4 Civil Rights Lessons Worth Teaching

Guest Post:

Here at Owl Eyes, we’ve recently been publishing and annotating primary source documents from American history. Some of the most illuminating texts to read and write about have been those from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. The conflicts waged and resolutions struck in those years have done much to shape the United States as it stands today.

One of the most critical laws passed in the wake of the Civil War was the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a law that defined American citizenship and sought to protect African Americans from those who wished to take away their rights as citizens. Revisiting the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in 2018 reveals some fascinating and relevant lessons about civil rights, political change, and government in the United States. For educators interested in teaching the history of civil rights in the classroom, these lessons are well worth discussing.

1. Civil rights must be fought for and won.

The first century of American history tells us that civil rights are not merely granted. They must be fought for, delineated in painstaking detail, and carefully preserved for future generations. Rights require work. Because the founders set sail on the waters of nationhood in order to be free of the tyranny of the British crown, it is tempting to view “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as the default condition of the American individual. Not so. The values set forth in the founding documents mark an ideal to strive toward, a national myth, not a description of American life.

In the century following the nation’s birth, one particular issue increasingly revealed the gulf between the dream of Jefferson’s “unalienable rights” and the stark realities of the young nation: slavery. Anyone wondering whether “all men are created equal” needed only survey the back-breaking slave labor that fueled the cotton plantations of the South to discover a resounding answer. The North noticed the problem. Cue the Civil War.

The scale of the war—its costs and casualties—revealed the split visions of American values. In the North, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” were seen as rights for all Americans, or at least all men. In the South, the phrase read like a list of privileges for wealthy white men, especially those who owned land and slaves. Even after the North defeated the South in war, the progressive politicians in Congress had to pass a bevy of laws, acts, and constitutional amendments in order to clarify that “all men are created equal.” These laws, which sought to give freedom, citizenship, voting rights, and safety to African Americans, received pushback at every step. The basic tenets of civil rights needed to be refreshed in the mid-20th century and remain debated to this day. Civil rights always need to be fought for.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

What do Jefferson’s “unalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” mean to you?
What are the similarities and differences between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s and the progress made by Congress during Reconstruction?
Which civil rights issues do you find most relevant and pressing today?

Recommended Reading:

The Declaration of Independence
Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution

2. Government is an evolving process.

The other political issue that dominated American politics in the 19th century was states’ rights. The issue of states’ rights—which persists to this day—refers to the struggle between the federal government and the state governments over which level of government should have the power to pass and enforce laws. While the founders of the United States sought to lay out in clear terms the systems of government, one question arose and, unanswered, began to hover like a storm cloud over American politics: How much power should the federal government possess?

The dispute over this exact question defined the Civil War and Reconstruction. In many ways, this clash mirrored the clash over slavery and civil rights. Put simply, the North wanted to end slavery and expand civil rights and therefore wished to arm the federal government with the powers to do so; the South wanted to maintain slavery and limit civil rights and therefore wished to keep the federal government too weak to change anything.

It is no surprise, then, that the push for freedom, equality, and civil rights in the 1860s also empowered the federal government. That trend began with the Civil War. The Union’s victory over the Confederacy was, in itself, a victory for the federal government over the autonomy of the states. Much of the progressive legislation of the time explicitly declares, along with each new law, the federal government’s authority to enforce the law across the states. The Fourteenth Amendment included a critical clause that allowed the entire Bill of Rights to be incorporated into the state legislatures. Revisiting this historical period reveals how the federal government itself is an ever-evolving process rather than a fixed reality.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

Over the course of American history, how has the relationship between the federal government and state governments changed? Do you think the federal government has become more or less powerful? Explain your reasoning.
Some politicians and historians have argued that the Civil War was more about the issue of states’ rights than slavery. How valid is this claim, and why?
To what extent is a strong central government needed to instate and enforce civil rights? Is it possible to institute civil rights at the state or local level? Why or why not?

Recommended Reading:

The Bill of Rights
The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution

3. There have always been progressives and conservatives.

If the current political landscape appears to be a staged clash between progressive and conservative sides, it has always been so. During the American Revolution, there were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists; today there are the Democrats and the Republicans. The times change, as do the names of the political parties, but this central polarity does not. Progressives are more egalitarian, pushing social reforms and large government programs. Conservatives are more independent, seeking to minimize the government’s involvement in human affairs. Progressives want change; conservatives want tradition.

In a reversal of today’s parties, the progressives of the Reconstruction era were known as Republicans; the conservatives, Democrats. The push for civil rights in the United States has always been a progressive agenda, and so it was the Republicans of the 1860s—known as the “Radical Republicans”—who emancipated the slaves, abolished slavery, created the Freedmen’s Bureau, and gave African Americans citizenship and the right to vote. The 1860s represent an example of when progressive lawmakers took enormous—and often hard-won—strides in the ethically correct direction.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

Describe the party politics of the 1860s between the Radical Republicans and Southern Democrats. In what ways do today’s progressive and conservative parties reflect those of the 1860s? In what ways do they differ?
Do the opposing forces of progress and tradition—which can be found throughout world history—represent a conflict or a balance or both? Explain your answer.
What are other historical examples of conflicts between progressive and conservative sides? Consider other places and periods in history.

Recommended Reading:

The Federalist Papers
The Emancipation Proclamation
The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill

4. Presidents can be overpowered and overruled.

Following the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Andrew Johnson took the presidential office. Unlike Lincoln, Johnson was a Southern Democrat and brought with him a highly conservative agenda. He attempted to reinstate the Southern state governments and resurrect the crushed postwar South. Furthermore, he tried to block, veto, and argue against the progressive laws passed by the predominantly Republican Congress.

Despite Johnson’s desire to return the United States to its prewar condition, the Republicans in Congress pushed for a better future, ignoring Johnson’s numerous vetoes in their march towards greater equality and civil rights. The best example of this trend is the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which Johnson had vetoed before the Senate and House of Representatives overrode the veto in a cascade of congressional votes. It was the first major veto override in American legislative history. Andrew Johnson’s term in office shows how American presidents can be overpowered and overruled, especially if they conflict with the stronger political forces of their time.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

How does a presidential veto work? Do you think the presidential veto is a proper tool in the system of checks and balances? Explain your answer.
What are some other times in American history when a president clashed with Congress? What happened?
Beyond American history, what are other examples of world leaders who tried to halt or slow the forces of change and progress? What happened?

Recommended Reading:

The Civil Rights Act of 1866, along with Johnson’s attempted veto of it
The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868
Frederick Douglass’s essay “Reconstruction”


We hope you find American history as fascinating and valuable as we do. In particular, the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction offers key insights into the current landscape of the United States, revealing important lessons about the workings of the government and the attainment of civil rights.

— Zachary, @ Owl Eyes

Zachary is an associate editor at OwlEyes.org, where he works with a talented team of fellow book nerds to make classic literature enriching and fun for teachers and students alike. Follow Owl Eyes on Twitter. 



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