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Understanding White Supremacy

Grades: 9-12
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Lesson Summary


Segregated public facilities were one of many tools of white supremacy, which systematically denied constitutionally guaranteed rights to African Americans during the twentieth century. Many people are uncomfortable using the term white supremacy except when discussing extreme forms of physical violence (such as lynching), cross burning, or other activities associated with the Ku Klux Klan and similar "hate" groups. In fact, white supremacy refers to an entire system designed to maintain white economic, legal, political, and social privilege.

This lesson focuses on some of the structures that supported the system of white supremacy in the South. First, students watch a video of historical footage illustrating white resistance to desegregation. Then students examine a set of ordinances to see how one city legally enforced racism. Finally, students analyze a primary source document that advertises a Ku Klux Klan meeting.


  • Understand white supremacy as an organized system of repression
  • Explore the roles of segregation and white resistance in creating and reinforcing attitudes of white supremacy
  • Contrast the values, attitudes, and reality of segregation with the principles expressed in the country's founding documents

Grade Levels: 9-12

Suggested Time

  • One to two class periods

Multimedia Resources

Lesson Preparation

Examine the resources ahead of time to prepare for the lesson.

  • Watch the White Resistance video.
  • Print and make copies of the White Resistance background article and the Segregation Ordinances: Birmingham, AL PDF Document.
  • Print one copy of the Ku Klux Klan Flyers PDF Document (if you cannot project the document for your class).
  • Read the background articles to familiarize yourself with each resource's historical context. You may want to develop additional discussion questions that connect to people and events your class has been studying.
  • Finally, consider ways to prepare your students to discuss discrimination in American history. For example, you may want to introduce examples of stereotyping or discrimination, such as women's roles or legal or voting rights.

The Lesson

Part I: White Supremacy Tactics

1. Define the term white supremacy. Explain to students that the term white supremacy refers to a system that maintains legal, political, and economic privilege for whites. It includes, for example, discriminatory laws against African Americans and other people of color; an absence of protection for such groups; police and other public servants who enforce discriminatory laws; and individual citizens who obey those laws. Ask students:

  • Can you cite examples from the past or present that support this definition? (Encourage students to continue to look for examples throughout the lesson.)
  • What was the purpose of racial segregation? What is the first image that comes to mind when you think about whites who actively opposed racial desegregation?

2. Distribute the background article on White Resistance. Show the " video and discuss the following:

  • Identify and describe the forms of resistance you see in the video. What might the impact of each have been?
  • Which forms of resistance are unfamiliar or surprising to you?
  • Governor Ross Barnett called on officials on every level to resist desegregation as mandated by the Supreme Court. What effects might this have had on the rights of African Americans?
  • According to Senator James Eastland, "the mixture of the races" would prevent education from thriving. What did he mean by that? What effect would this statement have had on the rights of Mississippi citizens?
  • How did the police violence in Selma, Alabama, fit into the larger system of white supremacy?
  • Review the definition of white supremacy. What kinds of state-supported protections need to be in place to guarantee rights for nonwhite groups?

Part II: "It Shall Be Unlawful"

3. Distribute copies of the Segregation Ordinances: Birmingham, AL PDF Document and the background article. Explain that these ordinances are from the 1944 legal code of Birmingham, revised in 1950. After students have read the ordinances, ask them to make a list of all the rights denied to African Americans by these laws. You may wish to have students work collaboratively in small groups.

4. After the class has reviewed and consolidated the lists, discuss the following questions:

  • How did white people benefit from these ordinances? In what ways might they have hurt or limited white people?
  • What other civil rights are you aware of that were denied to African Americans under segregation that are not described in the Birmingham Segregation Ordinances? Why weren't these mentioned in the ordinances?
  • What effect do you think these ordinances might have had on hiring and earnings? Why?
  • Why do you think the Birmingham Commission felt it was necessary to write these laws? What do you think would have happened if these activities had not been outlawed?
  • Look at Ordinance 798-F. In what ways is it different from the previous ordinance, 597? Why do you think the Birmingham Commission felt the need to revise this ordinance in 1950?

5. Return to the question in Step 1: "What was the purpose of racial segregation?" Ask the class to consider the relationship between Birmingham's laws that forbid blacks and whites from playing together and the desegregation of major league sports. What impact would each have had on the other? Prompt students to consider economic and political implications, as well as social ones.

Part III: White Resistance

6. Show students the Ku Klux Klan Flyers PDF Document (either by projecting the document or passing around a copy). Ask students:

  • Why do you think the Klan held a public event? What impact might it have had?
  • According to the flyers, who is invited? In practice, who would have been welcome?
  • Who do you think the flyers were meant to appeal to? Who do you think might have attended?
  • Why did people use racial epithets? How did it support the system of white supremacy?

Check for Understanding

Discuss the following:

  • What are some examples of how white supremacy has been manifested and perpetuated?
  • To what extent is white supremacy a thing of the past in the United States? Ask students to give examples to justify their answer.
  • How did discrimination deny African Americans equal rights? Give examples of segregation and of rights denied to African Americans.

National Standards for History

Project Credits