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Civil Rights Movement


Grades: 9-12 
Timeline: 2-3 days (within a larger Civil Rights unit) 


Students will approach the Civil Rights movement through the lens of dress, using the Revolutionary Dress zine to better understand and analyze different groups within the movement and the way their beliefs and strategies differed from one another. Major themes include respectability, solidarity and an understanding of how race and class intersect with dress. Using the Civil Rights movement as a foundation, students will then apply their knowledge to reflect on how they dress, examples of obligatory “respectable” attire in their own lives, as well as comparing this past movement to current movements for Black lives. 


Students will be able to...

     Describe the differences in attire between SNCC and the SCLC 

     Explain the strategy behind why each group wore what they did and what   
     that says about the group’s beliefs and goals 

     Recognize & reflect on examples of dressing for respectability, solidarity etc
     in their own lives 

     Apply the same dress analysis to current movements for Black lives

SS.H.3.9-12: Evaluate the methods utilized by people and institutions to promote change

SS.CV.6.9-12: Describe how political parties, the media, and public interest groups both influence and reflect social and political interests

SS.CV.8.9-12: Analyze how individuals use and challenge laws to address a variety of public issues.

DAY 1: 

Before class: Place some examples of dress from the movement  (overalls, denim jacket, white t-shirt, heels, tie, pearl necklace, pencil skirt, suit jacket, dress shoes etc) around the room. These can be basic photos of the garments, but a bonus would be to have physical items that students can more physically interact with.

Opening: (15 min) Allow students some quiet time to walk around the room and interact with the garments/photos. Prompt them with some questions so they can jot down some notes for each garment. This is informal: no need for full sentences or thought-out responses. Just initial thoughts & the first things that pop into their head.

Questions/prompts: What does this piece of clothing or accessory remind you of? Who might wear this? What might someone be doing if they were wearing this? 


Activity can end here, with students keeping their answers to themselves. Opportunity to have them share with their neighbor for a couple minutes, or open it up to a brief full class discussion with students sharing out their thoughts on specific garments.

*Note: These questions may prompt students to gender particular items of clothing (ex: “Skirts are for girls!”). This is an opportunity to call in students to shift that thinking. 

A response might look like: “Objects like clothing don’t have gender. And there are plenty of examples of men and gender-nonconforming people wearing skirts in history, other cultures and even pop culture. Can anyone think of examples?...Don’t you think people should feel free to wear whatever clothing makes them the most comfortable?” 

Quick refresher: (5-ish min) Let students know that today they’ll be looking at the Civil Rights movement from a new perspective, something that a lot of history textbooks don’t normally talk about: clothes! But first, prompt them with some refresher questions. What have they learned so far? What information has stuck with them?

Reading the zine: (30 min) The zine should be read out loud as a whole class in the manner of your choosing. Every couple pages there will be opportunities to stop and ask questions of the class, point out specific photos and/or give the students a chance to ask their own questions. Encourage students to take notes, jot down questions, etc in the zines.

Read the cover, pg. 1 & 2: 

Potential questions to ask: Has anyone ever thought of their clothes, their dress, as being powerful? Do you agree or disagree with the idea that dress has the power to communicate all sorts of things? Why/why not?

Read pg. 3 & 4: 

Point out photos. 1) March on Washington 2) Lunch counter sit in 3) Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) talking to sharecroppers

Read pg. 5 & 6: 

Potential questions to ask: Initial thoughts? Had you heard of the “Sunday best” strategy before? What does “middle class aesthetics” mean? Why was it maybe important for their dress to communicate these things at this time? Do you think it’s an effective strategy? Why/why not?

Read pg. 7 & 8: 

Potential questions to ask: Initial thoughts? Had you heard of the “sharecropper style” before? What does solidarity mean? Why was it notable that Black women ditched processed hairstyles for their natural hair? Why was it maybe important for their dress to communicate these things at this time? Do you think it’s an effective strategy? Why/why not?

Pause here for the day. 

Closer: (5-10 min) Have students recall their notes on the garment examples from the beginning of class. Do any of their initial thoughts/impressions match up with the strategies of the two Civil Rights groups? (ie. Did anyone write “farmer” for overalls? Or “Sunday best” for a tie or dress shoes?) Have their impressions of these garments changed after the reading today? This can be informal discussion/reflection as a whole class - no need for students to write anything else down.

DAY 2: 


Quick refresher: (5-10 min) Open up for a quick whole class or neighbor discussion – Did you think about this lesson and the power of dress when you got dressed this morning? Has your perspective on dress changed? What did the SCLC wear? Why did they wear it? What did SNCC wear? Why?

Continue reading zine: (15 min) 

Read pg. 9 & 10: 

Take a moment to have students examine the photos & notice the dress. What do they notice? (Photos 13, 14 & 15 are all from the March on Washington, photo 16 is from the march from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.)

Read pg. 11 & 12: 

Take a moment to have students examine the photos & notice the dress. What do they notice? 17) SNCC poster to promote voting rights, 18) Meredith March Against Fear 1966, 19) March on Washington, 20) SNCC members helping register Black working class people to vote)


Potential questions to ask: The text says that SNCC saw the “limitations” of Sunday best. What were the limitations? Overall final thoughts or questions?

Reflection section: (15-20 min) Give students time to work through the questions on their own. Then have them share their thoughts/reflections with their neighbor and/or open it up for a class discussion. Discussion surrounding these questions has the potential to take the rest of the class, and if it does that’s awesome!

If there is extra time on day 2, or if you want to extend the unit to a third day: 


Break the students up into groups of 3. Each group is in charge of planning a hypothetical school demonstration to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day (or event/holiday of your choosing). The groups can decide what exactly their demonstration will look like (as much/as little detail as they or you desire). As part of the demonstration, the groups must decide on what participants in the demonstration should wear (or if there should be a dress code/uniform at all). 


What will their attire communicate/symbolize? Why does it matter? What is the strategy behind it? How will their dress work to further their message or goal of the demonstration as a whole? If they don’t think there should be a dress code, they should be ready to justify that choice too.


The length of this activity can vary from just giving each group a few minutes to discuss informally, to asking each group to organize their thoughts to share with the class in a short presentation, perhaps with some photos/sketches for visual aid. 

This activity could also be a culmination of the Civil Rights unit as a whole, where student groups could synthesize all their knowledge into a more detailed demonstration/event plan inspired by what they’ve learned, with dress being just one component of it.

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