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Moments of Personal Resistance

Unit 2, Lesson 1

Examine how individuals take stands against racism and injustice using an essay by Grace Paley and three other short vignettes of individual protest.


Enduring Understandings

  • Individual acts, including our own, are powerful tools in effecting change.
  • There are many ordinary people and "unsung heroes" who should be considered Jewish role models.

Essential Questions

  • What motivates people to resist as individuals?
  • What values, experiences, and actions could motivate me to personal resistance?

Materials Required

  • "Signs of Segregation"
  • Computer, projector, and screen/blank wall (or print-outs of the Signs of Segregation slide show images)
  • Copies of Document Studies
  • Handouts

Notes to Teacher

The Moments of Personal Resistance lesson includes three sections, plus an optional fourth section. There are several ways that the fourth section can be used including:

  • Use as part of the regular lesson if you have a longer teaching block (approximately 2 hours for the whole lesson).
  • Use as part of the lesson when using this lesson as a special event.
  • Since the fourth section deals specifically with the literary genres of satire, if you are in a school where secular and Jewish subjects are taught, your students' English teacher could teach section four to coordinate with your teaching of this history lesson.

Another option for an additional assignment or class activity is to interview someone who has a story of personal resistance. This can be done in class, by bringing in a speaker and interviewing him/her in front of the class, or as an outside assignment, in which students choose someone to interview themselves. See JWA's "How-To" section for a downloadable oral history guide and a set of "Twenty Questions" for interviewing American Jewish women.

This lesson is about individuals who stand up to injustice instead of remaining passive bystanders. If you and/or your students have worked with the organization Facing History and Ourselves and are familiar with the term "upstander," consider using the term throughout this lesson plan. Facing History defines upstanders as, "people who choose to take positive action in the face of injustice in society or in situations where individuals need assistance." When witness to a bad situation, upstanders actively respond while bystanders just stand by. (Facing History defines bystanders as “individuals or groups who do not help person(s) in need.”)

Lesson plan

Introduction: A Moment in Time

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  1. At the very beginning of class, show the "Signs of Segregation" without providing an introduction (and asking students to hold their questions).
  2. After you finish showing the slides, ask your students:
    • How did it feel/what did you think when you looked at these photographs?
    • Why do you think you reacted this way?
    (Give as many students as possible a chance to respond.)
  3. Ask your students, "Where and when in American history might we have found these signs of segregation?" (Possible responses might include: Southern states in the early to mid-20th century; in restaurants, buses, trains, bus and train stations.) If your students need prompting, remind them that in the early to mid 20th century in the South lunch counters, buses, drinking fountains, and other public places were set up like this with separate areas for African Americans and whites. The photographs in the slide show are all from the 1930s and 1940s, but formal public segregation persisted into the 1960s -- well after the Supreme Court had ruled that separate schools were not equal. (If students want to know more about how segregation laws changed, refer to the lesson on the 1961 Freedom Rides.)
  4. Have your students imagine they are living in the South in the mid-20th century, and ask them:
    What do you think you would have done if you walked into a segregated bus station, into a segregated restaurant…?
    (Be sure to allow for a wide range of responses. Invite students of as many different backgrounds, races, and ethnicities as possible to respond, without putting anyone on the spot.)
  5. Explain:
    While we tend to think of the Civil Rights Movement in terms of large, organized events like boycotts, marches, and sit-ins, before and during the Civil Rights Movement there were many moments of personal resistance when one person, on her own, tried to effect change in a small way. We're going to meet some of those people today and explore what they did, why they did it, and what difference it made.

Document Study: Moments of Personal Resistance - Actions

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  1. Introduce your students to Grace Paley (1922-2007). Explain that she was a Jewish author who wrote short stories and poetry about everyday life, especially women's lives. She grew up in the early-mid 20th century in New York City surrounded by her family and a large Jewish community. She was also an activist throughout her life, involved especially in anti-war and anti-nuclear activism as well as many local issues in her community.
  2. Distribute the document study "Traveling" by Grace Paley to your students. Have them read Part I of the text to themselves. Then discuss the study questions as a class. If your students have difficulty with any of the questions, you may want to direct them to the appropriate part of the text or reread a section together. Repeat this process with Part II and Part III.
  3. After discussing the Grace Paley essay, tell (or act out) the Eli Evans and Bernice Stern stories that can be found in "Vertical Seating at a Lunch Counter" and "I Have Taken Stands". (You can also invite a student to do so.) Briefly go over with your students when each of the two stories was written/told, who the author/speaker is, and in what context it was written/told. (Like the Paley essay, both stories are reflections back, rather than documents from the time. Eli Evans is an accomplished author who was asked by a publisher to write about his life experience in the South for a book that would be widely available to the public. Bernice Stern is a woman who was asked to tell her life story during a lengthy oral history interview, conducted by the Jewish Women's Archive as part of a project collecting life histories from women in Seattle.)
  4. Discuss as a class the following questions:
    • What do these 3 stories have in common? How are they different?
    • How is each situation an example of personal resistance?
    • What motivated each person to resist?
    • How did these moments of personal resistance change the situation or the people involved? Many people find personal resistance difficult. What do you think makes it difficult sometimes?
    Explain: Moments of personal resistance are timeless. We can always act on our beliefs.

Personal Resistance Today - Actions

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  1. Ask your students:
    Think about a time when something bad was happening to you or to someone you know and you felt powerless to help; or think about a time when you saw or found out about something upsetting that went against your core values. (Possible responses might include: you're in the cafeteria and someone tells an ethnic/racial/homophobic joke; you're on the bus and someone uses an ethnic/racial/homophobic slur when talking to or about another student; something related to a local issue in your community).
  2. Now think about a time when you stood up for someone's feelings or rights in a small way – or thought about what you could do. What are some examples of things you have done? Let’s make a list on the board/chart paper. (Possible responses might include: say something when you hear an ethnic/racial/homophobic joke or slur, write something in the school paper about a rule that you think isn't just, etc.)
  3. After making the list of situations choose one or two and for each one ask your students the following questions:
    • How would you feel if you were the person being "oppressed" by this situation?
    • What would you want someone else to do to help?
    • What could you do as an act of personal resistance if you were a "witness" to this situation?
  4. Break your class into small groups. Have each group choose a situation from the class list, or come up with a different situation, and develop a skit showing the situation and the act of personal resistance.
  5. Have each group present their skit. Discuss as a class the types of personal resistance presented in the skits, what makes these acts difficult in real life, what other actions could be taken.
  6. If you have time, have students reflect, either in pairs or in their journals, about conscience, risk-taking, and resistance. Ask students to respond to one of the following questions:
    • What does my conscience tell me to do?
    • What causes motivate me?
    • What risks am I willing to take on behalf of others?
    • When is a time that I resisted?

OPTIONAL: Personal Resistance - Influencing Others

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If you have time or want to extend the lesson, you can add the following optional activity.

  1. Explain that sometimes a person who feels strongly about an issue may try to influence the way other people think about the issue.
  2. Ask your students:
    What are some ways that a person can influence what others think?
    (Possible answers might include: giving speeches, through art, music/songs, writing, commercials, etc.) You may want to write responses on the white board, chalk board, or a piece of chart paper.
  3. Point out that one type of writing and art that influences people is satire. Make sure your students are familiar with the term "satire" before you proceed. You may also want to provide some examples of satire and/or ask your students for examples. (Possible examples could include: political cartoons, television shows like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show with John Stewart, books such as Animal Farm or Gulliver's Travels.)
  4. Explain that Harry Golden was a Hungarian-born Jewish journalist who spoke out against the things he saw wrong with society, including segregation. From 1942 – 1968, Harry Golden published the Carolina Israelite, a Jewish newspaper distributed in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. One of the satirical articles he wrote for the Carolina Israelite was called the "Golden Vertical Negro Plan."
  5. Distribute copies of the document study "A satirical essay by Harry Golden" to your students. Explain that unlike the other stories we've heard, in which the authors were reflecting back on an earlier time, this document was written in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and was intended to be read by people at that time. Have several students take turns reading the document out loud. Pause to provide historical context as necessary. Then discuss the essay, using the discussion questions on the worksheet.
  6. After discussing Harry Golden's essay, you might want to have your students do one of the following activities in class or as a homework assignment:
    • Write a "This I believe" statement about a contemporary issue that the student feels strongly about. (See Justice Wise Polier's "This I believe" in Unit 1, Lesson 3 or visit ThisIBelieve.org for other examples.)
    • Have each student identify a contemporary social issue about which he/she feels strongly, and then write a satiric essay, write a monologue for a satiric news show, or draw a political cartoon about it.
Document studies

"Traveling" by Grace Paley

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Traveling, by Grace Paley

[Part I]
My mother and sister were traveling south. The year was 1927. They had begun their journey in New York. They were going to visit my brother, who was studying in the South Medical College of Virginia. Their bus was an express and had stopped only in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and now Washington. Here, the darker people who had gotten on in Philadelphia or New York rose from their seats, put their bags and boxes together, and moved to the back of the bus. People who boarded in Washington knew where to seat themselves. My mother had heard that something like this would happen. My sister had heard of it, too. They had not lived in it. This reorganization of passengers by color happened in silence. My mother and sister remained in their seats, which were about three-quarters of the way back.

