Let Our Voices Be Heard: The 1963 Struggle for Voting Rights in Mississippi


Download this lesson plan, including handouts, in pdf format.

Overview

Topic: Civil Rights; Civic Education and Engagement; Persuasive Writing and Speaking

Grade Level: 9-12

Subject Area: US History; Civics and US Government

Time Required: 2 hours

Goals/Rationale
Prior to the enactment and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans in various regions of the country, particularly in the South, were often denied the right to vote. Tactics resulting in disenfranchisement included threats of job loss, poll taxes, literacy tests, and the use of physical intimidation and violence. In this lesson plan, students consider some strategies for achieving the goal of equal voting rights for African Americans.

Essential Question: What can the federal government do to guarantee the rights of citizens?

Objectives
Students will:

  • analyze primary source documents
  • discuss the tactics suggested by civil rights organizations and the Kennedy administration for dealing with the disenfranchisement of African Americans in Mississippi in the early 1960s
  • consider the ramifications of each tactic
  • articulate their views on the pros and cons of each tactic.

Preparation

Historical Background and Context
Prior to the enactment and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans in various regions of the country, particularly in the South, were often denied the right to vote. Tactics leading to disenfranchisement included threats of job loss, poll taxes, literacy tests, and the use of physical intimidation and violence. Civil rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Urban League sought to change these practices with the funding and coordination support of the Voter Education Project (VEP), a non-partisan, tax-exempt agency.

African Americans in Mississippi faced particularly daunting challenges in their efforts to obtain their constitutional right to vote. In a 1961 report, the US Commission on Civil Rights noted that in 69 counties, 37.7 percent of the voting age population was African American, but only 6.2 percent were registered. In 13 Mississippi counties, no African Americans were registered. Mississippi's Governor Ross Barnett was satisfied with the status quo.

Beginning in 1961, young men and women from SNCC targeted several Mississippi communities in voter registration drives, opening voter registration schools to encourage prospective voters and educate them on how to overcome the obstacles they would probably face. This non-violent movement led to beatings, shootings, imprisonment and even death of many civil rights workers, and men and women attempting to register. In LeFlore County, Mississippi authorities responded to the voter registration efforts by closing down the distribution of federal food surpluses to poor, mostly African-American citizens. Greenwood, one of the principal towns in LeFlore County, became a voter registration battleground.

The shooting of 20-year-old James Travis, a SNCC volunteer, in February 1963, provoked angry responses from civil rights leaders about lack of support from the federal government. Although President Kennedy had publicly noted the federal government's support of African-American voting rights, these leaders thought that more could be done. President Kennedy's stated goal of voting rights legislation (included in a larger civil rights bill) might be a possibility for the future, but, for the present, they felt that more direct action should be taken.

In one suggestion put forth by these groups, the federal government would cut off federal funds to the state of Mississippi. Another suggested strategy would have the federal government send federal marshals to each voter registration site to ensure that African Americans could register safely. Kennedy and his administration, however, thought that, for now, litigation through the federal courts would be the most effective method--until further legislation could be passed.

In this role play lesson, students will consider these three suggested strategies for federal involvement in voter registration. 

Materials

  1. Reading: "To Vote in Mississippi" (included with downloadable lesson plan)
  2. Handouts for three role play groups: (1) United States Commission on Civil Rights Panel, (2) Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Panel, and (3) Kennedy Administration Panel (included with downloadable lesson plan)
  3. September 13, 1962 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference in which Kennedy answers a question about the federal government's response to difficulties faced by prospective African-American voters in the South, and says the right to vote is "very basic" and deserves federal protection.
  4. September 21, 1962 letter from Charles McLaurin of SNCC to President Kennedy discussing the efforts by whites in Ruleville, Mississippi to prevent African-American enfranchisement and asking why the federal government is not protecting citizens.
  5. October 3, 1962 telegram from Aaron E. Henry and Medgar Evers (NAACP) to President Kennedy discussing the necessity of a strong civil rights bill and suggesting that the federal government place a federal marshal as registrar in every courthouse in the state.
  6. October 22, 1962 memo from Lee White to Burke Marshall regarding the October 3rd telegram in which he asks Marshall how they might respond to the suggestion of stationing of federal marshals as voting registrars.
  7. October 25, 1962 memo from Burke Marshall to Lee White regarding the October 22nd memo in which he dismisses the Henry and Evers telegram as "too outrageous to answer."
  8. March 7, 1963 telegram from Roy Wilkins (NAACP) to President Kennedy in which he urges federal protection for voter registration efforts and the denial of federal assistance to Mississippi until state authorities cease interfering with voter registration.
  9. March 30, 1963 Resolution of the US Commission on Civil Rights expressing alarm at events in Mississippi and requesting federal protection of citizens and the withholding of federal funds from the state
  10. April 3, 1963 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference in which he responds to a question about what the Justice Department can do to help voter registration efforts in Greenwood, Mississippi by focusing on court actions and the need for a voting bill.
  11. April 10, 1963 memo from Lee White to the president regarding the resolution of the Civil Rights Commission in which he goes, point by point, through the March 30th resolution providing an answer to every charge and recommendation.
  12. April 19, 1963 letter from President Kennedy to Dr. Hannah of the US Commission on Civil Rights responding to the Commission's report with a description of actions taken by the federal government in the courts, and reasons why the federal government would not withhold funds from Mississippi.
  13. April 24, 1963 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference in which he is asked about the US Commission on Civil Rights’ report, and he explains the actions being taken by the federal government and why it would not withhold funds from Mississippi. 

