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The American Civil Rights Movement


Admission requirements

Relevant bachelor’s degree.


This course examines the struggle waged by black Americans and their white allies against white supremacy and racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s. Focusing on the southern states, students will examine how the civil rights movement used non-violent protest, legal challenges, and armed self-defence to advance its goals: the abolition of racial segregation, protection of the right to vote, and the establishment of a society based upon freedom and equality.

They will also study white opposition to civil rights, and the actions of the federal government (president, Congress, Supreme Court, FBI) in obstructing and assisting the movement. The leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. forms a central theme, but students will also consider his competitors and critics. Using documentary sources and secondary works, students will gain an understanding of the dynamics, achievements and limitations of the civil rights movement.

Course objectives

The student will gain insight and knowledge into:

  • the historical and international context of black-white relations in the United States;

  • the concept of “American exceptionalism”;

  • the concept of American “civil religion,” and how the language and symbols of civil religion affected the language and techniques of the Civil Rights Movement;

  • american political institutions, how they vary from parliamentary systems, and how they structure social change;

  • the relationship between the law, politics, and popular protest;

  • the history of nonviolent direct action in an international context, and its application by the Civil Rights Movement in the United States;

  • the role played by the news media (print, television) in the Civil Rights Movement;

  • understand the contemporary relevance of the subject matter, especially as it relates to politics and race relations.

The course will sharpen the student’s ability to:

  • employ both traditional (print, film) and modern (digital) sources;

  • formulate and clearly express logical arguments in near-faultless English (seminar presentation/essay);

  • reflect critically upon the relationship between differing interpretations of the Civil Rights Movement and ethical/political values (historical relativism);

  • complete a research essay by identifying a topic, formulating research questions, undertaking guided research using both primary and secondary sources, and structuring a clear, logical argument;

  • give an oral report to the class in a professional manner, using, when appropriate, modern presentation techniques such as PowerPoint.


See timetable.

Mode of instruction


Course load

Total course load: 280 hours

  • compulsory class attendance: 39 hours;

  • compulsory weekly reading: 141 hours;

  • research and writing of essay and seminar presentation: 100 hours.

Assessment method

  • oral seminar presentation; class participation: 25%;

  • long essay: (max. 7.500 words): 75%.

If the final grade is insufficient, only the research essay can be rewritten.


Blackboard gives access to syllabus, bibliography, weblinks, documentary sources, and additional texts.

Reading list

  • Adam Fairclough, To Redeem The Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (2001).

To be read before classes begin:

  • Michael J. Klarman, Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement (2007);

  • Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011).


Via uSis.




Dhr. Prof. dr. A. (Adam) Fairclough