Perspectives: Teaching Historical Empathy (By Sam Kaplan)

Overview: This one-to-two-day teaching activity (assuming approx. 50 minute classes) is designed with two major goals in mind. The direct goal of this activity is to educate a class as to the different opinions and perspectives surrounding the SNCC and the civil rights movement in general; primarily those held by white America, black moderates, and the SNCC membership themselves. The secondary goal of this activity is to teach the class historical empathy, and how to better appreciate historical events from the perspective of those who experienced it.

Framework: This lesson will ask student to analyze readings as a small group, and then discuss them with other groups of classmates in the form of a role-play. The class will be divided into three groups, each representing a different generalized group from the 1960s and 70’s. These groups being the SNCC, more moderate black organizations such as NAACP, and white America. After having provided some context as to the SNCC through lecture, they will split up into their groups to read and discuss some articles in order to cultivate an understanding of the opinions held by their respective role-played groups. Finally the lesson plan ends in a class discussion, guided lightly by the teacher; this discussion will take the form of each of the three role-play groups ‘arguing’ their side of the issue in regards to the radicalism of the SNCC.

Hopefully, by the end of the class, the students will not just know more about the SNCC and the many different perspectives surrounding them, but will also be more astute at critically evaluating history from the perspective of those who experienced it. Beyond gaining some measure of skill at critical empathy, it is intended that they will also gain an appreciation for it, and the importance of context and perspective in understanding history.

Essential Understanding: There were many different perspectives surrounding the SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement at large (as with any group or movement), and understanding these perspectives empathetically is a key part of understanding the SNCC and the civil rights movement and how it developed as it did and was perceived as it was (as it is with any historical event).

Essential Questions:

1-3: What were some of the ideas and opinions held in regards to the SNCC, and the civil rights movement in general, by these three groups; white America, moderate blacks (NAACP, etc.) and members of the SNCC themselves (and other radical blacks), and why did they hold them?

4: What can approaching history from an empathetic standpoint add to our understanding?

Glossary: Empathy: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Historical Empathy: To empathize with historical figures, groups, and individuals; specifically, to analyze their situations from their own understanding and perspective, not yours.

Perspective: the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one, one’s unique understanding of a situation, etc.

Introduction: The African-American civil rights movement is often stated to have begun in 1955; though the truth of the matter is that African-Americans had been actively fighting to advance the cause for their own rights long before that.[14] Despite years of resistance life for African-Americans in the United States had changed little since the years of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the official end of slavery at the end of the American Civil War. By 1955 Most African-Americans were still unable to vote and suffered heavy persecution, especially in the South where segregation was still enforced by law.[15] In fact federally mandated segregation had only just begun with Brown V. Board of Education declaring segregated schools unconstitutional on May 17, 1954.[15] But many states and communities would resist such laws for the next couple decades.

One of the many leaders of the Civil Rights movement was a woman named Ella Baker. Ella Baker spent much of her time behind the scenes in many different organizations including the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.).[4] Of these organizations, it is the SNCC we are interested in.

The SNCC would begin as a series of student meetings led by Ella Baker held at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1960.[4] Over time, it would grow into a large organization with many supporters, both white and black, who would help raise funds to support the SNCC’s work in the South. The organization would play key roles in the sit-ins (occupying segregated businesses and refusing to move unless served), freedom rides (integrated busses of white and black students from the north driving through segregated southern communities), and Mississippi Freedom Summer (attempts by northern volunteers to help southern African-Americans register to vote) of the 1960s as well as the 1963 March on Washington.[4]

For most of the 1960s the SNCC would remain a relatively moderate organization, but this philosophy would change in the late 1960’s and beyond. It can be argued that the clear beginning of the radicalization occurred when the SNCC helped establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in opposition to the states traditional white-only US Democratic Party. But this attempt would meet with failure; the SNCC and the MFDP would ask for seats in the Democratic National Convention but were only offered two non-participatory seats at large. Unwilling to accept this compromise, they were effectively bared from participating in the Democratic National Convention; this would disillusion many of the members of the SNCC.[13]

