Civil Rights
  Lesson Plan: Civil rights or human rights?  
Photo by Matt Herron

This teaching unit, featured in the April 2008 issue of Magazine of History, is provided with permission by the Organization of American Historians.

Introduction: Why have the international dimensions of the African American struggle for human rights been neglected in most high school history courses? Teachers tend to present the ‘civil rights movement’ as a distinctly American event, from ‘Montgomery to Memphis,’ with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as its crowning moment.  The term ‘civil rights’ limits our understanding, since it refers specifically to rights guaranteed by the Constitution or protected through legislation.  It fails to encompass the cultural, social and economic goals of the struggle. Desegregation and voting rights were a means to achieve broader goals, such as overcoming social forces that limit freedom and opportunity.

Not only did the goals of the African-American freedom struggle extend beyond civil rights, they were often inspired by the anticolonial struggles of the 20th century. To conceptualize the African American struggle as part of a global movement for human rights invites a deeper understanding of the international events of the last century. But, what steps can we, as educators, take to reframe the traditional ‘civil rights’ narrative?


Malcolm X explicitly identified the African American freedom struggle as part of an international movement for human rights, but in-depth coverage of his words and actions are also absent from traditional texts.  At the African Summit Conference in July of 1964, Malcolm X appealed to the delegates of 34 African Nations to bring the human rights issues of African Americans before the UN. Through an examination of Malcolm X’s petition, students begin to recognize the international implications of the African American freedom struggle. Once we begin to view the African American freedom struggle through a human rights framework, we are able to conceptualize the events beyond their political implications. Through an examination of primary sources, students construct a new historical understanding. Ideally, they also begin to conceptualize the possibilities of their own actions towards justice. The African American freedom movement is one of the greatest human rights struggles of our time. By teaching through this framework, we both inform and inspire students to continue the work that must be done.

CA State Standards: 10.4, 10.9, 11.1, 11.10, 11.11, 12.3, 12.9

Essential Question: In what ways was the African American freedom struggle, better known as the civil rights movement, part of a global movement for human rights in the 20th century?

Sub Questions:
  • What are the major events and goals of the African American freedom struggle and how are they related to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
  • What were the international dimensions of the African American freedom struggle in relation to other movements against oppression?
  • Why did Malcolm X ask African leaders in 1964 to investigate human rights violations in the United States?
  • Is the traditional framing of the struggle as a ‘civil rights movement’ accurate?

Unit Parts

  1. Timeline Activity:  Freedom is on the Move
  2. United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights
  3. Analyzing Documents
  4. Culminating Assignment
Lesson Plan