Multimedia Course: The First Amendment and the Civil Rights Movement

Multimedia Course: The First Amendment and the Civil Rights Movement

How First Amendment History Shapes Our Present and Future

The era of the civil rights movement is as relevant today as when it was unfolding. The 2020 presidential election and the sobering reality that a polarizing sitting president received almost half the popular vote, along with the present culture of national politics, have caused us to contemplate the future of our democracy.

In 1967, even after President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the monumental 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, our nation was called to examine a troubling situation that challenged our democracy and our society. That issue, which was the raison d’être of the civil rights movement, was ongoing racial inequality and racial injustice. Civil unrest had erupted in cities across America that summer. In response, Johnson appointed a 12-member national commission, composed of political, labor, industry and law enforcement leaders and chaired by Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois, to explore the causes and suggest possible remedies.

In February 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, which came to be known as the Kerner commission, wrote: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.…White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

But the commission reminded us in 1968 that America’s deepening racial division was not inevitable. The commission wrote: “The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution. To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”

“The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society. This alternative will require a commitment to national action – compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will,” the commission wrote.

This challenge to forge a new way forward must be the work of students and faculty in higher education, along with civic, community and corporate leaders — anyone who can identify with any aspect of civic responsibility. To help with the task, we conceived and produced this Freedom Forum project, a multimedia course on the civil rights movement and the First Amendment.

The presidential election of 2020 reaffirmed, and expanded, the fundamental finding and concern of the Kerner commission. The 2020 election revealed to us that we were a “divided society” in many aspects of our culture and politics. The cultural and political divide evident in 2020 transcended the parameters of the commission’s report. It revealed that we must revive our study of the report itself and engage in a serious study of its now broader legacy, with a resolve to not just report what it is that divides us, but why.

The first step in our effort to create “new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will” is to recognize that at no time since the 1960s has the civil rights movement, and the First Amendment that enabled it, taken center stage as the history we must study in shaping a template that will guide our destiny as a democracy.

The First Amendment and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments not only protect, but also advance our political discourse and the way in which we speak to our government on issues related to the common good and the dignity of each and all of us.

Almost half of voting Americans cast their 2020 presidential vote for a person who extolled “patriotism” to induce an uncritical support for his position as president, without recalling or embracing the last six words of the pledge to our flag: “with liberty and justice for all.” If the elections of 2016 and 2020 taught us anything, it is to learn the connection between the disheartening conclusion of the Kerner commission in 1968 and our potential to shape our future. We will only succeed if we continue our diligent study of the civil rights movement and continue to emulate it in our future political and civic leadership, beginning now.

In 1967, the year President Johnson established the Kerner commission, Robert Kennedy wrote, in the last paragraph of his book, “To Seek a Newer World”:

“Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate, nor nature, nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.”

We have a choice. We can remain an even more deeply divided country or we can use our history, and the First Amendment’s purpose for protecting and promoting political speech and the public discourse, to embrace and apply the civil rights movement’s lessons and legacy on an even grander scale. 

This project is designed to revive that study and the movement’s legacy so that we may overcome all the factors that make us a divided society and reawaken all the aspects of the civil rights movement’s success to become a nation of reasoned compromise, with a commitment to the common good.

Course Overview

This multimedia course consists of readings and documentary film interviews of veterans of the civil rights movement. The course was designed for use by higher education faculty, students, working professionals and others who wish to explore more fully the intersection between the movement and the First Amendment. Based on the legal and social struggle for racial justice and civil rights from 1954 to 1965, the course emphasizes the essence of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments – and the special role of the First Amendment’s freedoms at work. The civil rights movement is an example of the dependency of all social justice movements on the First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly, press, religion and the right to petition our government for the redress of injustice.

The course incorporates multimedia resources from the Newseum and written and documentary film materials produced by Stetson University. These include the legal, social and personal stories and events that were substantive underpinnings of the civil rights movement: the significant cases, historic places and courageous people behind and in front of the movement. The goal is to help learners understand the most relevant judicial opinions and gain the kind of insight only personal interviews can provide into the dynamics of a social justice movement through speech, press and peaceful mass protest.

  • Robert Bickel, professor of law emeritus, Stetson University College of Law
  • Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum
Principal editor
  • Lata Nott, fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum

Course Outline and Materials


The Interdependence Between the First Amendment and the Connected Substantive Constitutional Principles of Civil, Political, and Social Equality

Parts 1 through 5 of the readings and the related documentary interviews with veterans of the civil rights movement are presented here. The materials are organized into five parts to help learners see that the immediate and long-term effects of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Brown v. Board I and II were broad in scope. The issues in the federal cases and the experiences of the veterans involved in the direct-action campaign for civil rights (the nonviolent mass protests, speeches and negotiations identified with Martin Luther King Jr.) were experientially different and directed to particular issues or strategies that all social justice movements have in common.

