One of the interesting things about the protests of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York is how they are understood and interpreted. TV news or the headlines tend to focus and report on them as responses to the grand jury decisions themselves, which they certainly are. But a long history is also at play here that can get missed or overlooked. Reading the signs or listening to protesters, one can hear calls for the end to systemic injustice and impunity—impunity that has affected African American victims of white violence for centuries. Underlying the protests is the belief that the justice system has never worked the same way for all of us.
December 3, 2014.
Photo by Charlie Magovern/Neon Tommy
(CC BY-SA 2.0).
This short clip of Dave Dennis giving the eulogy at the funeral of the murdered civil rights worker James Chaney in the summer of 1964 is a painfully apt illustration of this doubt about the justice system.
The clip omits his conclusion to “You see, I know what is going to happen. I feel it deep in my heart – when they find the people who killed those guys in Neshoba County….” What didn’t make into the clip was what Dave Dennis said next… “they [will] come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury of all their cousins and aunts and uncles. And I know what they are going to say: Not guilty.”
As protests continue, there is an opportunity to add historical perspective to the debates that are playing out around all of us. Race and the history of relations between white and black people in the United States remains a charged and challenging topic. Tackling this challenge can bring the reward of new understanding of the past as well the present for students. The Choices Program has curriculum resources that engage students with this historical context and provide a foundation to consider what’s happening right now.
Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi can be used as a springboard for explorations of current race relations in the United States. It gives students a good understanding of the historical underpinnings of racial inequality, drawing clear connections between inequalities of the past and inequalities that exist today.
There are free videos of scholars answering fundamental questions about this history as well as free activities and resources.
A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England seeks to inform students of the economic and social impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North. Historians comment that New England has “forgotten” its slave-owning past, and that such a narrative—one that remembers abolition but not enslavement—has had far-reaching consequences for black-white relations and the nature of race in the United States.
There are free videos of scholars answering questions as well as activities and resources.
by Mike Gleason, Westerly High School, RI
This past semester I used the Choices Program Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Policy unit in my World Affairs class. This unit on its own is outstanding, especially the section on the history of human rights. Another noteworthy activity is having the students define human rights and brainstorm a list of natural rights inherent to all humans. This led to much thought-provoking conversation among the students.
As part of the unit I used the teacher modules and short video clips from the PBS Documentary “Half the Sky“. This traces women’s oppression around the globe and was absolutely fascinating viewing for the students. The website for the documentary includes a viewing guide and lesson plans. This documentary created student interest in the topic and when we role-played the options for the Choices unit, the students made reference of and connections to the documentary. Using these two resources together strengthened the Choices unit and made it more “real” for the students. They had a visual to the suffering and plight of women around the globe and then connected it to the U.S. role in regards to human rights policy. At the end of the unit, students’ comments on the impact this unit had on them confirmed my observation that using these two resources together deepens the learning.
Josie Perry, Choices Teaching Fellow
Rising Sun High School-North East, MD
As I began teaching the Competing Visions on Human Rights: Questions for US Policy unit, I wanted to pre-assess my students’ opinions on US involvement in international affairs, so I had my students watch The Devil Came on Horseback. The students were fascinated by the documentary because most of them were unaware of the genocide happening in Sudan. After they viewed the documentary, we had a Touchstones discussion focusing on international intervention in human rights violations. Touchstones is a discussion format that my district is implementing in all content areas. It is based on the students reading a text and then discussing a central question. It is a student-driven activity where the teacher assumes the role of observer. My initial question was:
If you see someone mistreating another person, how do you respond:
- Walk away because it’s none of my business.
- Get someone to help me diffuse the situation between the two people.
- Step in and help only if I know the person who is being mistreated.
- Step in and help the person who is being mistreated because it is the right thing to do.
Students answered the initial question independently and then shared their responses in small groups. Then, as a class, we read “This I Believe” by Sunita, who was an aid worker in Sudan. In this piece, Sunita proposes that all people have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, which is a similar message to Brian Steidle’s in The Devil Came on Horseback. The students had many questions about the situation in Sudan, so it was difficult for me to act as only an observer for this discussion. I was amazed at the students’ poignant thoughts on the topic of intervention! Students were able to see the challenges of any type of intervention and how complex international events can be in today’s globalized world.
