there differences in their opinions?
    • Was there a significant change over time, as evidenced in the documents, in the reactions to the civil rights movement? Why do you think those changes occurred or failed to occur?