Legacies of Reconstruction | Facing History & Ourselves
Dr. Martin Luther King leads thousands of civil rights demonstrators out on the last leg of their Selma to Montgomery 50-mile hike.

Legacies of Reconstruction

Through a video-based activity, students examine America’s struggle for a stronger democracy during Reconstruction and today.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Racism


About This Lesson

So many of the issues at the heart of the Reconstruction era are also central to the entire sweep of American history, and many are still being debated today. Centered on The Legacies of Reconstruction, Part Six of Facing History’s video series about Reconstruction, and enhanced with activities and readings, this lesson will help to illuminate the echoes of Reconstruction throughout history. By watching the video and reading and analyzing primary source documents, students will reflect on the idea of democracy as a continuous process rather than a fixed achievement. They will also consider how they can best participate in the ongoing work of strengthening our democracy and what responsibilities and opportunities they have for creating a better society.

This lesson is part of Facing History’s work on the Reconstruction era and part of a series of lessons focused on our Reconstruction videos. Use this lesson at the end of a unit about Reconstruction to engage students in a conversation about America’s ongoing struggle for a stronger democracy. In addition to the suggestions below, see Lesson 16 in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy for more resources and background information about the legacies of Reconstruction.

  • How does the history and legacy of Reconstruction help to illuminate opportunities for creating a better society today?
  • Many of the issues at the heart of the Reconstruction era are still being debated today.
  • Democracy is a continuous process that depends on our ongoing participation and dedication to the project of creating a better and more just society.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 1 video
  • 1 reading
  • 1 extension activity

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Lesson Plans


Before examining the legacies of the Reconstruction era, it is important to introduce students to the idea of democracy as an ongoing process. Ask students to reflect in their journals on the following quotation from federal judge William H. Hastie:

Democracy is becoming rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.

Students might respond to the following question as they write:

  • What do you think Hastie means when he says that democracy’s essence is eternal struggle?

After they have spent a few minutes recording their thoughts, use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to help students share their thoughts with each other.

Show the video The Legacies of Reconstruction. Before showing the video, share the following questions with students to guide their note-taking:

  1. According to the historians in this video, what is the relationship between the history of the Reconstruction era and the contemporary United States?
  2. What were some of the key successes of Reconstruction? What were some of the important limitations to the progress made during this era?
  3. According to historian Eric Foner, what did W. E. B. Du Bois mean when he described Reconstruction as a “splendid failure”?
  4. What was the relationship between the Reconstruction era and the civil rights movement of the twentieth century?
  5. Why do historians refer to Reconstruction as an “unfinished revolution”?
  6. According to the historians in this video, how might this history influence the choices we make and the actions we take today?

Prompt students to spend a few more minutes reflecting on George Lipsitz’s question, “How are you going to write the new chapter [of this history], not in your notebooks, but in society as men and women with responsibility and opportunity?”

Ask students to reflect on the following question in their journals: 

What responsibilities do you have for helping to create a better society?  What opportunities?

The Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn teaching strategy provides a structure for students to listen deeply and provide thoughtful responses to each other’s thinking in relation to these journal prompts.

Extension Activities

Build on the discussion of the video by analyzing the speech We Need to Talk About an Injustice by Bryan Stevenson.

Materials and Downloads

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