Recommended Books
Lesson 1: Grades 3–4
Lesson 2: Grades 5–6
Lesson 3: Grades 7–Up
Additional Resources
Online Activity Teacher's Guide

Lesson 3: Breaking Barriers with Melba Pattillo

Grade Level: 7–up

Lesson Introduction
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. 

Build Background

  • Ask students to share what they know about integration.
  • Share the following quote with them:

    "We conclude that the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

    Have them explain in their own words what they think this statement means.
  • 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 Court Ruling.
  • 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 Pattillo
    • Choose one of the recommended topics listed on the research starters page
    • 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 their activity.
  • 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.

Extend Learning

Additional Activities

  • 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 events.
    • 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:
    • Judge
    • Jury members
    • Lawyers
    • Witnesses
    • Plaintiffs

Discussion Questions

  • Besides African Americans, what other groups have faced discrimination and prejudice in the United States? How have these groups fought for equality?
  • What movements of today inspire people to risk their safety in order to achieve results? Do you agree or disagree with their cause? Explain.
  • 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