Warm-up: Students discuss their knowledge of symbolism and what values symbols can represent with regard to racial justice.
Analyzing the Reporting: Students examine two Pulitzer Center reporting projects that explore the symbolism of memorials, including Confederate monuments and streets named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After responding to comprehension and discussion questions, students investigate local symbols within their city and school communities.
- Designing a symbol through artwork
- Writing a letter advocating for change
- Researching and presenting on a civil rights leader
- Exploring other journalism skills and media
Students will be able to…
- Define symbolism
- Identify how symbols such as memorials, street names, and monuments convey different messages about racial justice
- Explore the connections between a symbol, its history, and its legacy
- Research, present, and form opinions on symbols within their own community
- Engage with diverse media formats, including photojournalism and radio journalism
Either on their own or as a class, students will respond to the following questions:
- What is a symbol?
- One well-known symbol in U.S. history and culture is the Statue of Liberty. What words or associations come to mind when you think of it? What values or ideals does it represent?
- Why is it important to learn about what symbols represent?
- Have you heard of any recent debates about or changes to symbols? (Think about brand logos or sports team names and mascots, for example.) Share an example.
- Institutionalized racism
- White supremacy
- “Heritage not hate” (read more about this phrase and its relationship to the Confederate flag here)
Student understanding will be enhanced by prior knowledge of the U.S. Civil War (including the Confederacy, enslavement, and Reconstruction) and the civil rights movement (including Martin Luther King Jr.)
Introducing the Lesson:
Many of the twentieth century’s monuments and memorials reflect the evolution and resistance of an ongoing racial reckoning in the United States. Following the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, there arose a stark contrast between memorials dedicated to the Confederacy and those that honored civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Today, Americans are still questioning what these symbols represent, their implications for national memory, and how changing them might reflect a vision of racial justice for the nation going forward. As Noelle Trent of the National Civil Rights Museum states, “These physical markers…are not just symbols….They can be the very point of how a legacy continues.”
In this lesson, students will reflect on the meaning and history of statues, monuments, street names, and other symbols, as well as how altering or removing them can reflect national dialogue around issues like racial justice. After exploring examples within Pulitzer Center reporting, students will research symbols within their own community and craft arguments on how they believe historical figures should be remembered.
Exploring the Resources
Students can select one or both of the stories below to explore. Alternatively, the educator can divide the class into two groups.
Photojournalist Melissa Lyttle documents how the United States’ national racial reckoning in 2020 influenced the renaming or removal of at least 168 Confederate symbols from public spaces, as compared to 58 Confederate monuments removed between 2015 and 2019 combined. She creates visual comparisons of where monuments once stood and where they ended up once finally removed.
- A Tale of Three Kings (listen with audio here)
Amidst debate over a street name change in her home city of Kansas City, Missouri, radio journalist Michelle Tyrene Johnson travels to three different cities around the world to learn about streets, schools, parks, and statues named after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and his global legacy.
Where They Stood
- What do the Confederacy and Confederate flag represent for Melissa Lyttle?
- During which eras were many of these Confederate statues constructed? Why is this significant?
- Why did Melissa Lyttle want to capture what was happening to Confederate monuments?
- Name at least two examples of locations where Confederate monuments have ended up once removed.
A Tale of Three Kings
- How many streets are named after Martin Luther King Jr. in the U.S.?
- What does Martin Luther King Jr. represent for the interviewees in Dakar and Amsterdam?
- What does Michelle Tyrene Johnson say to herself when she meets people abroad who don’t recognize Martin Luther King Jr.?
- Why is King “still a very polarizing figure for a lot of people,” according to interviewee Noelle Trent in Memphis?
- What did you learn from the news story you explored? Did anything surprise you?
- Melissa Lyttle writes that sometimes “where elected officials have been slow to act, ordinary people have taken matters into their own hands.” Who do you think should decide which statues go up and which come down, or what the name of a street should be?
- How do we decide what is worth preserving? What do you think should happen to the following symbols, and why?
- A Confederate statue
- A fallen Confederate statue graffitied by protesters in 2020
- Mikey Thomas of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis said: “I believe that it’s great to commemorate [King].… But it doesn’t really have much of an impact on the community or the city.” Similarly, some streets are being renamed for the Black Lives Matter movement, but many activists say it’s not enough.
- Based on the stories you explored today and your own experiences, how do you think symbols can be powerful? What are their limitations?
- What else do you think we can do to advance racial justice, besides changing names and symbols?
- While often associated solely with writing or newspapers, journalism can exist in many dynamic forms. How did you feel seeing Melissa Lyttle’s photographs or listening to Michelle Tyrene Johnson’s audio segments? In what ways did these media enhance your understanding of the story?
Activity Option 1
Work individually or in small groups to complete the following activity.
- Using this tool, enter your zip code to locate the nearest Confederate memorial nearest to you.
- What was your result? Were you surprised?
- From the results, note and research the following:
- How many years after the Civil War the memorial was created? Why is this significant?
- If there is a memorial or street named after a person, research who that person was and their role in the Confederacy.
- Do you think anything should happen to this monument? If so, what?
Activity Option 2
Discuss as a group and reflect on your own school community.
- Who is your school named after? What is your school mascot?
- If you wanted to change your school name or mascot, how would you convince your fellow students of the need for a change?
- Learn about how other students advocated for change here.
1. Create a symbol that represents your vision for the future
The symbols we’ve explored call into question the U.S.’s complex history with race and how we can move forward. What do you envision for the future? Design a symbol that represents the values and ideals that you would like to see in your community. This could be a drawing, painting, protest sign, sculpture, or another creative representation.
2. Write a letter advocating for change
Based on your research, write a letter to a local representative calling for action, such as a name change or removal of a monument near you. In your letter, express your concern with the current symbol and a proposed solution. Consider writing to a local, state, or national representative.
Students can enter their letters into our Local Letters Writing Contest for the chance to win prizes and publication, hosted annually each fall. You can also find a letter-writing template and other resources to help craft persuasive letters.
3. Research and present on a civil rights activist or community organizer
Think of a civil rights leader or advocate in your own community you’d like to learn more about. This person can be from a historical or modern era. Conduct research and craft a presentation about who they were/are, their impact, and how you think we can commemorate them and/or live out the values they hoped to teach.
4. Explore other journalism skills and media
Interested in journalism? Watch videos about journalism skills that Melissa Lyttle and Michelle Tyrene Johnson use in their reporting, such as photojournalism and interviewing. Consider photographing a symbol or object that is meaningful to you, or interviewing fellow students in your own community about their thoughts on how to commemorate historical figures.
Common Core Standards
Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.
Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.
Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.