Through time and trials the SNCC would gradually become more and more cynical and radical. Over the years there would be many key stages in their shift from a moderate to a more radical platform. One of the first major indicators of their shift in philosophy would be the election of Stokely Carmichael, a young charismatic African-American man from Harlem, as the party chairman.[4] Under the fiery Stokely Carmichael, the party would shift to a focus on the idea of “black power”, a political slogan emphasizing racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote black collective interests.[1] Finally, the SNCC would change its name from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Student National Coordinating Committee.[15]

Such shifts to radicalism would aggravate and concern both moderate black organizations, such as the NAACP, and the white community at large. The Department of Defense stated in 1967 that the “SNCC can no longer be considered a civil rights group. It has become a racist organization with black supremacy ideals and an expressed hatred for whites. It employs violent and militant measures which may be defined as extreme when compared with those of more moderate groups.” [16], such views would be reflected in both the media and the general public; and the SNCC and Stokely Carmichael would capitalize on it in some respect to spread their ideology and present themselves in positions of power.[4] Many of the issues between the moderate black movements and the SNCC would be illustrated during the March Against Fear in recognition of James Merideth’s shooting during his solitary protest march against racism. The SNCC’s and Stokely Carmichaels’ Black Power slogan, touting aggressive (though not necessarily violent) black independence would run in competition to the SCLC’s and Martin Luther King’s Freedom Now slogan, which preached peaceful integration.[15] Such ideological conflicts were believed to detract from both parties and each had issues with what the other was preaching.

It is in this context and under such a variety of different perspectives and issues that the more radical SNCC would develop their ideologies and present them in opposition to those of moderate black movements and the white community at large.


1.For the “White” group:


2. For SNCC group:


3. For Moderate African American groups, group:



Activities: Part One, The Lecture: Once the class is full and ready present to them the information present in the “Introduction” section of this teaching project; you can either do this verbatim or rephrase it to fit your liking. If you rephrase it or alter it, make sure to cover all the information that was present in the introduction section. After going over all the information present in that section there are numerous other pieces of information that are important to go over in lecture form. The following list presents many of the key points you should go over. Feel free to add or remove certain pieces of information based on your own understanding of the class’s level of competence with the material or what you deem important. The goal of this lecture is to establish the basic context surrounding the civil rights movements; primarily in the 60’s and 70’s. Beyond establishing basic context and understanding of the civil rights movement, be sure in particular to teach the class about the SNCC and their history as well as establishing why people were moved towards radicalism in the first place. Some of this is covered in the introduction section, which you should repeat in lecture, but you should add to the information presented in the introduction; feel free to draw off the list that is to follow. Also make sure to establish the context for the moderate black movements of the 60s and 70s. In particular, make sure to establish what defined ‘moderate’ black movements and what defined ‘radical’ black movements; what distinguished the two? How did the moderate black movements interact with the radical black movements and what informed their ideology. Finally, make sure to establish the perspective of white America. In particular, make clear that there was no ‘one’ opinion held by white America. Present some examples of the varying opinions held by the varying establishments of “white America”. Again, I will present some of the different groups from which to draw varying opinions held by white America on the list that is to follow. With all this information in mind, feel free to create your own lecture that covers all this information; the list that will immediately follow will hopefully present some information to draw upon. Cover this information as thoroughly as you wish but it should take at least 20 minutes and not exceed 50 minutes.

Possible things to cover/Ideas:

