Civil Rights and the Cold War (2024)


Though the civil rights movement may be something we learn about in history class, it still lies at the center of America’s continuing attempt to live up to its ideals and principles. The movement is a period of American history without clear boundaries, although generally speaking it is understood to run from the 1950s through the 1960s. The central issue of the movement was to end the legal basis for racial segregation and the subsequent struggle to enforce this ruling. Aside from this central goal, the civil rights movement was a social phenomenon that touched every aspect of American life for citizens of all races. Among the best remembered leaders of this era are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; Oliver Hill; Medgar Evers; Rosa Parks; and Thurgood Marshall.

At the same time that the civil rights movement brought domestic unrest to new heights on the domestic stage, the United States was engaged in an extended conflict known as the Cold War internationally. During WWII, the Soviet Union and U.S. fought together in an effort to combat Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers. When the war ended, however, a new bipolar world emerged in which the two superpowers— and nuclear-armed states— struggled against one another to extend their ideological, political, and economic influence. In the United States, especially, politicians were increasingly sensitive to the perceived threats of communist subversion and dissidents operating within the country. Though this threat was often exaggerated, it very much clouded the atmosphere that surrounded government affairs.

The question of race relations often came up in the context of the Cold War, and vice versa. Soviets used segregation and mistreatment of black Americans to support the claim that communism was a more just and equitable socio-political system, and American segregationists invoked the communist threat as a means to discredit the desegregation movement. Conversely, the U. S. government and civil rights leaders appreciated that continued segregation was an ever more embarrassing issue in international politics.

More extensive background information is available in a PDF.

Content Standards

NCSS.D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circ*mstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

NCSS.D2.His.2.9-12. Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.

NCSS.D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.

NCSS.D2.His.12.9-12. Use questions generated about multiple historical sources to pursue further inquiry and investigate additional sources.

NCSS.D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.

NCSS.D2.His.15.9-12. Distinguish between long-term causes and triggering events in developing a historical argument.

NCSS.D2.His.16.9-12. Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.


Usethis combined timeline on the civil rights movement and the Cold War to introduce or review major events from the era. Consider the following questions:

  • Was the event a cause or an effect in relation to the civil rights movement and/or the Cold War?
  • Did a particular event positively or negatively impact the civil rights movement and/or the Cold War?
  • Which event was a turning point for the civil rights movement?
  • Which event was a turning point for the Cold War?
  • What events and/or people shouldbe added to the timeline?

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Review of Documents

Analyze the following primary sources to begin the comparative evaluation of the civil rights movement and the Cold War:

Document 1:Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae, Oliver Brown, et. al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Document 2:Labor Day Weekend at Communist Training School,” Highlander Folk School Broadside. Georgia Commission on Education, 1957, Series I., Subseries A, S. Ernest Vandiver Collection, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia, Athens, as presented in the Digital Library of Georgia.

Document 3:Report to the American People on Civil Rights, 11 June 1963. J.F.K. Library.

Document 4:T.L. Hughes, State Department memo on Soviet Media Coverage of Current U.S. Racial Crisis, June 14, 1963. Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. National Security Files. Subjects. Civil rights: General, June 1963, 11-14 J.F.K. Library.

Document 5: Robert B. Patterson, “The Road Ahead: Address to the Annual Leadership Conference of the Citizens' Council of America” (Montgomery, AL, January 15, 1965).

Consider the following questions when analyzing the documents:

  • Why was this document/statement published?
  • Who do you think this document was intended to target?
  • Whose perspective is missing?
  • What new questions can you pursue to learn more about the issues presented?
  • Provide a rationale for why you would group a document with the Cold War or the civil rights movement.

Activity 2. Group Analysis

Divide the class into five groups to discuss the following questions and each group will produce new information regarding the civil rights movement and the Cold War not provided within the documents provided:

  • What is the specific purpose of this document?
  • What means does this document use to accomplish its goal?
  • What are the points of view of each document?
  • What new questions and/or information have you gathered?
  • What new perspectives have you found or considered?

Activity 3. Closing Discussion

Open with a short query about the meaning of the term “assumptions” as it pertains to documents. The efficacy of a document depends in part on the assumptions of the document’s author as well as those of the readers. Invite the class to compare and contrast the goals and assumptions made in the document. Focus on how we decide whether a document belongs to the civil rights movement or the Cold War. Is this distinction meaningful? How does this distinction hinge on the reader’s assumptions? What revisions should be made to the timeline? What perspectives should be included within the discussion about the civil rights movement and the Cold War?


Students will answer the following question in essay, presentation, or video format:

The people who made some of these documents may seem to be living in a different worlds. Why do these documents present such different perspectives? How do you think political goals, assumptions, and facts interact to produce our view of the world? What role do primary sources documents play in either supporting or challenging our views?

Students must use specific examples from the lesson, citing relevant evidence from the primary sources and background information presented on the Cold War and civil rights movement in the textbook.

Lesson Extensions

Students will draw comparisons to political documents—press briefings, news articles, archival speeches, etc., during the current or recent campaign seasons. Are the tactics used today the same or different from those used fifty years ago? In so, how? If not, why? What types of assumptions about society are implicit in contemporary campaign documents? How do these silent assumptions influence our thinking?

Civil Rights and the Cold War (2024)
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