I ended the unit by revisiting the question of international intervention in human rights issues and we focused on the current situation in Syria. I used the AP interactive on Syria and BBC News Syria: The Story of the Conflict sites to provide my students with the background on the conflict. Then we read “Responsibility to Protect: The Moral Imperative to Intervene in Syria” by James P. Rudolph and discussed R2P within the context of the Syrian situation. The students’ discussions were so rich and meaningful. It was one of those days that reminded me why I chose teaching! Throughout the unit, students gained a greater understanding of the complexity of human rights and the existing paradox in US human rights policy.
Sunita. “This I Believe.” This I Believe RSS. N.p., 4 Sept. 2006. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
Rudolph, James P. “‘Responsibility to Protect’: The Moral Imperative to Intervene in…” Christian Science Monitor. 08 Mar 2012: n.p. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 03 Mar 2013.
Competing Visions on Human Rights: Questions for US Policy is available from The Choices Program website. It is also available as a Free iBooks Textbook from the iBookstore.
By Derek Reichenbecher
Choices Teaching Fellow and High School Teacher, Farmingdale, NJ
Last summer I attended the Choices Leadership Institute on Human Rights. One of our guest speakers was, El Fadel Arbab , a refuge from Darfur who now lives in Maine. (Read about his incredible story here). I was so touched by El-Fadel’s story this summer that I wanted to bring him to Howell, NJ to tell his story to our students. When I relayed the story to my supervisor in September he was hooked. Our school was shut down for almost two weeks due to Hurricane Sandy, so we will have school on MLK Day. I’m pretty excited that El-Fadel will be our guest speaker that day.
Inviting a speaker on MLK day to talk about present day human rights violations around the world is a great way to help students place the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in a broader global context. A few Choices units that can help teachers make these types of connections are the Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Policy, and Confronting Genocide: Never Again.
The Choices 2013 Summer Leadership Institute, The 1960s: Upheaval at Home and Abroad, will include significant content from the Civil Rights unit.
The situation in Syria continues to worsen. A UN sponsored commission, led by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, has just issued a report on the deteriorating conditions there and the suffering of civilians. Pinheiro, who collaborated with Choices on its human rights curriculum, testified today (12.2.11) in an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission, “The extreme suffering of the population inside and outside Syria must be addressed as a matter of urgency. Victims expect nothing less from the United Nations and its member states.”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called for urgent measures by the international community.
In this video Pinheiro describes the role of UN in protecting human rights.
We at Choices plan to release a Teaching with the News on the latest developments on the Arab Spring in about ten days. An updated version of Shifting Sands: Balancing U.S. Interests in the Middle East is schedule for release in late 2011.
Here are a few interesting sources on current events in Syria:
Nowruz is the name of the Iranian New Year. It occurs each year on the vernal equinox (around March 21st) and is celebrated by Iranic peoples throughout the world. Nowruz is the holiday of spring, and people come together to celebrate light and renewal by cleaning out their homes, having bonfires, and feasting. This Nowruz, President Obama delivered a message to the people of Iran, pledging support for their dreams and aspirations and for democratic change. I think that President Obama’s words are eloquent and compelling, but they raise complicated questions about the United States’ role in the many social movements of this Arab Spring. The U.S. has decided to use force to help end the dictatorship in Libya, but can military might really have a positive effect when the U.S. relationship to the region is so fraught? Is the U.S. now obligated to use force in other countries like Bahrain and Yemen? There are no easy answers, but we must continue to ask questions. I think the coming months give teachers an amazing opportunity to have conversations with their students about the Middle East–a region rich in history and tradition where so many people are standing up and making their voices heard. Many of the protesters in Egypt last month, and in Iran last year, were youth. Challenge your students to learn more about the lives and cultures of their fellow high schoolers in countries throughout the Middle East, and ask them to consider the role of the United States in democratic movements abroad.