  • African American Civil Rights Movement pre 1955 (1896-1954): If you decide to provide further backstory to the Civil Rights Movement you should likely start with Plessy V. Ferguson, the court case that upheld “separate but equal” as a constitutional doctrine. This court decision would define the Civil Rights struggle for the next 50 years until Brown v. Board of Education and more integration legislation that would follow it effectively overturned Plessy V. Ferguson. You should also make clear that even after slavery was abolished, African-Americans were not considered citizens nor could they vote until the 14th (1868) and 15th(1870) amendments were passed, respectively. And even with the amendments passed, the Federal government rarely enforced these new laws and individual states, especially in the south, rarely considered them. Most African-Americans were still denied the vote and lived as second-class citizens. Attempts to speak towards advancing African-Americans inside the United States were mostly non-violent and integrationist.[14]
  • Montgomery bus boycott (1/12/1955-21/12/1956): As one of the first major organized activities of the modern (Post 1955) civil rights movement it is worth noting. The boycott was an attempt by the black citizens of Montgomery to force the bus company to cease practicing its segregationist policies towards bus seating, as well as many other actions of persecution. It would meet with success through the Browder V. Gayle ruling, and the busses would be desegregated after a long and difficult struggle. It is in this movement that many of the leaders of the modern Civil rights movement would first gain national attention; leaders such as Martin Luther King. Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. In the context of the teaching exercise, both of these leaders would go on to be key figures in the ‘moderate’ black movements.[15]
  • March Against Fear (1966): On June 6, 1966, James Meredith would commence in a solitary march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi to protest racism. He would be shot with a shotgun during his march and seriously injured. Many different civil rights movements heard of this and vowed to take up his march in his stead. This would be one of the first major events undertaken with the joint involvement of many different civil rights organizations after the initial radicalization of the SNCC. This even provides an excellent glimpse into the relationship between a newly radicalized SNCC and the many other more moderate black organizations. The actual details of the event are worth going into in some context, especially the divisions between the old guard and the new guard of the civil rights movement, Carmichael’s “Black Power” speech, and the NAACP pulling out of the march in fear of being associated with radical Deacons for Defense and Justice group.[15]
  • March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom(1963): A massive organized march on the capitol building on august 28, 1963; this event would be a major event that would hold serious national importance and would play a key role in conceptualizing the movement for the rest of America. It would greatly color the perceptions of all the different groups in America and operate as a mission statement for the SNCC before their radicalization as well as for other civil rights organizations. It was one of the largest political rallies for human rights in United States history and called for civil and economic rights for African Americans.[4]
  • FBI’s perception of SNCC: The FBI perceived the SNCC after 1967 as a radical threat, and would infiltrate and attempt to tear it apart and destabilize it. There are numerous records of interference by the FBI in SNCC affairs and they were known to be tracking Stokely Carmichael as a serious threat. They would also see them as potential communist subversives.[16]
  • Vietnam war/Communism: The “Red scare” frightened much of America and for the next 4 decades after World War II, America would suffer a fear of Communism. Though it would wax and wane over the years, it would be a constant worry for both the citizenry and the government. Threatening or worrisome activity only exacerbated these fears and the radical civil rights movements of the late 60s and 70s would do just that. Many Americans would view the SNCC as communists, and the general lack of support for Vietnam coming from the majority of Civil Rights movements would do little to assuage this fear. Such fears and concerns for both the war and the communist threat would polarize white America against more radical black movements.[16]
  • White America: Most Americans took a moderate stance towards civil rights; usually favoring slow, steady, integration by the 1950s and 60s, at least in the north. In the south, there was a predilection to resist integration and the civil rights movement. Many northern whites would actually go south to help black people register to vote in the freedom rides and freedom summer. The SNCC also had many white members before they made it a strictly black organization. When the SNCC radicalized they did lose support from mainstream America.[4] [15]
  • Moderate blacks: Groups like CORE, SCLC, and NAACP would remain consistently more influential for much of the civil rights movement. They would hold a considerably amount of power in government as well as in civilian matters. Many moderate blacks would be worried by the SNCC and other radical groups out of concern that such radical ideologies would work against the general cause of integration. They were concerned that the radical movements would just make white America wearier of African Americans. Most of these groups preached non-violence, and slow steady integration.[15]
  • SNCC, Radicalism, Black Power: Beyond what was stated about the SNCC in the introduction section it might be important to further elaborate on some of the finer details of the movement. Make sure not to provide too much information as to their motives and reasons for operating the way they did; the students themselves in their readings should figure that out. Carmichael would advocate violence in self defense as well as revolutionary violence to overthrow oppression in clear contrast to more moderate integrationists movements. The SNCC would also in large part view non-radical blacks or integrationist blacks as traitors to the cause and “lackeys” of white people. In many ways, what makes a “Radical” movement can be defined by their acceptance of violence as a method. [1] [4]

