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Civic Engagement throughout History

October 01, 2012

Students research one period in history where an individual or group stood up for their rights and got involved in civil disobedience or civic engagement.


To understand aspects and qualities of civic engagement and social movements over time

Special requirements:

A list—contemporary and historical—of individuals and political or social movements, plus access to texts and Web sites for research purposes

Time required:

One or more full class sessions for discussion and reflection, plus time outside class for research


This exercise would be especially good for a history, political science,women’s studies, ethnic studies, or ethics class. Ask your students to research one of the moments in American or world history where an individual or group of citizens stood up for their rights and got involved through civil disobedience or civic engagement. Some of the people or events students might consider include the following:

• Campaigns for and/or against voting and equal rights for women (e.g.,
Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul,Woodrow Wilson, Gloria Steinem,
Phyllis Schlafly)
• Campaigns for and/or against civil rights for African Americans (e.g.,
Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B.Wells, George
Wallace, David Duke)
• Campaigns for and/or against Congressional representation and voting
rights for residents of Washington, D.C.
• Advocacy groups for and/or against Native Americans, the elderly, the
disabled, gay men and lesbians, farm workers, neo-Nazis, the homeless
• Issue-related initiatives such as school desegregation, abortion, gun
ownership, apartheid, drug legalization, states rights, nuclear power,
economic globalization
• Race-related incidents that resulted in violence, from Selma or Watts in
the 1960s to Cincinnati in 2001
• Ethnic cleansing and genocidal warfare in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Sudan
• International activists such as Mahatma Gandhi in India, Rigoberta
Menchú in Guatemala, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Patrice Lumumba
in Zaire, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Lech Walesa in Poland
• Pro- and anti-war movements, from the Civil War to Vietnam to the
Gulf War
• Corporate environmental policies (e.g., Appalachian coal mines, Love
Canal), activists (e.g., Erin Brockovich, Karen Silkwood), and environmental
• Individual or group responses to the September 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks, including recovery and relief efforts
• Individual or group responses to tsunami and hurricane relief efforts in
2004 and 2005

Sample reflection:

Have students research an event, topic, or person and present their findings to the class. Some in-class discussion questions could include:

1. Was your subject a good example of civic responsibility? Why or why not?
2. What was achieved by their efforts?
3. What was compromised for their achievement? Was violence involved?
4. What else might the person or group have done to further their cause?
5. Who were the most admirable people in the movement or issue you studied?
6. What qualities or skills did they demonstrate?
7. What motivated them to get involved?
8. Did they motivate other people to join their cause? If so, how? 9. What issues, if any, are compelling enough that you would risk your life for them?


Assignment adapted from Integrating Civic Responsibility into the Curriculum.