The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Month: February 2015

Black History Month Series #2: Women in the Civil Rights Movement

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“You had these women who were just amazingly strong… that didn’t mean there wasn’t sexism,” recalled Judy Richardson in an interview with the Choices Program about her experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. Richardson was explaining the involvement of women in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), one of the most important Civil Rights organizations in the 1960s. SNCC’s most valuable work was in grassroots, community-led initiatives like voter registration drives, where the members and activists worked directly with the most downtrodden of disenfranchised people of color. Richardson, in remembering the work, makes reference to how important this hands-on interaction was and how it was often forgotten by larger Civil Rights organizations that took a more elite, patriarchal approach to racial justice.

The Civil Rights era is one of the most important moments in African-American history and in women’s history. It is a moment when African-American women played a vital part in defining U.S. history. Women of color were instrumental in leading the Movement, in engaging in powerful acts of protest, and in dynamically shaping action against discrimination. Judy Richardson remembers one of these women, her mentor and leader, Ella Baker, in the following video.

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The powerful leadership and bravery Richardson celebrates in remembering Baker’s contribution can be attributed to many women of color who played defining roles in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, for example, became a role model for courage and commitment in the face of racial injustice when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. Women like this are a vital part of the memory of the Civil Rights Movement.

But so many women of color have been excluded from how this history is often told. While other women had already been arrested for refusing to give up their bus seats, they did not gain the fame that Parks achieved. Many scholars suggest that this was because Parks fit a very specific model of how black women should act and appear. Women of color who did not project this precise image of quiet respectability were not held up as heroes. In fact, the very issues that Judy Richardson recalls seeing in 1960s American society and that she remembers as limiting certain parts of the Civil Rights Movement have also limited our own perceptions of the history. Women of color have far too often been forgotten as unimportant and insignificant, and many have been ignored because of their class, sexuality, or gender-expression as well as their race. Some of the incredible acts of heroism by LGBT women of color have been written about, but they are not part of the broader, more widely known history of the Movement, which prefers traditional, male figures for its heroes. These women are the tragically excluded heroes of the American past.

 

For more on forgotten figures in black history and “politics of respectability” see this HuffPostLive discussion.

For more on women civil rights activists, see this collection of biographies.

 

Interviews with Judy Richardson are an accompaniment to the full-length Choices unit,

Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi

View more video interviews on Civil Rights and other topics at our Scholars Online page.

 

Black History Month Series #1: Celebrating the Strength of an Oppressed People

February is Black History Month, carefully scheduled to coincide with the anniversaries of the births of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). In fact, the legacies of these two people show us that Black History Month is not only a time to celebrate African American culture and success, but also to recall a history of oppression and violence.

Lincoln’s role as the president that led the country through the Civil War, preserving the Union and abolishing slavery, is well preserved in the annals of American heroic history. Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement. The celebration of these men is a celebration of the first break from systemic violence wrought on black bodies and is therefore steeped in a remembrance of this violence.

In July 1852, Douglass delivered what many consider to be the greatest anti-slavery oration in history— “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?

 

Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

 

The speech not only demanded an acknowledgement that Independence in itself was an incomplete moment of liberty while slaves remained shackled, but also highlighted how the country had been built on a foundation of slavery. From references to Washington’s slaves to the economic dominance of the triangular trade, Douglass made clear a truth that remains—American history is, in many ways, a black history. Or, perhaps more accurately, American history is a history of violence against black people.

Of course, colonization itself is by its very nature racist. The settling of North America and its subsequent growth in prosperity relied on slavery. First Native Americans were captured and then Africans were imported to increase the labor supply. The extraction of vast resources from the colonies was enacted through the hands of slaves and enabled more trade as rum was exchanged for bodies across the Atlantic. This video by James Campbell shows how the mechanisms of international trade were based in the commodification of African bodies.

 

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Abolition was an historic moment when the explicit conception of black bodies being commodities was dissolved. But even after abolition, black people felt far from free. They continued to suffer violence and social injustice on an astounding scale. Joanne Pope Melish argues, in the following video, that racism was often even embedded in white Americans’ promotion of abolition. She points out that “whites imagined that the abolition of slavery was going to, in some magic way, mean the abolition of black people.”