Activities: Part Two, Grouping: To begin this phase of the lesson, randomly split the class into three different, equal sized, groups using a method of your choosing. Each group represents a different simplified component of the many different ideologies and perspectives surrounding the SNCC: the SNCC, moderate black groups (SCLC, NAACP, etc.), and white America. It is during this step that you explain to them what they will be doing. Tell them how each of them will be reading articles that present information on the perspectives and ideas held by the three different groups. Inform them that their task is to read these article together, and to, together, attempt to empathize and understand the perspectives held by their assigned group; and why they held such perspectives. In other terms, they are to read the assigned articles focusing primarily on understanding them through historical empathy. After they have developed an empathetic understanding of the articles, they are to each Role-Play individuals that are part of their respective group. They should work together as a group and give each individual, or, for a large enough class, each set of individuals, a different identity representing an aspect of the movement. Make clear that not everyone in the different groups had the same opinions; so even individuals in the same group might disagree on some points. For example, the white America group should have a person representing the media, a person representing the FBI or government, a person representing a radical southern white citizen, and a person representing a moderate northern white citizen, etc. Another example would be that, in the SNCC group, there should be individuals representing the leadership, the moderate component of the SNCC before the electing of Carmichael, the more radical component post election, etc. Finally, inform them that they will have to argue their opinion against the two different groups in an organized debate. Inform them that the debate can cover any topic that naturally evolves from an argument between these three sides, but make clear that you will frame the debate, initially, in the context of radicalism and the effects, issues, benefits, etc. of the radicalization of the Civil Rights movement, especially of the SNCC, in the late 60s. After you have established this groundwork, give the groups their individual readings, making sure there is enough for each individual and make them start working. I would suggest putting this section in the last ten or fifteen minutes of a class so that they might have time to organize their group and their readings. If the students do not finish this step during school hours, as they likely won’t if assigned in the last fifteen minutes of class, make them finish it as part of their homework. Suggest that they get together after school, as homework, to finish reading and analyzing the readings together as a group, as well as organizing their debates and role-play personalities.

Activities: Part Three, the Debate: Make sure to set up the class seating into a triangle of sorts, with three distinct sections for each group to sit in. After the class has taken their seats establish the following ground rules for the debate as well as any you deem necessary to add:

  • Be polite, if someone is speaking, don’t interrupt.
  • Depending on your personal preference, establish a rule for speaking order,
    • Raise hand
    • Go around in circle, individually, as a group
    • Each group is allowed a statement towards another group and then the group they talked to retorts and makes their own statement.
    • For a group you trust: allow them to speak in any order they wish and is natural to them, but in this case pay extra attention and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak and that everyone is polite.
    • You can designate the order of speaking, and individually select who gets to speak next.
    • Stay in character, if you break character, make sure to say so.
    • While you do not need to cite every fact or opinion you hold, make sure to cite any quotes you make, or for particularly obscure or controversial opinions.

After setting the rules inform them that you will interfere as little as possible and that they will be graded on participation, staying in character, accuracy, and relevance of the information and opinions presented. Finally, set the stage, provide a opening statement or topic through which the debate might start and let it flow naturally and organically from there. Tell them not to spend too long on one issue and make sure they try to cover a wide variety of topics. If at any point the debate seems hopelessly stagnated or gridlocked, step in and move the debate forward into another topic. Try not to interject with too much information or ideas, they are supposed to be discovering the different perspectives on their own. Only intervene in the debate to supply your own information to correct serious factual errors or if the whole class seems to be confused on a particular subject.

Starting the Debate: As stated before, you should open the debate with a question about radicalism and its effects and causes, positive or negative. Try to frame it in a neutral way and try to keep it short, simple, and relatively easy to understand. What follows is an example opening question, try to present it as if you were talking to an actual debate group, to help them stay in character:

  • “Some people are concerned that the SNCC is becoming more radical, how do you think this change the Civil Rights debate in America?”
  • “Do you think the SNCC’s shift in ideology is for the better, or does it actually harm the overall wellbeing of America and the African American community at large.”

