Lesson 3: Breaking Barriers with Melba Pattillo
Grade Level: 7–up
Introduce students to individuals who made the civil rights movement
a success and help them to understand that single events had a
significant and stirring impact on the course of history. Through
news stories, interviews, and interactive features, students will
meet Melba Pattillo. The lesson ideas below provide suggestions
for using the online activity as a way to have students think
critically about the issues and circumstances surrounding Melba
Pattillo’s attempt to attend an all-white school.
- Ask students to share what they know about integration.
- Share the following quote with them:
Have them explain in their own words what they think this statement
"We conclude that the doctrine of 'separate but equal'
has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently
- Explain that this was a quote from Chief Justice Earl Warren
on the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education (1954),
a landmark case that outlawed segregation in U.S. schools. Have
students read the background
summary and questions related to this case.
Teach with the Activities
Meet Melba Pattillo:
- Before you introduce students to Melba Pattillo, have them
consider the following question:
Why would someone risk his or her life in order to seek integration.
- Have students consider circumstance where they might be willing
to risk their lives. Why would they take the chance? What would
be the benefit for themselves? Their families? Other people
in their community? The world?
Meet Melba Pattillo:
- Have students read the articles in Integrating
Central High: The Melba Pattillo Story: Big Decisions, First
Day, Inside—Briefly, Integration Is the Law, Fighting
to Learn, Becoming a Warrior, Endings and Beginnings.
- Distribute the Organizer
Patterns: Cause–Effect (PDF). In the box to the right,
students should write in “Risk Life for Integration.”
- Students should reread the articles and explore the “Find
Out More” links at the bottom of each page. Direct them
to pull facts that explain why the Little Rock Nine were motivated
to jeopardize their safety in order to desegregate Central High.
- Use the following discussion questions to help students
make a personal connection between Melba Pattillo’s
experience and their own lives:
- After what happened to Melba, if you were her, would you
volunteer to go to Central High? Why or why not?
- Recall your own first day of school this year. Compare
it with Melba's. How are they similar and different?
- Melba is risking her life for an idea — the right
to an equal education. Would you be willing to take a similar
risk for something that you believed in? If so, explain.
- What do you think Melba feels as she walks into Central
High as one of the first African-American students?
- What would you do and how would you feel if you were Melba
and you learned that the soldiers were leaving?
- How do you think Melba feels on graduation day at Central
High? Do you think her feelings changed when school did not
reopen in September?
- How do you think Melba feels entering Central High School,
40 years later, with the president at her side?
Comparing Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement:
- Take students to the profile on Rosa
Parks and have them read the articles: Sitting Down, Arrested,
Boycott, King’s Speech, Boycott Works, Nonviolence, and
- Referring to the Cause–Effect organizer, ask students
to find similarities and differences between Rosa Parks’
experience and motivations and Melba Pattillo’s.
- Discuss the similarities and differences as a class. Lead
students in brainstorming questions that they’d like to
have asked Rosa Parks and Melba Pattillo.
- Have them read the interview
with Melba Pattillo Beals and Rosa
Parks. Were any of their questions answered in these interviews?
What new questions might reading these Q&As have raised?
Researching Civil Rights:
- Explain that students will follow up the online activity by
independently researching and writing a paper about a person
or event from the civil rights movement.
- Review Research
Starters: Alabama and Civil Rights in the 1960s as a class.
- Have students pick a research topic to begin their paper.
Suggest that they might choose one of the following:
- Adapt one of the questions they had for Rosa Parks and Melba
- Choose one of the recommended topics listed on the research
- Select a key individual (besides Rosa Parks and Melba
Pattillo) to investigate
- Hand out the Organizational
Outline (PDF) for students to fill out as they research
- Direct students to start with the articles and links features
on the research starters page. They can also use the interactive
timeline (and related links), as well as the Additional
Resources and Recommended
Books. Encourage them to conduct independent research in
the library, too.
- As part of their overall thesis, have students consider whether
the person they are writing about or groups of people related
to the events they’re researching risked their lives in
the struggle to gain equality. Why would they have felt it was
worth the risk?
- Students can find tips to help them organize their data and
build their paper in the Research
Paper Writing Workshop.
- Have students present their final work as oral report to the
rest of the class.
- Invite students to write a first-person journal entry from
the perspective of Melba, one of the other Little Rock Nine,
or a white student at Central High. Through their writing, have
them imagine what it was like to be involved in these historic
- What did they think?
- How did they feel?
- Were they scared? Angry? Proud?
- Imagine what the same person might think of those events if
he or she reflected on them 50 years later.
- Stage a mock trial in your class challenging segregation laws.
Imagine that your school was for white students only, but some
black, Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern students wanted to
attend it. Appoint students to take on the roles of:
- Jury members
- Besides African Americans, what other groups have faced discrimination
and prejudice in the United States? How have these groups fought
- What movements of today inspire people to risk their safety
in order to achieve results? Do you agree or disagree with their
- What might our society look like today if the decision in
Brown v. Board of Education had been different?
4th Edition Standards & Benchmarks
United States History
- Understands individual and institutional influences on the
civil rights movement
- Understands significant influences on the civil rights movement