Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

John Lewis, Speech at the March on Washington 28 August 1963

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Nicole Kennerly, Independent Educator

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

Value for Teachers

By studying the life and times of John Lewis, one of the heroes of the American civil rights movement, we can better understand the convictions and experiences of civil rights activists at a critical historical and political moment in the 1960s.

The civil rights movement can sometimes be taught in a vacuum, addressing a few famous events but without tying them into a larger context. Lewis’s speech adds a layer of complexity to students’ appreciation for the tumult and protest of the era. With the March on Washington, civil rights leaders seized the opportunity to make an appeal to a nation sobered by widespread racial violence, especially in the South.

Lewis was only twenty-three years old at the time of this speech, and scholars have found his speech to be a compelling affirmation of grassroots civil rights activism. Students will gain an historical appreciation of the power of young people who are passionate and organized.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts


CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

  • One of the distinguishing features of Lewis’s speech is its perspective: he gave a voice to the injustices and frustrations of grassroots workers and the local people who fought racism in countless communities across the South. Drawing from his first-hand experience growing up in the South, Lewis called for a massive campaign of nonviolent but direct action to bring down the systemic racial segregation and discrimination known as Jim Crow, especially in the South. He aimed to focus the nation’s attention on the struggle of millions of African Americans throughout the country for “jobs, dignity, and freedom.”

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

  • In his speech, Lewis delivered a powerful indictment of racial injustice and politicians’ failure to address the nation’s chronic civil and human rights’ problems. Lewis called directly and specifically to cities in the South to organize and mobilize in non-violent protest. He demanded the federal government take effective and immediate action to deal with the national crisis of civil rights. Lewis also provided ample current and well-known examples of racial injustice ranging from violations of voting rights, to labor laws that discriminated against people of color, to the high rates of imprisonment and even death among people of color.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.3: Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.

  • Lewis began his speech in a somber and non-celebratory tone despite the monumental occasion. Through a series of accounts of racial injustice, lack of legislative and judicial action, and stories of acute suffering throughout the South, he built an argument demanding rapid change and made an urgent call to action “without patience.”

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • Have students investigate Lewis’s involvement in the civil rights movement both before and after the 1963 March on Washington by reading his short biography on Encyclopedia Britannica Online here. Have students divide a sheet of paper into two columns and begin listing the principles, keywords, or phrases that (1) define Lewis’s life and career as a civil rights activist, and (2) identify the most significant causes and challenges he faced as a civil rights activist. (Examples of his causes include educational equity, voting rights, and economic justice.) After students complete the reading and columns individually, have them share their lists with a partner or group, asking each pair or group to then boil down their lists to three or four key themes in Lewis’s life and work and how they relate to the greater civil rights movement.
  • Lewis was only twenty-three years old at the time of this speech, which took place at a critical time and at the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history. Lewis was included in the March on Washington program because of his grassroots leadership, yet parts of his message were censored because march leaders believed its tone was too angry and its message was too militant. Young people often are minimized or even marginalized in politics even though they are active at the grassroots level. In partners or table groups, have students discuss the following questions: (1) What made Lewis seem too radical or too militant to some organizers of the March on Washington? (2) Can you think of young leaders or activists today who face similar criticisms? After answering these two questions, reflect on why the experiences, messages, and ideas of young people are so often devalued when it comes to political matters. Do you think that is a problem in our society? (Note: Some teachers may benefit from starting with a brief description on the meaning of “grassroots” activism.) After the discussions, have a representative from each pair or group share their thoughts with the class.
  • Show images and/or videos from the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama. (Teachers may access the images and videos by googling “Birmingham Protests 1963.”) One example is this video from PBS. Violent retaliation against the civil disobedience demonstrators by law enforcement using police dogs and fire hoses capable of stripping the bark off trees helped expose the depths of Southern racism, and these specific scenes helped arouse the conscience of millions of white Americans.  In class, discuss how these images and videos make students feel, and why they think they had such an impact in 1963.
  • As a class, listen to or watch a short excerpt from Lewis’s speech. How do students characterize Lewis’s delivery? Do they think it enhances or detracts from his message? How so?

