JFK, Freedom Riders, and the Civil Rights Movement (2024)


Much of The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s hinged on the relationship between grass rootsactivists, segregationist state and local governments, and a Federal Government bound (sometimes ambivalently) to uphold the Constitution. These lessons examine this relationship first of all with a look at the Freedom Rides. Student activists from the newly-formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the older Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) launched the Freedom Rides in 1961, challenging and helping to destroy Jim Crow. By traveling as a racially integrated group on interstate buses through the South, the Freedom Riders sought to confront the Southern state authorities who enforced segregation, and to pressure the Federal Government to implement the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) that outlawed segregation in interstate travel.

Riding from Washington, DC to Montgomery, Alabama, the Freedom Riders were violently attacked by white segregationist mobs. Several riders were brutally beaten and some were permanently injured, but the rides continued as new students and activists took the place of those forced to drop out because of their injuries. Widespread media coverage of assaults on the riders gripped the nation and played a role in pushing the Kennedy Administration to intervene on the riders' behalf. After a summer in which the Federal Justice Department struggled to accommodate the conflicting demands of the Civil Rights activists and Southern politicians, the Federal Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed segregation in interstate bus travel in a much more detailed and forceful manner than the Supreme Court had. The Freedom Rides had achieved their aim.

However, the Freedom Rides gave rise to friction within the movement between the student protesters who became the backbone of the rides and Martin Luther King, Jr., who actively supported the rides, but did not directly participate. They also heightened tensions between the Kennedy Administration and the increasingly militant student wing of the movement, which viewed the administration's willingness to compromise with Southern politicians with great suspicion.

Despite the assistance of black and pro-civil rights voters in winning the 1960 Presidential Election, Kennedy had done little to push civil rights in his first year in office. Violence surrounding civil rights protests in the South, however, spurred him to action on the side of the growing movement. The Freedom Rides and attempts to integrate southern state universities prompted him to deploy federal marshals in defense of blacks demanding equal rights. Yet perhaps the most decisive influence on President Kennedy's civil rights agenda were the civil rights protests that rocked the city of Birmingham in 1963 and garnered worldwide attention. The shock and outrage that followed television and newspaper images of police dogs and fire hoses attacking black children and the racial violence that accompanied the protests made Kennedy feel that broad federal civil rights legislation was necessary. On June 11, 1963, he spoke to the country in a televised address in which he asked the American people to support the strongest civil rights bill since the Reconstruction Era.

To show that this bill had widespread support and to press their own demands further onto the national political agenda, civil rights groups around the country mobilized in support of a March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Today, the March is remembered primarily for the memorable speech that Martin Luther King gave on that day, known as the "I Have a Dream" speech.

It is important to understand, however, that the same historically creative tensions that marked events such as the Freedom Rides played an important role in the March's organization, program, and impact. The Kennedy Administration, Martin Luther King, and the militant student civil rights activists supported the March's overall demands, but they differed significantly in their assessment of the political landscape surrounding the March. In fact, the Kennedy Administration had initially opposed the idea of the March. There was also an ongoing mistrust of federal power within the black community, personified at that moment by black nationalists such as Malcolm X. These contrasting perspectives would continue to exercise influence as the civil rights movement grew and diversified.

Content Standards

NCSS.D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circ*mstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

NCSS.D2.His.2.9-12. Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.

NCSS.D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.

NCSS.D2.His.4.9-12. Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.

NCSS.D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.

NCSS.D2.His.15.9-12. Distinguish between long-term causes and triggering events in developing a historical argument.

NCSS.D2.His.16.9-12. Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.


The following EDSITEMENT-reviewed websites provide helpful background material to review before teaching this lesson:

