Harry S. Truman and Civil Rights

Lesson Author
Required Time Frame
Two 45-55 minute class period(s) (depending on student familiarity analyzing primary sources)
Grade Level(s)

Students will read positive and negative letters to President Truman on civil rights. Students will individually read the documents to gain understanding of what each document is about. Students will work in groups to discuss information found in the letters.


Rationale (why are you doing this?)

Students will analyze provided documents relating to President Truman and his connection to Civil Rights to understand the issues during the late 1940s on civil rights.

Lesson Objectives - the student will
  • Understand the events of civil rights during 1945-1948.
  • Analyze the importance of desegregation in the United States.
  • Obtain information on President Truman’s opinions and stand on civil rights.
  • Understand the negative view points of those opposed to civil rights.
  • Analyze primary source documents to gather information.
  • Utilize technological research skills to gain access to documents online. (If applicable)
District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met

Show-Me Standards (Missouri)

  • 1. Principles expressed in the documents shaping constitutional democracy in the United States.
  • 2. Continuity and Change in the history of Missouri, the United States, and the world.
  • 6. Relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural tradition.
  • 7. The use of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, and documents).

Kansas Standards (High School)

Benchmark 3: The student uses a working knowledge and understanding of individuals, groups, ideas, developments, and turning points in the era of the Cold War (1945-1990).

7.(K) examines the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil rights (e.g., Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Little Rock Nine, Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery Bus Boycott, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Betty Friedan, NOW, ERA, Title IX).

Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.

1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time.

2. (A) develops historical questions on a specific topic in United States history and analyzes the evidence in primary source documents to speculate on the answers.

3. (A) uses primary and secondary sources about an event in U.S. history to develop a credible interpretation of the event, evaluating on its meaning (e.g., uses provided primary and secondary sources to interpret a historical-based conclusion).

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed

Students should read the article or be presented information through lecture or power point presentation from the National Parks Service on Harry S Truman and Civil Rights to learn background information on the topic.

Teachers may also want to read Michael R. Gardner’s “Harry S Truman & Civil Rights” to gain more background information for this lesson.

Primary sources needed (document, photograph, artifact, diary or letter, audio or visual recording, etc.) needed

All documents are available at Truman Presidential Library and Museum. Visit Truman Library’s online document collection to view documents needed for this lesson.

Documents to be read are:

Correspondence Between Harry S. Truman and Roy Wilkins, January 14, 1953

“Mr. President Take Notice: Why they Call it the Solid South”, December 19, 1951

Elmo M. McCray, Jr. to Harry S. Truman, April 19, 1948

Fully describe the activity or assignment in detail. What will both the teacher and the students do?

Begin the class by handing out the National Parks Service article on Harry S. Truman and Civil Rights. Students should either read the material or the teacher should address key information in the article through short lecture.

Students will analyze the correspondence between President Harry S. Truman and Roy Wilkins, administrator for the NAACP. Students should read the documents individually. Have students underline important information on each document.

Students should access the Correspondence Between Harry S. Truman and Roy Wilkins, January 14, 1953. and read all the pages. Students should analyze the primary document to gather information to reveal Truman’s opinions and to understand the time period this letter was written in. Students should be able to provide information on the changes and viewpoints Truman implemented during his administration.

Students should also comprehend negative approval for civil rights during this time by reading a letter to President Truman from Dr. R.L. Shirley titled “Mr. President Take Notice: Why they Call it the Solid South”, December 19, 1951. Students should also read the letter from Elmo M. McCray, Jr. to Harry S. Truman, April 19, 1948.

Have students work in groups of 3-4 to answer discussion questions pertaining to the three documents, discussion questions should be provided either in a handout that will be graded. Have students discuss: What document surprised them the most? What document do you believe is most accurate to the time period/view of Americans? What is your opinion of President Truman’s view of civil rights? What document best reflects your personal view of civil rights if you were living during this time period? Support your answer. What was Elmo McCray’s and Dr. Shirley’s reasoning to not allow civil rights?

After students have discussed in groups their findings have students write a short paragraph explaining the importance of Harry S. Truman and his stand on civil rights through his accomplishments in his administration.

Assessment: fully explain the assessment method in detail or create and attach a scoring guide

Part of the assessment will be an informal assessment of the students’ learning based upon group discussions by reading their responses. The teacher can grade them on their completion. Students should be assessed on understanding the importance of Harry S. Truman to civil rights by connecting the importance of desegregating the military and seeing that it is the government’s responsibility to uphold human rights for all. Students should know that Truman was one of the first presidents to fully stand up for civil rights. Students should know that employment, education, decent housing, and discrimination in public places was beginning to improve.