Understanding Lynching

Race and Racism
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 9–12
Language Arts, History
Individual, Small Group, Writing


  • Students will understand the broader historical and social messages behind Steinbeck’s conversations in New Orleans.
  • Students will gain a broader understanding of race relations in America during the 1960s.


Lynchings were illegal acts of vigilante “justice” that have been a part of United States history since the Colonial Period. The theme of lynching appears several times during Travels with Charley and is an important part to understanding Steinbeck’s experiences in Louisiana.

“He clasped his hands in his lap, knotted and lumpy as cherry twigs, and all of him seemed to shrink in the seat as though he sucked in his outline to make it smaller” (201).

Materials Needed/Preparation

Estimated Time

  • 2 class periods


  • Journal topic
  • ~Consider providing the below journal topics as an advance organizer. You may also wish to provide a conversation map. See materials needed/preparation, above.
  • ~Recall the scene where Steinbeck gives a ride to the older African American man (201-202). How does the man act and why? What do you think about the way he acted? What does Steinbeck think about how the man acted?
  • ~Share out/discuss student responses. Make sure students are being specific, particularly when they are critiquing the reactions of the characters and explaining their own, hypothetical, reactions.
  • Journal topic
  • ~What is a victim? What is a bystander? What is an upstander? Which characters in the above scene match which description? Explain.
  • ~Share out/discuss student responses.
  • Jigsaw activity with “The Lynching of Emmett Till” (see Jigsaw for details)
  • ~Different classes will require a different amount of time for this activity. Be certain to save enough time at the end of the class session for groups to present their findings.
  • In their same Jigsaw groups, have students read “Reactions in Writing.”
  • Have students look again at their journal responses.
  • ~Discussion prompt: after reading “The Lynching of Emmett Till” and “Reactions in Writing,” would anyone respond differently? Explain/discuss.
  • ~~This step also works well as a written assignment.
  • Journal/discussion topic: Why did John Steinbeck include this scene in the novel?
  • ~Students should consider literary reasons – how does this scene further the story; how does it function in the novel?
  • ~Students should consider what kind of social/historical message Steinbeck is conveying.
  • ~This step can be returned to after completing the novel.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

Post Activities


  • Students should come away with a sobering understanding of the brutal state of race relations in the early twentieth century to the 1960s.
  • Students should come away with an understanding of the challenges and importance of being an upstander.


  • How thorough were students in their Jigsaw work? Were the main points/takeaways addressed?
  • How well did students support their responses to the prompts?

California State Content Standards Met

  • History and Social Science Content Standards 8
  • ~Students analyze the character and lasting consequences of Reconstruction: 1, 4
  • History and Social Science Content Standards 10
  • ~Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights: 2, 4
  • History and Social Science Content Standards 11
  • ~Students analyze the major political, social, economic, technological, and cultural developments of the 1920s: 2

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 5
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 3
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Craft and Structure: 6
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 4
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 1, 2

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