Civil Rights and Education: Teacher Resources

RFK VA 630


Although much progress has been made since Robert Kennedy played such a powerful role in helping to integrate schools in the south, inequality in education remains a pressing issue today, both at home and abroad. Kennedy’s words, beliefs and actions still matter and remain relevant to today’s world.

These lesson ideas and resources suggest how you and your students might explore the current realities and impact of educational inequality. Most importantly, they invite students to discuss and debate differing points of view and then consider what actions they might take to positively impact issues related to this topic.

Essential questions:

  1. How do Robert Kennedy’s actions toward integrating public schools and universities relate to circumstances today, both in the United States and throughout the world?
  2. What progress has been made in offering equal access to education since Kennedy’s time?
  3. What issues still exist?  What are the differing opinions on how best to resolve these issues?  What are the pros and cons of each?
  4. What actions can you take to assert your personal beliefs and make a positive difference?

 RFK’s Words

You might want to share either or both of the following quotes with students. Ask them to read each aloud, then discuss what Kennedy meant by these words and  how his message relates to today.  Do they agree or disagree with him?

Living in a time of ‘moral crisis’,  Kennedy passionately called upon youth to become actively engaged in taking on issues and thus creating a more promising future.   As part of that process, he encouraged  active, constructive and respectful debate and dissent.  This, he deeply believed, was  “at the very heart of the American process”.

As students discuss the following quotes, encourage them to discuss and debate any differences of opinion as a means of fostering deeper analysis and understanding.

“Education is the key to jobs, to income, to human dignity itself…In the last analysis the quality of education is a question of commitment–of whether people like us are willing to go into the classrooms as teachers or parents, as volunteers, or just as concerned citizens, to ensure that every child learns to the full limit of his capabilities.”

“We must recognize the full human equality of all our people–before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous–although it is; not because the laws of God and man command it–although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.”

RFK’s Message Still Matters

Depending on your and students’ interests, you might wish to proceed with a focus on issues of  educational inequality,  globally or in your own county.

The following  resources are offered to spark further discussion and study:

1) This article from the American School Board Journal discusses inequities in school funding. Read or excerpt sections of this article to discuss with students:

  • You might want students to consider the cost of their education as compared with peers in other districts. The per-pupil cost for one’s school can typically be found via your district’s website or by doing an online search. Either ask students to join you in searching for the information for their school or provide this information to them. Then discuss:
  • How does the funding for your school compare to others?
  • What conclusions might be drawn from this information?

2) Show and discuss: PBS NewsHour Report: Minority Students Face Harsher Discipline

3) Offer students time to work through the following site that illustrates disparities in education throughout the world:

  • What conclusions might they draw from this information?

4) Play Unesco’s three minute video: “57 million children out of school“.

  • Ask students for their reactions to the information they just heard. Are they surprised? Are they concerned? Continue the discussion by asking the students to predict the risks and consequences.

5) Recently-released  data in a report by the Department of Education concluded that students of color face systematic racism in the public school system.  Play PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs video project “Race and Change”

  • Debrief the video as a means of  getting  their take on the situation and starting a conversation and/or debate about the issue.

6. Is education in the United States now completely equal? Consider this question with students by via PBS Frontline’s ‘Separate and Unequal: The Return of School Segregation in Eight Charts.

black and white students in the south frontline

Speak Truth to Power: Become inspired by defenders taking action today:

Speak Truth To Power, a project of Robert Kennedy Human Rights, is a multifaceted global initiative that uses the experiences of courageous defenders from around the world to educate students and others about human rights, and urges them to take action. Issues range from slavery and environmental activism to religious self-determination and political participation.

Explore the stories of Malala and Jamie Nabozny, each of whom fought for equality in the educational setting.

1) Malala
malalaMalala is a Pakistani school pupil and education activist from the town of Mingora in the Swat District of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. She is known for her activism for rights to education and for women, especially in the Swat Valley, where the Taliban had at times banned girls from attending school. In early 2009, at the age of 11–12, Malala wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban rule, their attempts to take control of the valley, and her views on promoting education for girls in the Swat Valley. The following summer, a New York Times documentary was filmed about her life as the Pakistani military intervened in the region, culminating in the Second Battle of Swat. Malala rose in prominence, giving interviews in print and on television, and was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by South African activist Desmond Tutu.

2) Jamie Nabozny

JamieJamie Nabozny grew up in Ashland, Wisconsin, a small town located on the south shore of Lake Superior. By the time Jamie was in middle school, he found himself the target of physical violence and degrading acts by classmates. When Jamie turned to school officials for help, he was told to expect abuse for his sexual orientation and to stop “acting so gay.” As the attacks continued and school staff looked on with indifference, Jamie lost hope and moved to Minneapolis. Free at last from much of the verbal and physical violence that had dominated his young life, Nabozny realized that he was not alone. Similar acts of abuse were happening to students across the country. Jamie decided to take a stand for his rights and the rights of his fellow students. In 1995, he took legal action against his middle school where he had been so badly beaten by his classmates that he required abdominal surgery to undo the damage.

Although his first attempt at legal action was unsuccessful, his case drew the attention of Lambda Legal, a civil-rights oriented law firm. With their help, Jamie took his case to a federal appeals court for a second trial. His new trial issued the first judicial opinion in American history to find a public school accountable for allowing anti-gay abuse, and the school officials liable for Jamie’s injuries. This landmark decision entitled students across the United States to a safe educational experience, regardless of their sexual identity.

Today Jamie travels the country speaking to students and teachers about the dangers of bullying and how they can stop it in their schools and communities. Jamie’s story has been turned into a short documentary “Bullied” produced by The Southern Poverty Law Center in 2011.

Take Action:

Robert Kennedy deeply believed that each individual has the responsibility and capacity to make a positive difference. He said:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

Ask students to share examples of what they might already have done – or noticed others doing – to make a difference, even if in small ways. Students can refer to the Become A Defender  unit of Speak Truth to Power for inspiration and guidance on how they can take positive action toward fighting injustice.

Robert Kennedy’s Work Lives On

Robert Kennedy’s unwavering commitment to protecting human rights and opposing attacks on civil liberties is central to his ongoing legacy.

To further realize Robert Kennedy’s dream of a  more just and peaceful world, in 1968, Ethel Kennedy  and other family members and friends founded Robert Kennedy Human Rights, one of the foremost human rights’ organizations in the world.

Watch the following clip and Robert Kennedy’s daughters describe how their mother and Robert Kennedy’s wife, Ethel has carries on his work:

Click here to learn more about the work of Robert Kennedy Human Rights.

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