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
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.
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.
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.
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.