Stanford University The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute
The Children's Crusade
  Lesson Plan: The Children's crusade & the Role of Youth in the African American Freedom Struggle  



The following lesson plan focuses on the role young people played in the African American freedom struggle, specifically the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to examining that campaign, we have included several stories of events that highlight the critical contribution that young people made to the civil rights movement.

Young people played an essential role in the African American freedom struggle, participating in many of the major campaigns of the civil rights movement, as well as initiating personal protests against racial injustice. From Barbara Johns leading a strike of her fellow students at Moton High in protest of the inequities between black and white education, to the children of Birmingham who were arrested en masse as they protested the city’s segregation policies, the contributions of young people were critical to the movement’s success.

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Grades: 9-12  
National History Standards:
Era 9: Postwar United States, Standard 4a

As students learn about the role of youth in the movement, they will find that while Martin Luther King, Jr. was indeed a source of great inspiration for many people in the struggle, the movement was made up mostly of ordinary citizens who exhibited extraordinary courage and strength in their efforts to bring about social justice. Names like Barbara Johns, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith will most likely be unfamiliar to your students. These young women participated in acts of resistance and civil disobedience before Martin Luther King, Jr. gained national prominence for his role in the Montgomery bus boycott. Exploring their contributions to the movement not only clarifies King’s place in history, it reminds young people of their potential to affect change in the world.

Essential Question:
What unique contribution did young people make to the Children’s Crusade specifically, as well as the broader African American freedom struggle?


  • To help students see beyond the dynamic leaders of the movement, and focus instead on the many contributions made by people who are not included in the history books.
  • To make connections between the role of youth in the African American freedom struggle and the role of youth in current struggles for justice and equality.
  • To encourage reflection on the events of the African American freedom struggle as they apply to our own lives
  • To evaluate and interpret primary source documents

Unit Parts

  1. "Dividing Line"
  2. No Easy Walk
  3. Rethinking the Role of Youth in the Children's Crusade
  4. Domestic Views of the Strife in Birmingham

Additional Activities

  1. Barbara Johns and Brown vs. Board of Education (1954)
  2. The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith
  3. Little Rock Nine
  4. Compare and Contrast

Primary Source Documents

Published in OAH Magazine Volume 19, January 2005

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