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Making a Change: The First Amendment and the Civil Rights Movement

See how advocates for — and against — change in the civil rights era leveraged the five freedoms of the First Amendment to make their voices heard.

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Civil Rights: Reporting Then

SUMMARY: Students discover how context affected journalists’ coverage of civil rights events, and in the process, become savvier news consumers.

GRADE LEVEL: Middle and high school

TIME: More than 90 minutes

MATERIALS: Analysis of a News Report worksheet (download), Press Choices handout (download), Do’s and Don’ts of Journalism handout (download), Internet access


  1. Make copies of the worksheet, one per student.
  2. One copy of each handout for teacher reference.
  3. Review the sample worksheet at the end of this packet. You may wish to distribute it to students.

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Overview PDF DOC
Worksheets PDF DOC
Extensions PDF DOC
Full Packet PDF DOC

To request a large print or Braille version, call 202.292.6650.


(Note: For more support, see expanded procedure in downloadable lesson plan.)

  1. As a class, define the term news report and discuss the “reporter’s questions”– who, what, where, when, why and how.
  2. Ask the class why newspaper reports were important to readers and participants during the civil rights movement.
  3. Explain that the purpose of this lesson is to look at newspaper coverage of civil rights from different newspapers around the country.
  4. Read and discuss the lead article on The Augusta Courier (found under 1965 on the map). How does its coverage compare to what you know about Martin Luther King Jr.? Is it biased or objective?
  5. Create a list of choices made by the Courier on the board. Refer to the Press Choices and Do’s and Don’ts of Journalism handouts for analysis of The Augusta Courier and examples of good journalism practices.
  6. Explain that freedom of the press allows newspapers to print what they want, with some limits.
  7. Discuss how a newspaper’s choices can influence their readers.
  8. Students then apply this knowledge independently by choosing two historical civil rights front pages and completing the Analysis of a News Report worksheet. Front pages can be found in the media map.
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Have students share their findings. Ask:

  • What content and layout similarities and differences do you notice about the newspapers? What similarities and differences do you notice about the articles?
  • In terms of the news report best practices we talked about earlier, what are some of the strengths and weaknesses of each report?
  • Does the content in each report confirm, deepen or contradict your prior knowledge about the event? How?
  • Why do you think the reporters and editors made these content and layout choices? What factors may have influenced these choices?
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  1. Dig Deeper: What are some social, political, geographic or economic factors that may have led to biased — or just inaccurate — reporting during the civil rights movement? Choose one article that shows evidence of a prejudiced, incomplete or inaccurate article. Using the newspaper descriptions as a starting point, challenge students to conduct and summarize research on the reporter, editor, publishers and readers of the paper.
  1. Take Action: Many of the newspapers included on the media map are still printed today; some have the same name, while others have merged or changed ownership. Ask students to find out if one of the newspapers they’ve examined still exists, and if so, how to contact the news or op-ed editors. Students should use the information from their worksheets to write letters to the editor that explain their reactions to the news report. They may wish to include the strengths and weaknesses they noticed, the effects of the content and layout choices on readers, and why the paper should acknowledge the students’ response.
  1. At the Newseum: Visit the “Make Some Noise” exhibit. Ask students to choose a front page from the exhibit that stands out to them and answer the following questions. What drew you to this front page? How is this front page the same as and different from the other front pages displayed in this exhibit? As far as you can tell, is the front-page story about the event featured in the exhibit accurate? Fair? Clear? Based on what you learned in this exhibit, how was news coverage of important events 50 years ago the same as or different from news coverage today?


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