Eisenhower and Little Rock: A Civil Rights Lesson

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Grade Level:
High School: Ninth Grade through Twelfth Grade
Social Studies
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.1, 6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.10, 6-8.WHST.1, 6-8.WHST.1.a, 6-8.WHST.1.b, 6-8.WHST.1.c, 6-8.WHST.1.d, 6-8.WHST.1.e, 6-8.WHST.2, 6-8.WHST.2.a, 6-8.WHST.2.b, 6-8.WHST.2.c, 6-8.WHST.2.d, 6-8.WHST.2.e, 6-8.WHST.2.f, 6-8.WHST.4, 6-8.WHST.5, 6-8.WHST.8, 6-8.WHST.9, 6-8.WHST.10
State Standards:
Pennsylvania State Standards for Reading & Writing in History & Social Studies (Grades 6-12)

CC.8.5.A, CC.8.5.B, CC.8.5.D, CC.8.5.E, CC.8.5.F, CC.8.5.H, CC.8.5.J; CC.8.6.A, CC.8.6.B, CC.8.6.C, CC.8.6.D, CC.8.6.G, CC.8.6.H, CC.8.6.I

Objectives and Lesson Overview 

What: To explore and analyze competing views on race relations during the Civil Rights era as well as the role and power of the federal government using the specific event of the Little Rock Crisis. 

How: Examine and discuss primary documents in the form of letters written to President Dwight D. Eisenhower both for and against his actions regarding the Little Rock Crisis, in addition to background information on the event itself. 

Why: The decision handed down by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and the resulting events in Little Rock, Arkansas, were transformational points in the history of the United States and the rights of its citizens. Close examination of primary sources reveal much about the time period, including prevailing attitudes towards race relations and the balance of power between state and federal governments. The topics discussed in the Civil Rights era and in the Little Rock Crisis remain relevant and critical topics today, including the role of informed and politically engaged citizens. 

Verify: After analyzing President Eisenhower’s speech on Sept 24, 1957, and at least two letters sent to President Eisenhower in response to his handling of the Little Rock Crisis, students will place themselves in the role of the president and respond to a letter of their choice.   


Preparing for the Lesson 

Each student will need a copy of Handout B which contains the Primary Document Analysis work-sheet and the prompt for the suggested assessment. It is also recommended that each student have a copy of Handout A. 

Print out an appropriate number of the Primary Document set, which consists of seven letters in total and place them in folders for distribution during the lesson. Consider tri-folding the letters and placing them in envelopes for additional depth in the role-playing aspect. 

Recommended Prior Knowledge 

Students should be familiar with Jim Crow laws and the concept of segregation. It would also be helpful for students to be aware of Plessy v. Ferguson and its impact.  


  • Introduce the lesson by going over the objectives and the lesson overview. A warm-up or bell-ringer is also helpful. Suggested themes for a warm-up include the concepts of fairness compared to equality; who should be responsible for creating and/or enforcing rules, even if they are unpopular; or how you would explain a decision that you’ve made to people who disagree with it. 

  • Distribute Handouts A and B and divide the class into groups of 3. 

  • Students should read through Handout A first and stop to discuss and answer the reading comprehension questions at the bottom of the first page. This can be done individually, by groups, or as a class. Go over the questions by calling on various students. 

  • Repeat the same process for Handout B, which contains excerpts from Eisenhower’s speech to the American public on September 24, 1957, explaining why he sent federal troops into Little Rock Arkansas.  

  • Next will be the primary document analysis.  If time allows, go through the analysis sheet as a class using the Example Primary Document and write the information on the board. Students don’t need to copy the information onto their sheet but will need to follow along with what is written on the board. Once that is complete, or if there isn’t enough time for the Example Primary Document, distribute the folders with the six letters to each group. Students must choose one letter that agrees with Eisenhower’s handling of the issue and one that disagrees. Make it clear to the students that all the letters must be used, so each student should have a different pair from the others---no sharing or overlapping. 

  • Give students time to select, read, and analyze the letters using the Primary Document Analysis organizational chart. They should discuss and compare their letters with members of their group. Consider conducting a class wide discussion to share impressions, ideas, and reactions. 

  • Distribute and explain the writing prompt from the assessment and give students 10-15 minutes to brainstorm. 

  • For the closing activity, have students write (or discuss) a short answer to one or both of the following questions: 
    1. What did the primary documents tell you about the attitude towards race relations and the role of the federal government during the 1950s? 

    2. Would you have handled the Little Rock Crisis the same way Eisenhower did, or would you have done something different? Be sure to explain why. 

  • Assign the assessment to be finished as homework. 


Primary Document Analysis: Letters to the President 

Choose two letters to read with one being in support of President Eisenhower’s actions and the other being against. After reading through both letters, answer the following questions by creating an organizational chart. Be as accurate and as thorough as you can, these details will be useful later in the lesson! 

1. What are some biographical details of a person against integration? (Their age, gender, occupation, race, location, etc)
2. What are some biographical details of a person in support of integration? 
3. Summarize their opinions on how Eisenhower handled the crisis, including details such as: their view on race relations/integration; what the Federal government should or should not be allowed to do; and if they believe Eisenhower should have done anything differently. 



From the Desk of the President 

Using all that you have learned about Brown v. Board and the Little Rock Crisis, place yourself in the shoes of President Eisenhower. Choose one of the letters and respond to it as if you are President Eisenhower himself in a two or three paragraph reply. To accomplish this assignment successfully, you will need to address the following things using your own words: 

  • Explain the actions you (as Eisenhower) took to resolve the Little Rock Crisis and why. 

  • Demonstrate that you understand their position, even if you do not agree with it..

  • Did they ask you to do anything and are you able or willing to do what they asked? Explain your reasoning on why or why not. 


Download Primary Source 1: Pro-Integration Letter to Eisenhower from Gay Albanese, Age 15

Download Primary Source 2: Pro-Integration Letter to Eisenhower from WWII Veteran Eugene Allison

Download Primary Source 3: Pro-Integration Letter to President Eisenhower from Dana Anderson

Download Primary Source 4: Pro-Integration Letter to Eisenhower from Helen Armstrong

Download Primary Source 5: Anti-Integration Letter to Eisenhower from Frederick Austin

Download Primary Source 6: Anti-Integration Letter to Eisenhower from Agnes Allen

Download Primary Source 7: Anti-Integration Letter to Eisenhower from WD Alexander

Download Eisenhower and Little Rock Handout A

Download Eisenhower and Little Rock Handout B

Last updated: February 23, 2021