Art as a Civic Language: Analyzing A Jacob Lawrence Painting

Students examine a Jacob Lawrence painting to explore the experiences of participants in the civil rights struggle during the 1950s and 1960s.

About this Resource

Grade Level
Time Required
0-1 hour
Curricular Resource Type
Lesson Plans & Activities
Curricular Resource Subject Area
The Arts
US History
Curricular Resource Topic
Arts & Culture
Civil Rights
Curricular Standards
Common Core
National Council of Teachers of English
Massachusetts Framework - English Language Arts
Massachusetts Framework - History and Social Science


Topic: Arts and Culture; Civil Rights

Grade Level: Grades 8-12

Subject Area: The Arts; US History

Time required: 45 minutes-1 hour

Goals/ Rationale

Throughout history, the experiences of those who have struggled against oppression have been interpreted by artists through various media. These works of art can aid historical understanding, heighten historical empathy, and enhance critical thinking skills. In the following activity, students examine a painting to explore the experiences of participants in the civil rights struggle during the 1950s and 1960s.


Students will:

  • analyze the painting, Soldiers and Students.
  • use the Artful Thinking Routine developed by Harvard's Project Zero to gain a better understanding of how the artist was able to convey the emotions and experiences of individuals involved in the events of the civil rights movement.


Prior Knowledge and Skills

Students should have a working knowledge of the civil rights movement.

Historical Background and Context

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was an internationally recognized artist who depicted the social and historical experiences of African Americans. His work, Soldiers and Students, painted in 1962, conveys both the terror and anger that many people felt during the process of school integration. Three armed guards accompany a group of African-American students, while a group of protesters attempt to block their entry into school. The figures in each group are roughly outlined and filled in with only patches of color, adding to the intensity and drama of the moment. Art historians suggest that it was inspired by the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The same year that Lawrence created this painting, a mob attacked US Marshals who had been deployed to the University of Mississippi by the Kennedy administration to ensure that James Meredith, an African-American student, could safely enter the previously all-white college.



  1. Have students visit the portrait photo of Jacob Lawrence, and provide a brief background on the artist’s life and work.
  2. Have students either work in small groups or individually to examine Soldiers and Students.
  3. Ask students to record their observations about the colors and shapes that they see in the painting. Note the depiction of an effigy in the upper right section of Lawrence’s painting. Effigies were commonly used by angry mobs to taunt and intimidate African American students entering schools.
  4. Ask students to observe the painting more closely and answer the Artful Thinking Routine question: What's going on? Then ask students to record their responses.
  5. Ask students to consider the second Artful Thinking Routine question: What do you see that makes you say that? As they respond to this prompt, have them record the elements in the painting that help them understand what is going on in the painting.
  6. Provide students with the following short reflection questions and have them write a paragraph response for each:
    * If you could extend the borders of the painting, what more might you see?
    * Why do you think Jacob Lawrence chose this subject?
  7. If they are working in small groups, ask students to share their responses within their groups.
  8. Facilitate a whole class discussion of the main themes that students have drawn from the work of art.

Additional Resources

Integrating Ole Miss
In the fall of 1962, the college town of Oxford, Mississippi erupted in violence. James Meredith, an African American student, attempted to register at the all-white University of Mississippi known as "Ole Miss." Witness the events first-hand through the actual letters, recorded telephone conversations, and images of those who made history.

Kennedy Library Forum Transcript: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss
A September 30, 2002 Kennedy Library Forum commemorated the 50th anniversary of the integration of the University of Mississippi. Guests included James Meredith and Justice Department officials Burke Marshall and John Doar.

1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights
This interactive timeline brings to life the pivotal events of the civil rights movement in 1963 through more than 230 primary sources ranging from film footage of the March on Washington and letters from youth advising the president to JFK’s landmark address to the American people and secret recordings of behind-the-scenes negotiations on civil rights legislation.

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language

National Council of Teachers of English: Standards 4, 6

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

  • USII.T4: Defending democracy: the Cold War and civil rights at home

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language