1961 in Mississippi: Beyond the Freedom Riders Lesson Plan

Karla Smith


Prior to the involvement of national initiatives in the 1960s, such as the Freedom Rides, local people worked to bring an end to discrimination in their communities. These efforts were led out of public view in private homes, churches, and small businesses. For this reason, the early local leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are often overlooked in history. The work of these local leaders laid the foundation for national organizations such as SNCC and CORE to further facilitate the fight for civil rights within Mississippi as well as the nation.


Mississippi Studies

  • MS.8.1 - Analyze the significant figures, groups, events, and strategies of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.
  • MS.8.2 - Examine the conflict between the Federal and State governments during the Civil Rights Era.
  • MS.8.3 - Evaluate the lasting impact of the Civil Rights movement on Mississippi.

US History: 1877 to Present

  • US.11.2 - Trace the federal government’s involvement in the modern Civil Rights Movement, including: the abolition of the poll tax, the nationalization of state militias, Brown versus Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  
  • US.11.3 - Explain contributions of individuals and groups to the modern Civil Rights Movement, including: Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the civil rights foot soldiers.  
  • US.11.6 - Describe the accomplishments of the modern civil rights movement, including: the growth of the African American middle class, increased political power, and declining rates of African American poverty. 


Grades 7 through 12


  • Mississippi History Now article. 1961 in Mississippi
  • Paper
  • Pencil/pen
  • Computer
  • Internet access
  • Various reference books
  • Colored pencils or markers


The students will engage in these three activities:

  • Compose a paragraph about the main points of the Mississippi History Now article.
  • Practice oral communication skills through “fishbowl” group discussions.
  • Design a monument or display about activism during the Civil Rights Movement.


The teacher will ask student volunteers to share with the class what they already know about the Civil Rights Movement and the events within their state prior to the Freedom Rides of 1961. Once the opening discussion has been brought to a close, the teacher will tell the students that they will have an opportunity over the next few days to learn more about local community activism in Mississippi prior to the arrival of the Freedom Riders.


The teacher will use the fishbowl approach to lead a class discussion about the Mississippi History Now article, “1961 in Mississippi: Beyond the Freedom Rides.”

Students will be assigned to read the Mississippi History Now article prior to class discussion. Depending on the prior knowledge of the students, the teacher may need to have them define the following terms: Jim Crow, NAACP, Citizens’ Council, SNCC, and CORE.

The class will be divided into three groups and assigned one of the following sections of the Mississippi History Now article for the fishbowl discussion:

  • Clarksdale and the NAACP
  • Pigee and Youth Council
  • Women and the Movement

At the time the article is assigned for reading, the teacher can also assign the students to their groups and instruct them to pay close attention as they read their group’s assigned section.

The teacher will create a circle of chairs in the center of the classroom. Each student group will have an opportunity to sit in the circle (fishbowl). The remaining class members will remain at their desks outside the fishbowl and observe the group discussion in the circle. The students observing the group discussion should take notes on the main points that are discussed in the fishbowl. Each of the three groups should discuss the questions listed below under the respective article section. These questions can be given to the group members ahead of time or assigned as the students enter the fishbowl.

Clarksdale and the NAACP

  • How was the NAACP significant in the fight for civil rights?
  • Would the local branches of the NAACP have been successful without a national organization?

Pigee and Youth Council

  • Why was youth participation essential in the fight for civil rights?
  • What were the most successful strategies used by the youth? Why were these strategies successful?

Women and the Movement

  • How would you characterize the women who participated in the movement? What were their strengths?
  • Why are women like Vera Pigee often overlooked when studying the Civil Rights Movement?

The teacher should clarify any necessary points during the group discussions in the fishbowl. Each student should be required to participate in the fishbowl discussion. The teacher may want to design a rubric in order to award points or a grade for student participation.

The teacher will ask the students to write a paragraph about what they feel were the most important points addressed during the fishbowl sessions.

The teacher will ask for student volunteers to share their paragraphs or points with the class. The teacher will also ask the class if they felt that the fishbowl strategy helped them better understand the main points of the article.

Optional: For large classes where the fishbowl approach may be difficult to implement, the teacher can place students in groups of three or four and assign each group one of the article sections. These small groups can discuss the designated questions for their respective sections and present their conclusions to the class.


The teacher will allow the students to work in small groups of three or four to design a monument or museum display that recognizes women, youth, or local organizations that played active roles in the Civil Rights Movement. The teacher will allow the student groups to share their monument or museum display with their classmates.


  • Class participation
  • Class notes
  • Written paragraphs
  • Monument or museum display


  • Students can research the activities of various civil rights organizations such as SNCC and CORE.
  • Students can research the activities of the Citizens’ Council.
  • The teacher can use other Mississippi History Now articles on various civil rights leaders and events. Select articles from the Black history category on the Archive page.