Living the Legacy


Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: the Whys and Why Nots

Unit 1 , Lesson 3

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: the Whys and Why Nots

Notes to teacher: 

This lesson's central activity is a mock debate at a temple board meeting. Plan to teach this lesson across two or three sessions (one for preparation and one for the board meeting itself; a third class session could be used for debriefing and reflection, for discussing your local community's response to the Civil Rights Movement, and/or for reading and discussing the Hebrew Union Congregation letters if you choose not to include those in the preparation for the board meeting). The lesson could also be spread over the course of the day at a retreat or as part of a special program.

The temple board meeting activity will allow your students to explore many different perspectives (southern, northern, lay people, clergy, supportive of civil rights, and unsupportive of civil rights) in a fairly realistic setting, while also providing for a more nuanced discussion than a straight pro/con debate might.

In creating the Temple Board Meeting scenario we have tried to strike a balance between historical accuracy and the realities of the contemporary classroom. For example, in order to present as many perspectives as possible and help your students understand the complexities of civil rights in the Jewish community we have provided documents that range over a broad period of time; therefore, we have not set the board meeting in a particular year. We also have included female board members in our scenario even though it's not likely that there were many female board members in the South during this period, because we know your classes include both boys and girls. (Some characters have stories and names that are gender-neutral.) We have also chosen to use "African American" rather than the term "Negro," which was used at the time and is found in the documents.

Additional suggestions:

  • Use a Jewish values matrix to identify what Jewish values are related to each of the documents and character stories and/or ask students to specifically address which Jewish values they are drawing on when they make an argument or put forward a motion. You can refer to the What's Jewish about Justice signs or find a Jewish values matrix online.
  • Ask board members of your school/synagogue/organization to talk to your students about current controversial issues and how they make decisions about them.
  • Depending on your teaching setting and student population, you may want to consider staging the debate as a public hearing or town hall meeting rather than a temple board meeting.

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: the Whys and Why Nots." (Viewed on April 16, 2014) <>.