While you can let the debate go on as long as you wish, my suggestion would be to keep it no longer than 30 minutes, 50 if the class is already extremely knowledgeably on the civil rights movement; if you go any longer the class might begin to lose interest or even run out of ideas for discussion. But as a general rule the length of the debate should be left relatively flexible, because if it is clear the class is extremely engaged and still has a lot to talk about, letting the debate go on for a few extra minutes over deadline (if you can afford to) does no harm. Once the debate if finished ask the class what they have learned about the different perspectives and opinions held by the many different groups of that time. After they have answered that, talk to them about historical empathy, and the importance of understanding history from the perspective of those that experienced it. After doing so, ask them what they have learned about historical empathy and what, specifically, it can add to an understanding of historical events. Depending on the length of the class and the debate, end the class there, or continue on to new activities.

Additional Sources:

  1. Carmichael, Stokely. “What We Want.” SNCC Pamphlet, June 18, 1969. (accessed March 29, 20120
  2. SNCC Committee . “The Basis of Black Power.” Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Position Paper (Chicago), July 3, 1966, 1 edition, sec. 1. (accessed April 1, 2011
  3. Chen, Hans H.. “Stokely Carmichael and SNCC – Stokely Carmichael.” African-American Involvement in the Vietnam War. (accessed April 1, 2012)
  4. Forman, James. The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 1985 and 1997, Open Hand Publishing, Washington D.C.):
  5. Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘till the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New york; Henry Holt and Company, 2006)
  6. Barnett, Ross. “”No School in Our State Will Be Integrated…”” Speech. Televised Adress. University of Mississipi, Mississipi. 13 Sept. 1962. PBS. PBS, 23 Aug. 2006. Web. 01 May 2012. <;.
  7. Hamilton, Charles J. “Brass Tacks.” NEWS (04 May 1967). The Harvard Crimson. Harvard. Web. 01 May 2012. <;.
  8. Parker, Pam. “Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement — Why I Am Going to Mississippi.” Address. Why I Am Going to Mississippi. Trinity Church, Solebury. 8 June 1964. Civil Rights Movement Veterans. 8 Nov. 2005. Web. 01 May 2012. <;.
  9. Carmichael, Stokely. “What We Want, by Stokely Carmichael.” (1966). :: Historical Manuscripts and Photographs. New York Review of Books. Web. 01 May 2012. <;.
  10. Watters, Pat. “Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement — Memphis Is Also America.” Editorial. Nation 22 Apr. 1968. Civil Rights Movement Veterans. 2011. Web. 01 May 2012. <;.
  11. Parker, Pam, Martin L. King, Irwin Unger, and Debi Unger. “”Why I Am Going to Mississippi” – “The Last Steep Ascent” – “We Want Black Power”.” Comp. Tomas F. Summers Sandoval. All Power To The People. Hatford. WordPress. Web. <;.
  12. Brown, H. R. “Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement — Who Are the Real Outlaws?” (1967). Civil Rights Movement Veterans. 2011. Web. 01 May 2012. <;.
  13. Freedom on My Mind. Dir. Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford. By Michael Chandler. Perf. Robert Parris Moses, Victoria Gray Adams,Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Marshall Ganz, Heather Booth, and Pam Allen. Self Published, 1994. DVD.
  14. Bates, Beth Tompkins, Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America
  15. Dierenfield, Bruce J. The Civil Rights Movement. Harlow, England: Pearson Longman, 2008. Print.
  16. Unknown. “Stokely Carmichael and SNCC – Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).” African-American Involvement in the Vietnam War. New York City Library, 1967. Web. 01 May 2012. <;.


1. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide
an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

2. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation
best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters

3. Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

4. Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging
them with other information.

5. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a
coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

3 thoughts on “Perspectives: Teaching Historical Empathy (By Sam Kaplan)

  1. Fantastic web site. Lots of helpful info here.
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    in delicious. And certainly, thanks to your effort!

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