Procedure

  1. For Homework - Provide students with handout "To Vote in Mississippi" and ask them to answer the "Questions to Consider."
  2. In class the next day, discuss the various methods used to disenfranchise African Americans in the early 1960s and the "Questions to Consider." 
  3. Tell students that they will consider three suggested tactics for federal involvement in Mississippi voter registration in a role play exercise. Students will be assigned to a panel representing people from SNCC, the US Commission on Civil Rights, or the Kennedy administration with one of three tactics for which they must advocate. They will use primary source documents and work in small groups to make an argument as to the merits of their tactic. They will then present their reasoning to the larger class. 
  4. Split students into groups of 5-7 for each of panels with their specific tactic:

    - Group 1 - US Commission on Civil Rights Panel: Denying federal money to Mississippi.
    - Group 2 - SNCC Panel: Assigning a federal marshal or marshals in every registrar's office.
    - Group 3 - Kennedy Administration Panel: Using the federal courts to litigate when cases of voter discrimination are found.
  5. Provide students in each group with a handout on their role and 6-7 primary sources and have them read through and discuss the materials to prepare for the role play exercise. 

Group 1 - US Commission on Civil Rights: Denying federal money to Mississippi

  1. September 13, 1962 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference

  2. March 7, 1963 telegram from Roy Wilkins (NAACP) to President Kennedy

  3. March 30, 1963 Resolution of the US Commission on Civil Rights

  4. April 10, 1963 memo from Lee White to the president 

  5. April 19, 1963 letter from President Kennedy to Dr. Hannah of the US Commission on Civil Rights 

  6. April 24, 1963 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference 

Group 2 - SNCC: Assigning Federal Marshals in every Registrar's Office

  1. September 13, 1962 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference

  2. September 21, 1962 letter from Charles McLaurin of SNCC to President Kennedy

  3. October 3, 1962 telegram from Aaron E. Henry and Medgar Evers (NAACP) to President Kennedy

  4. October 22, 1962 memo from Lee White to Burke Marshall regarding the October 3rd telegram

  5. October 25, 1962 memo from Burke Marshall to Lee White regarding the October 22nd memo

  6. March 30, 1963 Resolution of the US Commission on Civil Rights

  7. April 24, 1963 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference 

Group 3 - Kennedy administration: Using the federal courts to litigate when cases of voter discrimination are found.

  1. September 13, 1962 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference

  2. March 30, 1963 Resolution of the US Commission on Civil Rights 

  3. April 3, 1963 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference

  4. April 10, 1963 memo from Lee White to the president

  5. April 19, 1963 letter from President Kennedy to Dr. Hannah of the US Commission on Civil Rights 

  6. April 24, 1963 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference 

During the role play, each panel must make an argument as to why their tactic is superior. They will have 5-10 minutes for their arguments. After each panel has explained their reasoning to the others, the class will have a larger discussion about the pros and cons of each tactic for the civil rights groups and for the Kennedy administration.

Assessment

For homework, students will write a two-page paper articulating their own view as to the merits and drawbacks of each option.

Extension

Have students research the steps the federal government took (and did not take) in Greenwood, Mississippi in the spring of 1963 to combat segregationists' attempts to disenfranchise African Americans, by reviewing the following documents on our website and doing further research:

  1. April 3, 1963 excerpt from President Kennedy's press conference
  2. April 10, 1963 memo from Lee White to the president regarding the resolution from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Teachers should note the following government actions:

  • In late 1962, when LeFlore County officials stopped the distribution of surplus food, SNCC began a campaign to ship in food, clothing and medicine to needy families. Additionally, the Department of Agriculture advised LeFlore County officials that they must resume distribution of surplus food or the federal government would do so directly. The county reestablished food distribution in March 1963 after the Department of Agriculture agreed to pay for its administrative costs which were usually the responsibility of the County.
  • On March 30, 1963, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the city of Greenwood, and pending the court action, on March 31, asked for a temporary restraining order against local officials who were preventing voter registration and demanded the release of eight imprisoned voter registration workers. The civil rights workers were released, but a few days later, the Justice Department made a deal with local officials, agreeing to drop the restraining order in return for an ambiguous agreement that local officials would allow African Americans to register and provide a bus to take African Americans from the VEP building to the courthouse so they would not march there.

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards
US History, Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)

  • Standard 3: Domestic policies after World War II
  • Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language
  • ELA – Reading Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Literacy in History/Social Studies for grades 9-10 and 11-12

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 1 - Developing questions and planning inquiries
  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History and Civics)
  • Discipline 3 - Evaluating sources and using evidence
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

  • USII.T4 - Defending democracy: the Cold War and civil rights at home
  • USII.T5 -  United States and globalization
  • GOV.T1 - Foundations of government in the United States

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language