Three Visions for Achieving Equal Rights | Facing History & Ourselves
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael march with a crowd of people behind them.

Three Visions for Achieving Equal Rights

Students examine the strategies of three key civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael.  


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In this lesson, students will learn about three key civil rights leaders—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael—and the role each man played in bringing about change during the tumultuous period between 1964 and 1966. Through a close reading and jigsaw discussion, students will examine the leaders’ ideas about the most effective ways to enact change at this pivotal moment of the civil rights movement and in the process, consider how to best bring about the changes they would like to see in their own communities. 

  • What makes social movements work?
  • How can we determine the most effective way to bring change to our neighborhoods, our nation, and the world? Which strategies are best for bringing about the changes we want to see?
  • Students will identify and discuss Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael’s visions and strategies for achieving equal rights and opportunities for Black Americans.
  • Students will draw connections between the readings and their lives in order to determine which strategies they might choose to create positive change in their own communities, nation, or world.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 3 readings
  • 1 handout 

This lesson examines the challenges Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael faced as they worked to translate the legal and legislative victories in the 1950s and early 1960s to social and economic policies and assume greater control over their lives and communities. Their efforts would expand the reach of American democracy and inspire other minorities to fight for recognition and influence. Despite their legal and constitutional successes, Black Americans continued to be subjected to discrimination and terror as they attempted to live out their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Frustrated with the slow pace of change, some Black Americans questioned many of the key assumptions of the civil rights movement, including the need for integration with the white community and the role of nonviolence in the freedom struggle.

Drawing inspiration from both his Christian faith and the peaceful teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King led a nonviolent movement in the late 1950s and ‘60s to achieve legal equality for African Americans in the United States. While others were advocating for freedom by “any means necessary,” including violence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the power of words and acts of nonviolent resistance, such as protests, grassroots organizing, and civil disobedience to achieve seemingly impossible goals. He went on to lead similar campaigns against poverty and international conflict, always maintaining fidelity to his principles that men and women everywhere, regardless of color or creed, are equal members of the human family. Dr. King’s less than thirteen years of nonviolent leadership ended abruptly and tragically on April 4th, 1968, when he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Malcolm X’s views challenged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent tradition of the civil rights movement. Born Malcolm Little in 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, he grew up in Michigan, Boston, and New York. As a young adult, Little became involved in a life of crime and violence for which he was jailed for several years. While in prison he joined the Nation of Islam 1 and changed his name to Malcolm X. Under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam made inroads into Black communities in the urban North by advocating a program of self-help, Black separatism, and Black nationalism. In the 1950s, the Nation of Islam grew in popularity in these communities and began to challenge long held beliefs in integration and reconciliation. Malcolm X challenged advocates of nonviolence and declared that Blacks could not be expected to respond nonviolently when attacked. He was shot and killed while speaking in New York City on February, 21, 1965.

Black nationalism and the militancy of Malcolm X appealed to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) 2 , many of whom had been beaten and terrorized by segregationists. After the march from Selma to Montgomery, SNCC targeted one of the poorest communities of Alabama—Lowndes County, where Blacks constituted 80 percent of the population and as of 1965 not a single Black person was registered to vote. Testing federal enforcement of the new Voting Rights Act, local farmer John Hulett, with the help of SNCC activists, founded the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). The LCFO was conceived as an independent political party whose goal was to offer an alternative to the Alabama Democratic Party, which continued to block Black voter participation. Seeking an image to represent the party, LCFO members adopted the Black panther as their symbol. Despite harassment and threats of violence, LCFO had registered 2000 new Black voters by the spring of 1966. Following the Lowndes County campaign, Stokely Carmichael replaced John Lewis as chairman of SNCC. Carmichael’s new, militant vision of Black nationalism changed the tone and direction of SNCC. 

Stokely Carmichael and Dr. King were two of the civil rights leaders who joined James Meredith’s “March Against Fear” in June 1966. Meredith, the first Black American to enroll at the previously all-white University of Mississippi, had set out on a 200-mile march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. Meredith hoped his example would encourage Blacks to stand up against intimidation and to register to vote. On the second day of his march, Meredith was shot and wounded. Leaders from all the major civil rights organizations came to Mississippi to continue the march, register voters, and protest the violent backlash against the civil rights struggle. Along the route, conflicts over strategy between King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and SNCC rose to the surface. Those tensions—over white participation and the efficacy of nonviolence—became public at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. Challenging the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and the SCLC, Carmichael announced the arrival of the Black power movement, which signaled a change in the civil rights movement as Black Americans called for increased power and control over their communities, while white Americans were forced to examine the realities of their democracy.


