Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan:
Documents Related to
Brown v. Board of Education
This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.
- Era 9 -Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
- Standard 4C -Demonstrate understanding of the Warren Court's role in addressing civil liberties and equal rights.
This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.
- Standard II.A.2 .-Explain the extent to which Americans have internalized the values and principles of the Constitution and attempted to make its ideals realities.
- Standard III.B.1. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the purposes, organization, and functions of the institutions of the national government.
Share these documents and teaching suggestions with your history, government, and language arts colleagues.
Tapping into Prior Knowledge
- Explain to students that this lesson focuses on a Supreme Court decision made in 1955, one that was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Further explain that in the following lessons, they will learn about this landmark decision, including the opposition to it, from original court documents and presidential correspondence. Begin by directing students in a brainstorming activity to assess the extent of their prior knowledge concerning the United States Supreme Court. Instruct students to record everything they think they know about the United States Supreme Court in list form or another appropriate graphic organizer. Lead a class discussion about what they included without making any corrections or clarifications. Collect the brainstorming sheets for later use (see Activity 7). Depending upon the depth of their prior knowledge, lead an introduction or a review of how the Supreme Court works, being sure to examine how the Court decides what cases it will hear.
Analyzing the Documents
- Document 1: The Dissenting Opinion of Judge Waites Waring in Harry Briggs,
Jr., et al. v. R. W. Elliott, Chairman, et al. is 20 pages in length,
but for purposes of this lesson, the focus is on the final 3 pages. The Briggs
case originated in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and was argued by Thurgood
Marshall, counsel for the NAACP. Pages 18-20 of the dissenting opinion describe
some of the social scientists' testimony later used by the Supreme Court in the
Brown decision. Before reading pages 18-20 together as a class, provide
students with background information about the policy of "separate but equal,"
specifically the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which Brown v.
Board of Education helped to make obsolete. Prompt a class discussion of
the document with the following questions: Upon what evidence did the witnesses
base their testimony? What was the judge's conclusion about the acquisition of
racial prejudice? What was his opinion?
If time permits, a more complete understanding of the opinion may be gleaned by dividing the remainder of the document among small groups of students. Direct each group to read and summarize the main point of its assigned section and share its findings with the class. The following page breakdowns are suggested:
pages 1-5 background information
pages 5-7 rationale for hearing the case
pages 7-8 slavery and the Constitution
pages 8-9 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments
pages 9-10 South Carolina laws
pages 10-12 litigation in other areas
pages 12-13 litigation in higher education
pages 13-14 Plessy v. Ferguson
pages 14-16 higher education decisions
pages 16-18 defendants' two witnesses
- Document 2: The Letter from President Eisenhower to E. E. "Swede"
Hazlett touches on several significant topics of the Eisenhower presidency, from
the election campaign to Indo-China to the appointment of Supreme Court Chief
Justice Earl Warren. Instruct students to read the letter and, while doing so,
to compose a list of the various topics Eisenhower responded to in each of the
10 paragraphs. Focus students on the last topic, the appointment of Earl Warren,
by asking the following questions. Lead a class discussion of their findings.
What seemed to be "Swede's" implication about the appointment of Earl
Warren? What was Eisenhower's response? What factors did Eisenhower consider
important when making his nomination decision? Why was age a significant determinant?
How did Eisenhower characterize the segregation issue? What were his expectations
of the Court? Of Warren? Do you think they were met? To extend the lesson, refer
to the list of additional topics compiled earlier in the activity. Challenge
students to research the context of one of the subjects and to fashion a paragraph
out of "Swede's" original correspondence that might have prompted Eisenhower's
- Document 3: Judgment, Brown v. Board of Education, was issued on May 31, 1955, and has come to be known as Brown II. Using the Document Analysis Worksheet as a starting point, instruct students to study the document and to prepare answers to the following questions. Who was to be responsible for overseeing the decision? What guidelines, if any, were given? Why do you think the language was worded this way? Why would the Supreme Court direct a lower court to enforce its decision rather than handle it directly? Encourage students to share their answers with the class.
Putting the Pieces Together
- Brown v. Board of Education is the collective title for five separate
cases heard concurrently by the United States Supreme Court from 1952 to1955.
Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas, et al.
Harry Briggs, Jr., et al. v. R.W. Elliott, et al.
Dorothy E. Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al.
Spottswood Thomas Bolling et al. v. C. Melvin Sharpe et al.
Francis B. Gebhart et al. v. Ethel Louise Belton et al.
