Ken Burns Classroom

Crossing the Color Line


Students will:

  • Investigate race relations in America by using Jack Johnson’s life as an example and describe the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties in the U.S.
  •  Discuss conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions.



  1. Ask students to define what they think race means, as best as they can.
    • Write down a random list of different population categories (examples might be Black, White, Latino, Hispanic, African-American, American Indian, Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, etc)
    • Now write the following statement on the board: Nearly all observers admit that the Negro child is on the whole quite as intelligent as those of other human varieties but that on arriving at puberty all further progress seems arrested… It is more correct to say of the Negro that he is non-moral than immoral.
  2. Ask students who might have written the above statement, for what audience, and when?
    • Explain that it appeared in the 1875 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 17 page 326, followed by lengthy pseudo-scientific explanations from leading experts of the day explaining why the Negro was mentally and physically inferior.
  3. Discuss the following questions:
    • How have definitions of race changed in the past 90 years?
    • Do students think that some, most, or all people living in 1875 believed that what the Encyclopedia Britannica said was fact? Who benefited from this definition? Who was penalized by this definition?
    • If people living around the turn of the last century were so certain that Caucasians were superior to Negroes, why were they afraid to let an African-American boxer like Jack Johnson fight a white American for the heavyweight boxing championship?

      The problem of the twentieth century is the color line.
      — W.E.B. Du Bois.

  4. Ask students to try to define the term the color line, using whatever knowledge they have acquired before their study of Jack Johnson. Discuss the following questions
    • What races were divided by the so-called color line? To whose advantage?
    • What were some of the laws that demarcated segregation in the Jim Crow-era South?
    • What did it mean to cross the color line? What kind of behavior did whites disapprove of because it crossed the color line?
    • What were some of the penalties, both formal and informal, for crossing the color line?
  5. Explain that after Jack Johnson became the heavyweight champion in a fight against Tommy Burns in Sidney, Australia, in 1908, two newspapers commented on the fight and its relation to the color line. Distribute these quotes and ask students to comment on their meaning in the light of what they have discussed. Analyze the following statements as a class.

The color line was… used in the most select pugilistic [boxing] circles as a subterfugebehind which a white man could hide to keep some husky colored gentleman fromknocking his block off. It is a handy little invention which costs nothing and probablyhas saved many a white man’s life. Many men who are well known in public life todayowe their well-preserved appearance and success to this lifesaving compound.
— New York Morning Telegraph, 1908

A negro is the champion pugilist. [The] dark peoples of the earth are threatening to playthe mischief generally with the civilization of the white man. Is the Caucasian played out?Are the races that we have been calling inferior about to demand to us that we must drawthe color line in everything if we are to avoid being whipped individually and collectively?
— Detroit Free Press, 1909

  1. Evaluate this quote from Jack Johnson and ask students if they think his attitude is a useful strategy for fighting prejudice today? Why or why not?

    I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with peopleof other races as if prejudice did not exist.
    — Jack Johnson

Extension Activities

  • Ask the class to make a diagram that expresses what they have learned about the color line.
  • Divide a bulletin board in two with a line lengthwise. Label the line “the color line.” Above it write “Caucasians” and below it write “Negroes.” Ask each student to write one “rule” of the color line on an index card and place it on the color line. Topics can include voting rights; segregation in transportation, schools, public facilities, eating and housing facilities; and so forth.
  • Discuss with students some of the penalties African-Americans faced for crossing the color line, such as loss of jobs, arrest, lynching, race riots. Also ask if whites were permitted to cross the color line and what happened if they did?
  • Research racial categories in the U.S. Census from its inception until today. What do the categories reflect about changing American views about race?


The teaching activities in this guide were designed to meet curriculum standards outlined below where applicable. However, we recommend that you closely examine the resource content for your individual classroom needs.

American History from the National Center for History in the Schools

  • Era 6. Standard 2: Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity.
  • Era 9. Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

Civics and Government from the National Standards for Civics and Government

Standard III. D.

  • The place of law in American society; judicial protection of the rights of individuals.

Standard V. B.

  • What are the rights of citizens; explain the importance to the individual and to society of such personal rights as due process of law and equal protection; freedom of expression and association; how personal rights are secured…by such means as the rule of law.

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel)

  • Social Sciences (Behavioral Studies) Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions.
  • Historical Understanding Standards 1 and 2: Understands how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns; Understands the historical perspective.
  • United States History Standards: Understands issues and perspectives of different groups during the Progressive era; Understands the social and cultural influence of former slaves in cities of the North.
  • Language Arts Standards: Writes persuasive compositions; Understands the philosophical assumptions and basic beliefs underlying an author's work; Uses a variety of criteria; Understands how the type of media affects coverage of events or issues; Understands the ways in which image-makers carefully construct meaning; Understands the role of the media in addressing social and cultural issues.

About The Authors

Joan Brodsky Schur

Joan Brodsky Schur is Social Studies Curriculum Consultant for the Village Community School in New York City where she has taught Social Studies and English for over 20 years.