Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Lyndon Baines Johnson, We Shall Overcome, 15 March 1965

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Michael J. Steudeman, University of Maryland

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value to History Teachers

Teaching about Civil Rights without sustained focus on its oratory does students a disservice. The era did not just consist of marches and rallies, although those were important—but also men and women, both noble and infamous, exerting ideas and redefining the values at the heart of our country. Teaching the history of this era means teaching about voices in tumultuous dispute over what it meant to be an American citizen.

Johnson’s Voting Rights Address provides an excellent entrance for teaching students about the complexities of Civil Rights. Johnson spoke clearly and simply, using language that eighth graders can access. Yet he also engaged with complicated ideas, telling the American story in a way that situated the Civil Rights moment at its pinnacle. The speech provides history teachers a way to teach about the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act itself in a controversial political context.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.8.3Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
    • Johnson’s speech is not just a listing of facts and a legislative proposal. It tells a particular story of the growth and development of the United States. He situates the Voting Rights Act at the climax of that story to compel Americans to take the next step toward racial justice.
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.8.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
    • Johnson’s speech works to interpret the meaning of several complex words in American history, including “rights,” “citizenship,” and “equality.” Additionally, Johnson interprets the meaning of a specific event: the racial violence in Selma that prompted his address.
  • ELA-Literacy.RI.8.3Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events (e.g., through comparisons, analogies, or categories).
    • As a historical text, “We Shall Overcome” is alive with comparisons between historical moments and allusions to many events of the Civil Rights movement. Moreover, it uses categories to connect Americans as well as various challenges facing Americans.
  • ELA-Literacy.RI.8.6Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.
    • At the heart of the text is Johnson himself, who invokes his own personal biography and Southern heritage to support his position. His previous experience as a teacher drives his biggest appeal at the end, which defines government responsibilities far beyond just providing rights.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • To appreciate the challenge Johnson faces, have students watch this clip of George Wallace arguing for States’ Rights. Opponents to Civil Rights legislation often were not overtly racist, but instead hid their racial views beneath the argument that the federal government cannot intervene in the states. Johnson’s largest rhetorical challenge is to react to these arguments.
  • Students also need to know the importance of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution and the legacy of Jim Crow. Students should enter the speech recognizing that a Constitutional or legal provision does not always guarantee rights without a means of enforcement. To illustrate this point, have students take one of the literacy tests African Americans were required to take before voting in the state of Louisiana—then discuss its manipulative nature.
  • Before reading, have students view a part of the speech to get a sense of Johnson’s delivery. Pay attention to his Southern drawl!
  • While students will be familiar with the standard plot diagram of a story (often called Freytag’s Pyramid), they may not be used to looking for these narrative elements in a nonfiction text. Because people are used to hearing narratives, organizing a speech as a story has a strong emotional effect.

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • The Events in Selma. LBJ’s speech was prompted by “Bloody Sunday,” in which police attacked nonviolent protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery.
  • “We Shall Overcome.” This phrase came from a hymn popular in Civil Rights marches. In adopting its words, Johnson identified with the movement. Hear Morehouse College students perform the hymn.
  • John F. Kennedy [paragraph 41]. Though not referenced by name, the former president’s influence looms large. Before his assassination, he fought for the previous Civil Rights Act that Johnson eventually signed.

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Defining Selma

  • [Read paragraphs 1-17]
  • Students will examine how Johnson uses historical analogy to interpret the events in Selma.
  • Students will analyze how Johnson defines Civil Rights as important to all Americans.

Day 2: Defining the Story

  • [Read paragraphs 18-46]
  • Students will contemplate which aspects of Johnson’s proposal may draw both support and resistance, and from whom.
  • Students will trace the narrative structure of Johnson’s story of American progress to examine how he places the bill at the story’s climax.

Day 3: “The Real Hero of this Story”

  • [Read paragraphs 47-68]
  • Students will continue to consider potential support and resistance to Johnson’s proposal.
  • Students will analyze Johnson’s usage of the term “equality” to determine how his definition differs from its common usage.

Day 4: The American Promise

  • [Read paragraphs 69-90]
  • Students will examine how Johnson defines the words “citizenship” and “rights” to reveal his purpose as more expansive than voting rights.
  • Students will examine how Johnson persuades through his ethos as both a Southerner and a school teacher.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Paragraphs 2-6. Have students explore Johnson’s analogy to Lexington and Concord as well as Appomattox. Have them consider the ways in which the three situations are alike—and unalike. Selma neither started nor ended a war, but in what ways is it similar?
  • Paragraphs 8-12. Ask students to consider how Johnson elevates the concept of voting equality above other issues. How does he define it at the “secret heart” of America? Have students discuss how this concept of equal voting rights is core to American values.
  • Paragraphs 12-17. Johnson defines the right to vote as an American idea that applies to everyone. Ask students:
    • How does LBJ use the words of the Founders to make this about everyone, not just North and South?
    • How does LBJ define “human dignity?” Why does it apply to all people?
  • Day 2. Students will trace Johnson’s construction of a narrative culminating in the passage of the Voting Rights Act:
    • Exposition: Discuss how yesterday’s reading set the stage.
    • Inciting Incident: In paragraphs 18-22, LBJ describes the unconstitutional challenges to voting faced by African Americans.
    • Rising Action: In paragraphs 24-31, LBJ defines the Voting Rights Bill and calls for Congress to take action.
    • Climax/Resolution: Finally, in paragraphs 42-46, Johnson provides the means to “resolve” the story: by “working long hours… to pass this bill.” The story finally builds to reference the hymn, “We shall overcome.”
  • Paragraphs 31-39. Students will grapple with issues of States’ Rights in this section. Ask students to consider what sorts of responses different leaders would have to Johnson’s argument—both Southern “States’ Rights” advocates and leaders in the Civil Rights movement.
  • Paragraphs 48-51: Johnson carefully defines “equality” and “freedom.” Even if someone is free in the Constitution, he argues, does not mean they are actually free in their day-to-day life. How does LBJ think these rights can be secured?
  • Paragraphs 74-76. Ask students what Johnson thinks makes someone a citizen, other than just voting. Why is he talking about these other topics when the speech is about a Voting Rights Bill?
  • Paragraphs 47; 78-81. Johnson uses his background as a Southerner and a teacher to build up his ethos and advance his arguments. Ask students:
    • How would they respond to LBJ’s appeal if they were Southern whites hearing the speech in 1965?
    • How does Johnson’s schoolteacher background bolster his credibility to speak about the challenges of inequality?

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • History: The Supreme Court and Voting Rights. In June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down an important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Their decision allows many states to change their voting regulations without first seeking approval from the Federal Government. Using this New York Times article as a starting point, have students take the perspective of another Supreme Court justice weighing in on the decision. Whether they side with the Majority or the Minority opinions, require students to address arguments advanced by LBJ in their statement.
  • English: Who Was Persuaded? Johnson’s speech was designed to appeal to supporters of Civil Rights, ambivalent members of Congress, and reluctant Southerners. Have students brainstorm a list of persuasive techniques Johnson included in the speech: his ethos as a Southerner and teacher; his definitions of “equality,” “freedom,” and “citizenship”; his arguments against states’ rights; his placement of Selma in history; and his elevation of voting as a fundamental American value. Then, have students evaluate how well each appeal would have persuaded each of the three audiences.