Great Movies for Teaching US History: Civil Rights Movement

This series on Great Movies for Teaching U.S. History, from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War, will publish on consecutive weekdays through May 2. It features films and documentaries inspired by historical events in the United States, including information about their educational value, ratings and appropriateness for children, and how well they represent the time periods covered.

Civil Rights Movement: 1943-1985

America was founded as a free country, but struggles with the hypocrisy of that concept continued for many generations. Native Americans, women, immigrants, and African Americans struggled for equal opportunities. The push for equality in the mid-20th century became known as the Civil Rights Movement. It was a turbulent time in the United States: fear of communism spurred us into war, a president was assassinated, and many who fought for peace were killed.

Forrest Gump: 1944-1982

The film is based on the fictional book of the same name. The time period serves as a backdrop for the film and the main character, Forrest, becomes involved with almost every major event during this time. Forrest teaches Elvis how to dance, joins the war, meets two presidents, influences John Lennon, marches on Washington, converses with the Black Panthers, and exposes Watergate. While no man named ‘Forrest Gump’ actually did all these things, these are significant historical events in US culture.

The film was preserved in the National Film Registry in 2011 and includes some mature themes, such as drug use, venereal diseases, and nudity. There are also battle scenes from the Vietnam War.


Our Friend Martin: 1930s-1968

An animated program developed for younger audiences to encourage learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. The fictional plot involves young adults who travel through time and meet MLK at different points in his life. The film depicts actual events, and allows the children to interact with history. This film can be used as a great tool to encourage interest among young learners in history and the Civil Rights Movement. While the film is animated, it features an all-star cast and the production value is very high for the time. The film presents racial tensions  and stereotypes during the Civil Rights movement.


 The Help: Early 1960s

Adapted from the book of the same name, the film explores what life was like for several maids during the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi.  African American servants were a staple in the Southern household, and this film strives to tell their story.  The film focuses on several maids and how privileged white families lived.

The book is based on the author’s own experience.  While the story is considered fictional, it depicts encompass the racial tensions during the time, and the injustices that many African American women faced. Police brutality, attacks by the KKK, and other injustices are portrayed in the film. One character experiences a miscarriage.


 Malcolm X: 1943-1965

The film focuses on one of the most famous names in history, and the incredible role he played during this time. Malcolm X fought for black rights, and encouraged blacks to learn more about their history and to be proud to be black. The film recreates several milestones that took place during Malcolm’s life. The film explores the religious aspect during the Civil Rights movement, and the pivotal role Islam had on men and women during the time. The film includes footage from prominent leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. There is a Malcolm X channel on YouTube with several interviews and speeches.


 Mississippi Burning: 1964

The film takes an extremely gritty look at the events surrounding the murder of civil rights workers. While the movie is fictional, it borrows from history. Two FBI agents are sent to investigate the murder. The Ku Klux Klan and the role of the law and politics during the Civil Rights Movement are portrayed. Injustices were often overlooked or never reported due to racism of the county sheriff in the film, who is a known Ku  Klux Klan Member. The film is extremely graphic. Lynching, beatings, and extreme acts of violence are present in the film. The film also includes profanity and racial slurs.


Eyes on the Prize: 1954-1985

This 1991 documentary recounts all the major events of the Civil Rights Movement. Using interviews, court decisions and historical footage, this series tells an incredible story from the viewpoint of the ordinary man. The film discusses many of the instrumental individuals and groups that were involved in the movement, as well as provides a timeline to follow the milestones along the way.

PBS provides many resources that go along with the film for all age groups.


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