Civil Rights Movement in Context

Historical content: 
The Civil Rights Era
Historical skills: 
Background knowledge, Contextualization, Periodization



The following two letters are both from the archives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and were written over twenty years apart. Read the letters and determine which was written first. Then explain your answers using evidence from the letters and your knowledge of history.


Letter A: First Lady of the United States to Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, addressing the lynching situation.

Letter B: Daisy Bates to Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, describing the conditions of black children in a previously all-white school.

Letter A
Letter B
Source text: 

  Letter A:

"Before I received your letter today I had been in to the President. . . . and he said the difficulty is that it is unconstitutional apparently for the Federal Government to step in in the lynching situation. . . . The President feels that lynching is a question of education in the states, rallying good citizens, and creating public opinion so that the localities themselves will wipe it out. However, if it were done by a Northerner, it will have an antagonistic effect. . . . I am deeply troubled about the whole situation as it seems to be a terrible thing to stand by and let it continue. . . I think your next step would be to talk to the more prominent members of the Senate."

  Letter B:

"Conditions are yet pretty rough in the school for the children. . . . The treatment of the children had been getting steadily worse for the last two weeks in the form of kicking, spitting, and general abuse. As a result of our visit, stronger measures are being taken against the white students who are guilty of committing these offenses. . . . [The President of the United States] was very much concerned about the crisis. . . . He has stated his willingness to come down and address the student body if invited by student leaders of the school. . . . Last Friday, the 13th, I was asked to call Washington and see if we could get FBI men placed in the school."


Letter _____ was likely written first because ______________________________



Letter _____ was likely written later because ______________________________




About the Assessment

This assessment measures students’ ability to contextualize two historical documents and place them in the correct chronological order. Document A is a 1936 letter from the Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. Document B is a 1957 letter from Daisy Bates, a NAACP representative in Arkansas, to Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins. The assessment draws on students' knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement but in a way that taps more than just the recall of facts and dates. Students must show that they have a broad understanding of how the Civil Rights Movement unfolded and that they can actively use historical information to place the two documents in context.

In this question, students who correctly contextualize the documents will see that Letter A, which focuses on the reluctance of the federal government to address the problem of lynching, was likely written before Letter B, which discusses treatment of students at a recently desegregated school. The following answer reflects the ability to contextualize the letters and place them in the correct order: