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TeachNYPL: 'Little Lionhearts,' Young People in African-American Civil Rights Protests (Gr. 6-8)


"I could not move because history had me glued to the seat. It felt like Sojourner Truth's hands were pushing down on one shoulder, and Harriet Tubman's hand pushing down on another shoulder" —Claudette Colvin (Interview on Democracy Now, March 2013)

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and when we typically consider the African-American Civil Rights Movement during the 20th Century, the first and most notable names that often come to mind are Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X. However, there is no doubt the movement was also propelled forward by the steadfast work and bravery of thousands of individuals, who history might overlook, including children and young adults. 

To address this topic in a common core-aligned Social Studies/English Language Arts unit, we have collected the following texts on three Civil Rights events from 1939-1963 in which children and young adults played pivotal roles. All of these case studies include both primary and secondary sources on the topic—including police reports, and newspaper articles from the time—for students to compare and contrast the material in a meaningful evidence-based manner that meets Common Core State Standards.

August 21, 1939: Five young men were arrested in the nation's purported first sit-down strike when they were refused library cards at the Alexandria Library in Virginia. The young men were essentially recruited to protest by Alexandria Attorney Samuel W. Tucker who too was denied library privileges. After being refused library cards, the young men each took a book from a library shelf and sat and read until they were quietly arrested. This event garnered little attention in the mainstream media—this article dated September 14, 1939 from the Pittsburgh Courier (the highest circulating and most prominent African American newspaper at the time) was one of the few mentions—but went on to be an important test case in the progress of civil rights and in the nonviolence movement as the charge of disorderly conduct seemed rather unfounded in this peaceful protest.

March 2, 1955: Nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Despite her act of civil disobedience happening before that of Rosa Parks, Colvin's story had for years been overlooked in civil rights history. The young woman was arrested and found guilty of assault and even served as a secondary plantiff in Browder vs. Gayle Supreme Court case that overturned bus segregation, yet her contribution went unremembered for almost half a century. Now, however, Claudette Colvin is gaining deserved awareness and recognition as a singular and remarkable figure, as in the recent poem, "Claudette Colvin Goes to Work" by former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, and the recent award winning book, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose.

May 3, 1963: Nearly four thousand children and young people participated in a march in Birmingham, Alabama to protest segregation, and were subsequently arrested and imprisoned for several days after. Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety for Birmingham, authorized police and fire department forces to use attack dogs and fire hoses against protestors (photo ID numbers: 974317544272, 396723995715 and 630504050) including children. The children were organized and trained by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. James Bevel and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Due to waning participation in protests prior to the march and the resurgence it then caused, the Birmingham Children's March of 1963 was seen as a pivotal turning point in the civil rights movement.

Classroom Reading

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose. This 2009 National Book Award winner for Young People's Literature uses Colvin's story as a platform for exploring segregation and civil rights as a whole. The book incorporates a number of primary sources, gives strong biographical background on Colvin, and weaves her story into the larger picture of civil rights. This high quality text is accessible and interesting to middle grade students. After reading this book, students can explore a number of avenues for inquiry revolving the civil rights movement, but in particular, should consider why Colvin's story went unremembered and why Rosa Parks was chosen as a model and public figure for the civil rights protest.

Primary Sources

  • "Library 'Sit-In' Strike Still a Puzzle to Virginia Courts", Pittsburgh Courier, September 16, 1939. From the September 16th, 1939 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, an article ("Library 'Sit-In' Strike Still a Puzzle to Virginia Courts") discussing the uncertain outcome of a court case of five young men arrested for staging a sit-in at the Alexandria, Virginia Library. Questions to consider after reading this text: What else was going on in the world at this time? How might have those events impacted how much attention this civil rights protest received?
  • Letter from Attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker to Katharine Scoggin, Librarian of Alexandria, VA Library. Letter from Samuel Tucker, attorney to and orchestrator of the young men of the library sit-in, to Librarian Katharine Scoggin. Describes Tucker's repeated requests for library privileges at the Alexandria Library and dissatisfaction with the alternative of using a new segregated library nearby. Questions to consider after reading this text: Summarize the main idea of this letter. What is Mr. Tucker's purpose for writing it?
  • City of Montgomery, Alabama Arrest Report of Claudette Colvin. A copy of the police report is also found on page 33 of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose. How does the description of Colvin's behaviour in the police report compare to Colvin's own description in Twice Toward Justice of the incident?
  • Associated Press Photographs from the Birmingham Children's March taken by Bill Hudson, July 15, 1963 (ID Numbers: 974317544272, 396723995715, 630504050). Questions to consider after analyzing these texts: Compare the three images taken by photographer Bill Hudson at the Birmingham Children's March. What do these photographs have in common with one another? What tone or mood do these photographs evoke?
  • "Dogs and Hoses Repulse Negroes at Birmingham" by Foster Birmingham, New York Times, May 4, 1963

Secondary Sources

Common Core State Standards for this Texts and Task Unit

R.H.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose (i.e., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular texts).

RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (i.e. in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

RL.6.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

RL.6.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Want to use these texts in the Classroom?

Several of the above texts have been compiled in NYPL Classroom Connections Texts & Task Unit - for Common Core Lesson Plans: Young People and African-American Civil Rights Protests Gr. 6-8 (PDF). This Texts and Task unit can be used for lesson planning or to supplement and enhance current lessons. This Texts and Task Unit includes information on text complexity, text dependent questions, and a recommended performance task for this unit aligned to Common Core State Standards.

Additional Resources

Virginia Library Sit In

Claudette Colvin

Birmingham Children's March

Other Civil Rights Protests

 March '63 @ NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black CulturePop-Up Exhibit: March '63 @ NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Feel free to add additional reading suggestions, lesson plans, and other educational resources in the comments below.


Annette Lesak has been a junior high school librarian for six years outside of Chicago and, despite popular opinion, thinks they're pretty decent little creatures. Professionally, she loves John Green, getting spontaneous hugs from kids when their holds have arrived, and helping reluctant readers find that one special book. Personally, she loves running, writing, yoga, traveling, and her dog Sophie.


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ATTN: Maggie Jacobs, Education

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