When everyone was settled, the bus driver began to collect tickets. My sister saw him coming. She pinched my mother: Ma! Look! Of course, my mother saw him, too. What frightened my sister was the quietness. The white people in front, the black people in back—silent.

The driver sighed, said, You can’t sit here, ma’am. It’s for them, waving over his shoulder at the Negroes, among whom they were now sitting. Move, please.

My mother said, No.

He said, You don’t understand, ma’am. It’s against the law. You have to move to the front.

My mother said, No.

When I first tried to write this scene, I imagined my mother saying, That’s all right, mister, we’re comfortable. I can’t change my seat every minute. I read this invention to my sister. She said it was nothing like that. My mother did not try to be friendly or pretend innocence. While my sister trembled in the silence, my mother said, for the third time, quietly, No. Somehow finally, they were in Richmond. There was my brother in school among so many American boys. After hugs and my mother’s anxious looks at her young son, my sister said, Vic, you know what Mama did?

My brother remembers thinking, What? Oh! She wouldn’t move? He had a classmate, a Jewish boy like himself, but from Virginia, who had had a public confrontation with a Negro man. He had punched that man hard, knocked him down. My brother couldn’t believe it. He was stunned. He couldn’t imagine a Jewish boy wanting to knock anyone down. He had never wanted to. But he thought, looking back, that he had been set down to work and study in a nearly foreign place and had to get used to it. Then he told me about the Second World War, when the disgrace of black soldiers being forced to sit behind white German POWs shook him. Shamed him.

[Part II]
About fifteen years later, in 1943, in early summer, I rode the bus for about three days from New York to Miami Beach, where my husband in sweaty fatigues, along with hundreds of other boys, was trudging up and down the streets and beaches to prepare themselves for war.

By late afternoon of the second long day, we were well into the South, beyond Richmond, maybe South Caroline or Georgia. My excitement about travel in the wide world was damaged a little by a sudden fear that I might not recognize Jess or he, me. We hadn’t seen each other for two months. I took a photograph out of my pocket; yes, I would know him.

I had been sleeping waking reading writing dozing waking. So many hours, the movement of the passengers was something like a tide that sometimes ebbed and now seemed to be noisily rising. I opened my eyes to the sound of new people brushing past my aisle seat. And looked up to see a colored woman holding a large sleeping baby, who, with the heaviness of sleep, his arms so tight around her neck, seemed to be pulling her head down. I looked around and noticed that I was in the last white row. The press of travelers had made it impossible for her to move farther back. She seemed so tired and I had been sitting and sitting for a day and a half at least. Not thinking, or maybe refusing to think, I offered her my seat.

She looked to the right and left as well as she could. Softly she said, Oh no. I became fully awake. A white man was standing right beside her, but on the other side of the invisible absolute racial border. Of course she couldn’t accept my seat. Her sleeping child hung mercilessly from her neck. She shifted a little to balance the burden. She whispered to herself, Oh, I just don’t know. So I said, Well, at least give me the baby. First, she turned, barely looked at the man beside her. He made no move. So, to my surprise, but obviously out of sheer exhaustion, she disengaged the child from her body and placed him on my lap. He was deep in child-sleep. He stirred, but not enough to bother himself or me. I liked holding him, aligning him along my twenty-year-old young woman’s shape. I thought ahead to that holding, that breathing together that would happen in my life if this war would ever end.

I was so comfortable under his nice weight. I closed my eyes for a couple of minutes, but suddenly opened them to look up into the face of a white man talking. In a loud voice he addressed me: Lady, I wouldn’t of touched that thing with a meat hook.

I thought, Oh, this world will end in ice. I could do nothing but look straight into his eyes. I did not look away from him. Then I held that boy a little tighter, kissed his curly head, pressed him even closer so that he began to squirm. So sleepy, he reshaped himself inside my arms. His mother tried to narrow herself away from that dangerous border, too frightened at first to move at all. After a couple of minutes, she leaned forward a little, placed her hand on the baby’s head, and held it there until the next stop. I couldn’t look up into her mother face.

