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Activism and Presidential Profiles in Courage: Potential Lesson Plans

By George White, CEI Education Policy Associate. 

On September 24, 1957, President Dwight David Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to Little Rock, Arkansas to prevent angry white mobs from attacking nine black teenagers who had enrolled to attend a segregated high school. By deploying the army, Eisenhower enforced the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregated schools.

One of those black students, Terrence Roberts, talked about Eisenhower’s decision during Black History Month addresses the weekend before Presidents Day 2014.

‘Without the army, we would have been killed,’ said Roberts, a clinical psychologist who now lives in Pasadena, Ca.

However, Roberts also gave credit to Jazz legend Louis Armstrong, who made national headlines by cancelling his U.S. government-sponsored goodwill trip to the Soviet Union to protest the treatment of the students and to goad Eisenhower to take action.

‘The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,’ Armstrong said, lending his voice to support Civil Rights organizations calling for action. Eisenhower, Armstrong added, had ‘no guts.’

Eisenhower’s Little Rock Nine stand, like many other historic acts of courage by U.S. Presidents, was prompted ‘“ in part ‘“ by social movements and activists. This is one lesson that school administrators can and should incorporate into their classroom instruction plans as they transition to the new Common Core education standards that most states are adopting this year. Under Common Core, educators are expected to more frequently assign students to read and analyze informational texts from books and other sources.

Lessons from Little Rock. Educators might consider assigning students to read and analyze sections from Lessons from Little Rock, a 2009 book by Terrence Roberts (Butler Center Books), who escaped the racial turmoil by moving from Little Rock to Los Angeles to complete his high school education. (His family later joined him in Los Angeles.)

This is also an opportunity for students to examine the black exodus from the South to the North and West, a migration prompted by discrimination and racial violence. Sections of Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Warmth of Other Suns (Random House, 2010) could be assigned. In addition, the American Federation of Teachers has provided material for lessons plans called ‘Teaching the Legacy of Little Rock’ on a webpage.

Courageous Stands of Other Presidents. Here is a summary of other potential sources of other informational texts on presidents and the social movements that encouraged them to take courageous stands.

  1. The Zinn Education Project, which supports the use of Howard Zinn’s best-selling book A People’s  History of the United States, has an excellent tutorial on how to incorporate the story of how abolitionists helped prompt Abraham Lincoln to make his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in secessionist Southern states. It explains how those abolitionists also subsequently successfully advocated for Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which ended slavery nationwide.

  2. The website of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is an excellent source for information on how leftists, trade unions and individual activists agitated for FDR’s courageous to decision to create the New Deal during the Depression. For example, it includes references to Dr. Francis Townsend, a senior citizen who successfully campaigned for the establishment of Social Security, a New Deal enacted in 1935.

  3. The role of Civil Rights groups in President Johnson’s courageous decision to push through the 1965 Voting Rights Act is chronicled in a teachers’ guide at PBS’ American Experience website.

Climate change could be the subject of the next presidential profile in courage. A New America Media report explains how President Obama ushered in 2010 and 2012 vehicle emissions standards that reduce pollution. However, environmental activists may need to apply more pressure if Obama or a future president is to take a more active role to address global warming.


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