  • The PBS film and websiteFreedom Riders partially funded by NEH (above),is devoted to telling the story of the 400 black and white Americans who risked their lives—and many endured savage beatings and imprisonment—for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South.
  • The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History an EDSITEment-reviewed website has an entire issue of their journal History Now devoted to the civil rights movement with essays, lesson plans and an interactive jukebox. For this lesson, the James T. Patterson essay "The Civil Rights Movement: Major Events and Legacies" provides an excellent general background. Anthony J. Badger's essay "Different Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement"evaluates new trends in research which are putting civil rights successes in a different light.
  • The major events and people covered in this lesson are described in short, informative entries at the EDSITEment-reviewed Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. Recommended entries for this lesson include the Freedom Rides (1961), the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), and the Birmingham Campaign (1963). You may also wish to read entries about John Lewis, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • If you wish to know more about John F. Kennedy and civil rights, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library presents an essay describing Southern race relations from the founding of the United States up to Kennedy's Administration. If you'd like to skip to the early 1960s section, just read pages three to four. This page is linked to the EDSITEment-reviewed American President.org. The PBS documentary Freedom Riders also hosts a brief summary of President Kennedy's role in the early Civil Rights Movement.
  • The site SNCC: 1960-1966 presents the early history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It has articles on the Freedom Rides and John Lewis which are especially pertinent for this lesson. If you will be using civil rights to open up a discussion of other 1960s movements, you can also explore SNCC's connection to the feminism and Vietnam War protests in the website's Issues section.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Kennedy Administration's Record on Civil Rights

In this initial step, students learn background information through doing two readings before going on to the next activities. They are asked to take notes on the reading.

For homework, students should read an online summary of President Kennedy's civil rights record, from the EDSITEment-reviewed Center for History and New Media website, and the King Encyclopedia entry on the Freedom Rides. Additionally, students should consult the PBS documentary Freedom Riders for background on the issues faced by the Freedom Rides campaign.

Students should take notes on what they read, listing:

  • the actions that the Kennedy Administration took regarding civil rights and the Civil Rights Movement;
  • any criticisms, positive or negative, those participants in the Civil Rights Movement made of the Kennedy Administration or the Federal Government.

Students should then read the following online documents, linked to the EDSITEment-reviewed Center for History and New Media website:

Then, in the final part of this activity, students should respond in writing to the following questions:

What do President Kennedy's comments tell us about:

  • How does President Kennedy say this conflict has been resolved?
  • How does he describe what has happened in Birmingham?
  • What is he leaving out of this description?
  • Why would he omit this information?
  • What type of audience is watching events in Birmingham, according to Kennedy?

And, judging by these comments, to what extent does President Kennedy appear to support or oppose the Civil Right Movement in Birmingham at this time? Please use evidence from the press conference reading to support your answers.

Activity 2. Different Actors in the Civil Rights Movement

  • Students will read a brief background explanation, view the official program of the 1963 March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as well as see a photo of the crowds attending the March, at Our Documents' Official Program for the March on Washington, linked to National Archives Education, an EDSITEment-reviewed website.
  • Students will read a brief excerpt from the King Encyclopedia on the EDSITEment-reviewed Martin Luther King Papers' Project site, mentioning Kennedy's initial fear and then embrace of the March on Washington. Click here to go to the King Encyclopedia, and then click on "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
  • Students will then examine four speeches connected to the March. The teacher can assign all students to read all four speeches. Alternatively, the teacher might use a "jigsaw" approach, dividing the class into four groups, giving each group one speech. After each group has read its assigned speech and answered the questions, students can meet in groups of four in which each student has read a different speech. Now each student explains the speech he or she read to the other students, and how his or her group answered the questions. Following the "jigsaw," the teacher can lead a classwide discussion on the speeches.

The speeches

  • From Malcolm X Speaks, an audio clip from the November 10, 1963 "Message to the Grassroots"—click on "The March on Washington" to hear his critique of the March. This site is connected to the EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters website.

Questions on the speeches:

  • How do each of these speeches describe the role played by the Federal Government in the Civil Rights Movement?

  • What is the role of the Federal Government in ensuring equal rights for African Americans, according to each of the different speakers?
  • What do each of the speakers think is the key to changing the second-class status of African Americans in American life?
  • Based upon your prior knowledge of the status of African-Americans in the United States at this time, and your analysis of the arguments in each speech, which speech or speaker gives the best explanation of the U.S. Government's relationship to the Civil Rights Movement?


Following the class discussion, return the students to the "jigsaw" group from Activity 3, in which each student read a different speech (if all students have read all of the speeches, any groups will work). Assign each group a different newspaper: a Northern newspaper, a Southern newspaper, or an African American newspaper.

Students, acting as the editorial board for their assigned newspaper, will write an editorial commenting on the speeches given at the March on Washington. Which position would the editorial board endorse for the African American community? What would they have the Administration endorse (bear in mind Kennedy's initial opposition to the March)? How should the majority of Americans, who were not at the March, respond to the issues raised that day?

Lesson Extensions

Selected EDSITEment Websites

JFK, Freedom Riders, and the Civil Rights Movement (2024)
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