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Sharecroppers [para 1]: “Sharecropping is a system where the landlord allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop (instead of monetary payment).… High interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unscrupulous landlords and merchants often kept tenant farm families severely indebted, requiring the debt to be carried over until the next year,” tying them to the land. Learn more at PBS.org.
  • James Farmer [para 1]: Leader and Civil Rights activist who co-planned the March on Washington; advocate of nonviolent protest and leader of the Freedom Riders that resulted in desegregation of interstate transportation.
  • SNCC [para 2]: Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a grassroots organization that organized local communities to fight against racial injustice; dissolved in the 1970s.
  • FEPC [para 4]: Fair Employment Practice Committee, responsible for banning discrimination in employment practices specifically related to defense.
  • B. King and Slater King [para 6]: Pioneering African American attorney noted for his civil rights leadership and his son.
  • Revolution of 1776 [para 8]: The American Revolution during which the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and began to form a new, independent nation based on “freedom for all.”

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Paragraph 1: Discuss with students the opening of Lewis’s speech. Who was the audience? What was the tone? What did Lewis mean when he said, “We march here today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of?” and, “We come here with a great sense of misgiving.” (Teacher’s Note: Unlike other speakers at the March on Washington, Lewis warned against self-satisfaction because the large event took protesters off the front lines of civil disobedience and grassroots activism in the South.)
  • Paragraph 2: Lewis mentioned the federal government for the first time, referencing the administration’s civil rights bill. Why do students think that the bill was supported but with “great reservations?”
  • Paragraphs 3-4: Who did Lewis reference most frequently during the body of his speech? Why do students think Lewis gave attention to everyday folks in the South as opposed to the more famous civil rights, labor, and religious organizers of the march itself? What does this say about Lewis and his priorities?
  • Paragraphs 5: Here Lewis criticized the state of American politics and politicians. What shortcomings did Lewis focus on? How did he humanize the struggle for racial justice? Unlike other speakers at the march who spoke about how to strengthen the civil rights bill, Lewis pointed out many shortcomings of the bill and its failure to address the concrete suffering of millions of people through unfair incarceration and violence.
  • Paragraphs 6-7: What did Lewis mean by, “Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?” In Paragraph 7, Lewis’s tone changed. How so? How did he emphasize the urgency of his cause? Why might Lewis and other African Americans feel impatient? Do students think patience is a virtue or a problem in the demand for equal rights?
  • Paragraphs 8-9: How did Lewis end the speech? The final section of the speech is a powerful rallying cry for nonviolent direct action in the South and across the country. How does the tone of the conclusion tie up Lewis’s main ideas of the speech and also Lewis’s point of view as someone who grew up in the South?

Suggested Timeline/Objectives

Day 1: Pre-reading & Introduction of Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Students will complete pre-reading of teacher’s or student’s choice.
  • Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.
  • Students will read paragraphs 1-4.
  • Students will assess how Lewis gave a voice to everyday people in the South and their injustices and struggle with systematic racism.

Day 2: A Call to Action of Civil Disobedience & Summing Up

  • Students will read paragraphs 5-9.
  • Students will analyze how Lewis made an urgent and powerful call to direct but nonviolent action to bring about change in the local and federal level to nationwide racial injustices.
  • Students will complete post-reading of their or teacher’s choice.

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Have students find examples of Lewis’s use of pathos (emotions) in this speech. Do they find his use of emotion powerful? Do they think it enhances or limits his persuasiveness for his target audience? Do they think it would enhance or limit the persuasiveness of his speech for those who are more likely to support a more moderate approach to the advancement of African American civil rights? Be sure students explain their answer with quotations from the speech.
    • The most famous speaker at the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., was actually quite unpopular and polarizing the last years of his life, but today he ranks as one of the most admired individuals in U.S. history. Why do students think this is? Have them read one or both of the following articles to support their answer: 1) The Intercept  and 2) The Charlotte Observer
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed one of the issues for which Lewis advocated in this speech: equal voting rights. Even today, the Justice Department investigates scores of voting rights cases every year. Visit the Voting Section homepage for the Civil Rights Division. What are the issues related to voter discrimination today? Have students choose one of those issues and write a short essay that raises public awareness and understanding about the problem.
  • In 2008, members of Congress introduced legislation that purported to strengthen the civil rights guaranteed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill was never passed but it can be found online. Does this bill seem consistent with the fair labor and equal employment opportunity messages presented by Lewis at the March on Washington? How have civil rights issues and concerns changed since the March on Washington?