  • 1The Nation of Islam was established in 1930 with the goal of improving the social and economic conditions of blacks in America. Preaching a racially focused version of Islam, the Nation of Islam prospered during the 1950s and early 1960s when the organization, under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, attracted disillusioned blacks in urban centers by advocating pride and self-empowerment.
  • 2SNCC was a political organization that played a central role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Begun as an interracial group advocating nonviolence, it adopted greater militancy late in the decade, reflecting nationwide trends in black activism.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

Depending on your students' prior knowledge of the civil rights movement’s leaders, you may need to create a mini-lecture to deliver before the jigsaw activity that helps explain Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael’s roles in the civil rights movement and their views about the best strategies for achieving their goals of freedom and democracy. 

Students may be unfamiliar with the following terms and organizations that they will encounter in this lesson’s readings: the definition and connotation of “Negro,” Mecca, Nation of Islam, SNCC, Black Power, nationalism, castration, and degradation. Because the readings draw from primary source material comprised primarily of speeches, and contain challenging vocabulary and syntax, it is important that you preview them to assess where your students may need additional support.

Before teaching this lesson, create groups of 3-4 students for a Jigsaw activity and assign each group a reading from the Eyes on the Prize study guide (Black Nationalism, Malcolm and Martin, Black Power). Black Power is the most challenging of the three readings, so you might take this into consideration when creating your groups. Choose the Read Aloud strategy that you feel will work best for your class.

As noted above, Black Power is more challenging than the other two jigsaw readings because of its length, complex vocabulary and sentence structure, and many historical references. If you need to simplify the reading, have students start at paragraph 7 (“Negroes are defined by two forces: their Blackness and their powerlessness.”) to reduce the number of civil rights references your students may not have encountered and shorten it from three pages to two.

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Lesson Plans


Tell students that in this lesson that they will be learning about some of the obstacles Black Americans faced in the early 1960s and the visions for freedom and democracy held by three different civil rights leaders. Before learning more about the leaders and their contributions to the civil rights movement, ask students to reflect in their journals on their own ideas about the best way to create change in their communities, our nation, and our world:

  • What are some things that you would like to see changed in your school community, neighborhood, country, or world?
  • Make a list of possible strategies for creating the change you would like to see.

Depending on time, students might Think-Pair-Share with a partner or you might ask for volunteers to share their ideas in a brief class discussion.

  • Tell students that Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael, three civil rights leaders, each had his own vision for the path towards freedom and democracy during the tumultuous period in the early and mid-1960s. In this activity, groups of students will focus on one of the leaders to learn more about the obstacles he faced, as well as his vision and strategy for achieving civil rights for Black Americans.
  • Ask students to move into their groups, pass out the three readings from the Eyes on the Prize Study Guide (Black Nationalism, Malcolm and Martin, Black Power) and the handout “The Time Has Come” Civil Rights Leaders Chart, and explain the Read Aloud strategy that you would like students to use for this activity.
  • Instruct students to keep track of their understanding by annotating their readings using the following key: 3
    • Write an exclamation mark (!) in the margin alongside information that surprises you.
    • Write a question mark (?) in the margin alongside passages in which the author assumes you know or understand something that you don’t.
    • Write a “C” in the margin alongside information that challenges your thinking.
  • After students have finished reading and annotating, ask each group to work together to complete a handout for their reading’s leader.
  • Jigsaw the students by asking them to move from their “expert” groups to new “teaching” groups. Instruct each student to briefly summarize their reading before sharing the information they recorded on their handouts with their new group members. Other students in the group can add this information to their own handouts before sharing the ideas from their own readings and handouts.
  • 3This key is adapted from Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst’s annotation strategy in Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters.

After students have finished sharing the information from their “expert” groups, have a class discussion in which you ask students to respond to one or more of the following questions about the readings:

  1. What are the similarities in how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael described the obstacles Black Americans faced in their pursuit of freedom?
  2. What are the differences in how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael described the obstacles Black Americans faced in their pursuit of freedom?
  3. What role did each leader’s voice play in the civil rights movement?
  4. What do you think are the possible benefits and shortcomings of each leader’s approach and strategy to bringing about social change during the civil rights movement? Explain your reasoning by citing examples from the readings and other social movements that you have learned about or participated in.
  5. Based on what you learned from readings, what makes social movements work? Support your answer with examples from the three readings.
  6. How can we determine the most effective way to enact change in our neighborhoods, our nation, and the world? Which strategies are best for bringing about the changes we want to see?

To capture your students’ understanding of the content of today’s lesson, ask them to respond to the following questions on an Exit Ticket that you collect at the end of the period.

  • Reread your response to this lesson’s initial journal prompt.
    • Based on what you learned from today’s readings about Malcolm X, Dr. King, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael, what strategies for creating change might you add to your list?
    • Are there any strategies that you might take off of your list and why?
    • How can you apply what you learned today about what makes movements work to your own life and vision for change?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

Get the handout that students use in this lesson plan in PDF or Doc format.  

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