While their goals were the same, each case had unique elements and followed separate paths prior to reaching the Supreme Court. Divide students into five groups. Assign each group one of the five cases and instruct them to independently research the facts for their assigned cases. After research is completed, regroup students so that each group includes at least one student from each of the five original groups. Direct each new group to compile a graphic representation of the main points of the five cases highlighting their similarities and their unique characteristics, as well as their paths to the Supreme Court. Require that each group present its finished product to the class so that the various approaches and findings may be compared.
Creating a Civil Rights Timeline
- While Brown v. Board of Education is considered a landmark case of the 20th century, it was not the first nor the last in a series of cases that addressed civil liberties and equal rights. Construct a classroom timeline of the civil rights movement after the Brown decision. Divide students into teams, assigning each team a specific decade (or some other appropriate breakdown depending upon class size). Instruct the teams to research the Supreme Court decisions from 1955 onward that impacted civil rights, the key players, as well as the events, and legislation that followed in the wake of these decisions. Direct them to creatively present their findings on poster boards, one board per team. Encourage students to research the National Archives Catalog for photos and other primary documents to display on their posters. Construct the timeline from the finished posters and require each group to explain its piece.
Connecting with Poetry
- Redistribute students' brainstorming lists collected after the first activity.
Direct students to read over what they thought they knew about the U.S. Supreme
Court at the onset of this lesson and to make corrections or additions to their
lists based on what they have learned. Write the following format on the board
for students to copy:
I used to think...
But now I know...
I used to think...
But now I know...
Instruct students first to reflect on what ideas they might have had about the Supreme Court that have now changed and then to write a poem following the format on the board. Encourage them to write as many pairs of statements as necessary to demonstrate how much their knowledge of the Supreme Court has grown.
Writing an Editorial
- Explain to students that the debate over judicial restraint versus judicial activism has existed since the days of Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall. In fact the Warren Court was condemned more than once for "making law" rather than just "interpreting it." Display the editorial pages of several newspapers on a bulletin board or wall and discuss the manner in which the press can address such issues as the powers of the Supreme Court. Divide the class into four sections. Assign students in section 1 to write editorials supporting judicial restraint; students in section 2 should write editorials supporting judicial activism. (Encourage students to use examples of decisions made by the Warren Court in support of their positions.) Explain to the remaining groups that their eventual task will be to respond individually to one of the finished articles in the form of a letter-to-the-editor. Assign students in one of the remaining two sections to respond to the judicial restraint articles, while students in the last section reply to the judicial activism articles. (Another option would be to form a fifth group of students and direct them to create editorial cartoons depicting one or both points of view.) Display the letters alongside the articles.
Designing a Book Jacket
- The names Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren will always be associated with
the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and the issue of school
segregation. However, each man had a prominent career that spanned decades before
and after the historic Brown ruling. Explain to students that a local
publisher is compiling a new series of biographies of notable 20th-century Americans
and is soliciting students' ideas for book jacket designs. Challenge students
to work in pairs and design a book jacket for a biography of Thurgood Marshall
or Earl Warren. The design should include the following elements:
- Series title
- Individual book title
- Front and back cover designs
- Summary for inside flap (front)
- Author information for inside flap (back)
Nominating a New Chief Justice
- In his October 1954, letter to E. E. "Swede" Hazlett, President Eisenhower expressed his beliefs about the important qualifications for a Supreme Court chief justice. Review Eisenhower's considerations as outlined in the letter with the class. Ask students to privately brainstorm the qualifications they would consider most important for a chief justice in the next millennium. Encourage volunteers to share their ideas and record them on the overhead projector. Lead a discussion of some possible issues before the Supreme Court in the near future. Next, direct students to pretend it is 2001 and to assume the role of president of the United States. An unexpected retirement has created an opening on the Supreme Court, and the Senate is awaiting a nomination from the president. Citing the second featured document as a model, instruct students to write a letter to a close friend outlining the qualifications they feel the nominee must possess.
The documents included in this project are from Record Group 267, Records
of the Supreme Court; the Eisenhower Library; and the Records of the United States
District Court, Eastern District of South Carolina. They are available online through the National Archives Catalog National Archives Identifiers:
You can perform a keyword, digitized image and location search in the National Archives Catalog. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.
The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the online catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.
Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the online catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the online catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the online catalog will grow continually.
This article was written by Mary Frances Greene, a teacher at Marie Murphy School, Avoca District 37, Wilmette, IL.