Note that each part begins with a principal reading in PDF format. The reading is supplemented with a link to the full text of the major federal court cases that are at the heart of the principal reading and provide attribution and annotation. Learners should complete the principal reading before proceeding to the documentary interviews. Reading the full text of any of the cases is optional. The filmed interviews are intended to personalize the principal readings, making them real and transformative.

In the principal readings and the interviews, look and listen for the underlying substantive aspects of the movement that tie in to the interview subject’s role and the issues at stake. Take special notice of how the issues and direct action relied constantly on the bedrock of the five freedoms of the First Amendment. You will see the First Amendment at the core of the civil rights movement and its essentiality to any contemporary social justice movement.


Multimedia materials

Video: Interview with John Siegenthaler 

Part 1

The Constitutional Mandate for Racial Equality in Public Education and the Immediate Legal History of Brown v. Board of Education, 1954-1970

Links to cases discussed


Multimedia materials

Video: Interview with Arlam Carr
Video: Interview with Janice Kelsey
Image gallery

Part 2

The First Amendment and the Right to Engage in the Mass Protest of State-Enforced Social Inequality Based on Race: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1960 Sit-ins and the 1961 Freedom Rides

Links to cases discussed


Multimedia materials

Video: Interview with Rip Patton
Video: Interview with David and Winonah Myers
Video: Interview with C.T. Vivian
Image gallery

Part 3

Defending the People’s Right to Know: The Legal History of the Responsibility of Emerging Television Stations in the South to Inform the Public about the Direct Action Campaign for Civil Rights

Links to cases discussed


Multimedia materials

Video: Interview with Martin Firestone
Image gallery

Part 4

The Role of Local Black Lawyers in the Legal History of the Civil Rights Movement

Links to cases discussed


Multimedia materials

Video: Interview with Solomon Seay Jr.
Image gallery

Part 5

The Complex History of Voting Rights: The Original History of State Attempts to Suppress Voting By Black Citizens and The Legal History and Legacy of the Relationship Between the First Amendment and the Right to Vote

Links to cases discussed


Multimedia materials

Video: Interview with Armand Defner
Image gallery

Acknowledgments and Special Recognition

The course readings were authored by Professor Emeritus Robert D. Bickel of Stetson University College of Law, and Gene Policinski, senior fellow, senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum. 

Professor Bickel, who teaches courses in civil rights movement history, the First Amendment and equal opportunity law, designed, directed and conducted the videotaped interviews, with the support and encouragement of Stetson University. The Freedom Forum supported work on the course through staff contributions as part of its longtime commitment to diversity and its mission to “foster First Amendment freedoms for all.”

We especially thank the veterans of the civil rights movement we interviewed. Their roles and personal stories in the historical fight for civil rights provide a perspective that uniquely illuminates the movement’s influence on current and future efforts to sustain and advance equal justice. They are the ones who shared their courage, resolve and strategic thinking so others may be advocates and activists in the ongoing struggle for justice. The biographies of these veterans are included in the course materials.

Adjunct Professor Tammy Briant of Stetson University collaborated with Professor Bickel in teaching civil rights movement history and in the university’s civil rights travel course, which took students to the Alabama cities of Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, and to Nashville and Memphis, in Tennessee. We wanted them to see the places where the movement achieved greatness and meet its veterans. Professor Briant is recognized for her knowledge of transformative learning theory, and she prepared students for our method of combining the readings and interviews with travel.

Professor Greg Sapp of Stetson University collaborated with Professor Bickel through countless discussions about the course and the interdisciplinary nature of civil rights history. He wisely mentored undergraduate students by bringing together a cohort from the departments of philosophy, political science, American history and culture, and religious studies, under the university’s renowned Marchman Program in Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility.

Stan Arthur of Stetson University is the brilliant filmmaker behind the camera that recorded the interviews. He not only performed the technical editing, under Professor Bickel’s direction, but also became devoted to the civil rights veterans we met – a filmmaker who wanted to tell their story.

The indefatigable Lata Nott, who was executive director of the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center as we prepared this course, brought her considerable energy, design talents and legal knowledge to its format and editing. Aiding her were Senior Online Producer Michael Bateman on website matters, former First Amendment Center Fellow Brian Peters and Freedom Forum and Newseum colleagues who assisted with the historical newspaper front-page images shown in the course materials.