[Part III]
I write this remembrance more than fifty years later. I look back at that mother and child. How young she is. Her hand on his head is quite small, though she tries by spreading her fingers wide to hide him from the white man. But the child I’m holding, his little face as he turns toward me, is the brown face of my own grandson, my daughter’s boy, the open mouth of the sleeper, the full lips, the thick little body of a child who runs wildly from one end of the yard to the other, leaps from dangerous heights with certain experienced caution, muscling his body, his mind, for coming realities.

Of course, when my mother and sister returned from Richmond, the family at home wanted to know: How was Vic doing in school along all those gentiles? Was the long bus ride hard, was the anti-Semitism really bad or just normal? What happened on the bus? I was probably present at that supper, the attentive listener and total forgetter of information that immediately started to form me.

Then last year, my sister, casting the net of old age (through which recent experience easily slips), brought up that old story. First I was angry. How come you never told me about your bus ride with Mama? I mean, really, so many years ago.

I don’t know, she said, anyway you were only about four years old, and besides, maybe I did. I asked my brother why we’d never talked about that day. He said he thought now that it had had a great effect on him; he had tried unraveling its meaning for years—then life family work happened. So I imagine him, a youngster really, a kid from the Bronx in Virginia in 1927; why, he was a stranger there himself.

In the next couple of weeks, we continued to talk about our mother, the way she was principled, adamant, and at the same time so shy. What else could we remember…Well, I said, I have a story about those buses, too. Then I told it to them: How it happened on just such a journey, when I was still quite young, that I first knew my grandson, first held him close, but could protect him for only about twenty minutes fifty years ago.


Grace Paley, "Traveling," Just As I Thought, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1st edition, April 1998. (p. 31-35).

Discussion Questions

Review: Who wrote this essay? When? For what purpose and what audience?

Questions about "Traveling," Part I:

  1. What happens on the bus? (Describe it as objectively as possible)
  2. Grace Paley writes, "My mother had heard that something like this would happen. My sister had heard of it, too. They had not lived in it." Why do you think she emphasizes the difference between hearing of something and living something?
  3. How do you think Paley's mother and sister feel during their moment of personal resistance? What evidence of this do you find in the story?
  4. The last paragraph in Part I is primarily about Grace Paley's brother who is studying in the South. What is his experience as a Jew in the South? How does he handle his experience? How is his experience similar to that of his mother and sister's experience on the bus? How is it different?

Questions about "Traveling," Part II:

  1. It is now fifteen years after the events that took place in Part I. What happens to Grace Paley on the bus? (Describe it as objectively as possible)
  2. Which action or actions on Paley's part are moments of personal resistance? Where does it begin and end? Provide evidence for your position.
  3. On this trip, Grace Paley is married, but doesn't have any children. What evidence is there that she identifies with the African American mother she meets on the bus? How, if at all, do you think that identification plays a part in Paley's actions? Do you think identifying with someone is an essential part of standing up for them? Why or why not?
  4. Consider the role of the black woman in the story. Would you characterize her behavior in this story as personal resistance as well? Why or why not? Who do you think had more to lose, the black woman or Paley? Does that matter?

Questions about "Traveling," Part III:

  1. This part of the story takes place more or less in the present. Paley also mentions a child in this part of the story. Why do you think she included this reference to her grandchild in her story? What do you think the grandchild represents?
  2. How do you think Grace Paley and her mother helped change that world?
  3. According to Grace Paley, how did the earlier stories shape her and her brother?

A satirical essay by Harry Golden

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The Vertical Negro Plan by Harry Golden, 1958, excerpt

…One of the factors involved in [North Carolina’s] tremendous industrial growth and economic prosperity is the fact that the South, voluntarily, has all but eliminated VERTICAL SEGREGATION. The tremendous buying power of the twelve million Negroes in the South has been based wholly on the absence of racial segregation. The white and Negro stand at the same grocery and supermarket counters; deposit money at the same bank teller’s window; pay phone and light bills to the same clerk; walk through the same dime and department stores, and stand at the same drugstore counters.

It is only when the Negro “sets” that the fur begins to fly.

Now, since we are not even thinking about restoring VERTICAL SEGREGATION, I think my plan would not only comply with the Supreme Court decision, but would maintain “sitting-down” segregation. Now here is the GOLDEN VERTICAL NEGRO PLAN. Instead of all those complicated proposals, all the next [state Legislature] session needs to do is pass one small amendment which would provide only desks in all the public schools of our state — no seats.