 

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Slavery was the first part of a long history of oppression and injustice for people of color. Black History Month recalls the pain of this past, as well as its heroes. It challenges nations like the United States to rethink their pasts, and their presents.

 

For more on slavery in the Americas, look at our full length units:

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A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England

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Brazil: From Colony to Democracy

Why Does Climate Change Matter?

That the climate is changing, and that human activity is playing a substantial role in accelerating that change, is not a new discovery. About one hundred years ago, a Swedish chemist first calculated how human emissions of greenhouse gases might influence global average temperatures. At the Earth Summit in 1992—the largest gathering of international leaders in history—government officials from around the world agreed that climate change was a shared and dangerous problem. Why, then, has it taken so long for widespread public concern about this important issue to grow?

Historically, climate change has often been framed as an environmental issue—an issue that would drastically affect the lives of polar bears, migration routes of birds, habitat ranges of trees, melting of ice caps, and more. But why all of these changes matter to people hasn’t always been emphasized. In reality, humans rely on a multitude of services that plants, animals, and nature provide for our homes, health, and livelihoods. In the following video, Brown Professor Dov Sax discusses some of the reasons why climate change matters to people.

In addition, many of the countries that are historically most responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change are least vulnerable to its effects. Poorer countries, which generally have less capacity to take action and respond, are experiencing the effects of climate change first and worst. These dynamics make it harder to motivate wealthier countries to take significant action on climate change. The following cartograms (maps distorted to reflect a dataset) and captions from carbonmap.org help illustrate this gap between responsibility for and vulnerability to climate change.

Countries by Land Area

Countries by Land Area

Country sizes in this map show actual land area. Most world maps don’t show this accurately as it isn’t possible to represent the globe as a flat map without compromising on either shape or area.

Countries by Wealth

Countries by Wealth

Country sizes in this map show total GDP (2013), the sum of all the economic activity in each nation. The map is dominated by North America and Western Europe, which account for more than half the world’s GDP, despite being home to less than a fifth of the global population.

Countries by Historical Emissions

Countries by Historical Emissions

Country sizes in this map show CO₂ emissions from energy use 1850-2011. These historical (or “cumulative”) emissions remain relevant because CO₂ can remain in the air for centuries. Europe and the US dominate, having released around half the CO₂ ever emitted.

Countries by the Number of People at Risk

Countries by the Number of People at Risk

Country sizes show the number of people injured, left homeless, displaced or requiring emergency assistance due to floods, droughts or extreme temperatures in a typical year. Climate change is expected to exacerbate many of these threats.

These maps show that broadly, the countries that have contributed least to the problem of climate change are home to the most people at risk and have the least financial capacity to respond. As a result of these global disparities in responsibility and vulnerability, some environmental activists are now approaching climate change as an issue of justice. In this video, Brown Professor J. Timmons Roberts explains what this idea of “climate justice” means.

This new approach to how we think about climate change may help increase the urgency with which we view this issue. Indeed, attention to climate change has surged in recent years. This past September, the People’s Climate March drew over 400,000 people into the streets of New York City for the largest climate march in history. Over 2,600 additional events in 162 countries took place on the same day, all intended to send a message to international leaders that they must take significant action to slow and reduce the effects of climate change.

Since then, the United States and China announced a joint emissions reduction agreement—China’s first ever commitment to cap its carbon dioxide emissions. At the December Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Lima, Peru, governments from all countries—rich and poor alike—agreed for the first time to voluntarily create plans to reduce their domestic greenhouse gas emissions. In U.S. President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, climate change got quite a bit of air time. Obama appears committed to making action on climate change a key part of his presidential legacy.

All of this attention is leading up to the Paris, France COP in December 2015—the deadline for international leaders to settle a new, binding international agreement on emissions reductions to prevent the most dangerous effects of climate change.

How should the international community respond to climate change in a way that is both fair and effective? What roles can local governments, organizations, and individuals play in responding to this global problem? Should responses focus on preventing future greenhouse gas emissions or on adapting to the effects climate change is already having? What is the relationship between economic development and combating climate change?

 

Climate Change and Questions of JusticeChallenge students to grapple with these questions with our new full-length unit Climate Change and Questions of Justice. Students will explore the causes and effects of global warming and delve into questions of who is most responsible for and vulnerable to the changing climate.

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