The desks should be those standing-up jobs, like the old fashioned bookkeeping desk. Since no one in the South pays the slightest attention to a VERTICAL NEGRO, this will completely solve our problem. And it is not such a terrible inconvenience for young people to stand up during their classroom studies. In fact, this may be a blessing in disguise. They are not learning to read sitting down, anyway; maybe standing up will help. This will save more millions of dollars in the cost of our remedial English course when the kids enter college. In whatever direction you look with the GOLDEN VERTICAL NEGRO PLAN, you save millions of dollars, to say nothing of eliminating forever any danger to our public education system upon which rests the destiny, hopes, and happiness of this society.

Golden, Harry. Only In America, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and NY: 1958, p. 121-122. Permission granted by Richard Goldhurst.

Discussion Questions

  1. Review: Who wrote this essay? When? For what purpose and what audience?
  2. Summarize: What is the problem that Harry Golden wants to help "solve"? What is Golden's "solution"?
  3. On what does Golden base his "solution"? What disparity is he pointing out? Do you think Southerners were aware of this disparity?
  4. Based on Golden's essay, how do you think he feels about segregation? What point do you think he is trying to make?
  5. Why do you think Harry Golden chose to present his views on segregation satirically and not in a more direct essay or article? How, if at all, was your reaction different to his essay than to the other texts we read?
  6. How do you think Golden's essay might have changed him and/or his world?

Vertical Seating at a Lunch Counter

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Eli Evans grew up in Durham, NC, where his father owned Evans United, a dry goods store that served whites and blacks alike. One of the services provided by the store was a lunch counter where shoppers could get a bite to eat. In The Provincials, Evans tells the following story.

Ours was a poor people’s store and we catered to the Negro trade. In the strange contorted world of what passed for Southern liberalism just after the war, Evans United was the first store on Main Street to have restrooms for blacks; we were the only Main Street store with an integrated lunch counter, though it hadn’t been easy. When Bus Borland, the county judge, sent word that North Carolina law prohibited feeding blacks and whites together unless a wall separated them, my father told him, “Bus, you’ll have to close the store if you want me to do that.” Gene Brooks, our lawyer, called a meeting at the courthouse to point out, after exhaustive research, that the legal precedents all involved seated counters, and Bus agreed that it was so, not wanting to make a whole lot of trouble. So my father agreed to remove all the stools at the counter and instructed the carpenters to raise the counter top to elbow-leaning height so that United could proudly retain the only integrated lunch counter in downtown Durham.

Eli N. Evans, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Reprinted University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 27.

I Have Taken Stands - excerpt from Bernice Stern oral history

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During World War II, there were a lot of black servicemen who were at the U.S. Naval Hospital where we worked every week. And they’d play music and there were no black girls with whom they would dance. So I would dance with the boys that didn’t have anybody to dance with and so would some of the other women who were with me. And so at the next meeting of the Gray Ladies the head stood up and said, “We do not wish you to dance with the fellows, with the servicemen.” I stood up. I said, “Are you going to have young black girls to dance with the servicemen? No! Well, then we will continue to dance with them. I object strenuously to your using these boys to fight our battle with us and for us but not have girls for them to dance with.” And the head of the Gray Ladies said, “We are not going to permit that.” I said, “Well, then I am resigning as a Gray Lady.” A few others did but not many. I have taken stands on organizations like that.

Bernice Stern, oral history conducted by Pamela Brown Lavitt for the Jewish Women's Archive on 22 June 2001.


Lunch Counter

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A type of cheap eatery found inside of a store. It gets its name from the fact that it usually consists solely of a counter with stools. On one side of the counter, the waitstaff, cooks, etc. work, and on the other side of the counter customers can sit and eat.

Personal Resistance

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Action(s) taken by an individual that reflect his or her belief that a law or custom is wrong and that he or she has to defy it in order to act according to his or her conscience.


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An essay, book, or work of art that tries to make a point about human nature, society, and/or laws, by poking fun at them. Often some aspect of what is being satirized is taken to such an extreme that it appears absurd.

Teacher resources

"The Provincials"

Eli N. Evans. The Provincials. (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.)

"Only in America"

Golden, Harry. Only in America. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1958.

Grace Paley "Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia"

Grace Paley entry in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia: jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/paley-grace

"Just as I Thought"

Grace Paley, Just as I Thought. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.


Plain text

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Esther Bubley, sign for colored waiting room, Greyhound bus station in Rome, GA, September 1943. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Moments of Personal Resistance." (Viewed on December 8, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/civilrights/moments-of-personal-resistance>.


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