History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Tag: Teaching about civil rights

Oral Histories: Students in the Civil Rights Movement

On August 28, 1963, before a crowd of over 200,000 people in Washington D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the most famous speech of the U.S. civil rights movement. “I have a dream,” he declared, “that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

The March on Washington has become one of the most celebrated moments of the civil rights movement, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the movement’s most famous leader. But the story of the fight for civil rights has more to it than large marches and speeches on national television.

Often out of sight of the national media, most civil rights activity occurred in local communities, in states like Mississippi, where thousands of everyday people organized themselves to fight against racial injustice. Instead of one national civil rights movement led by a few, we can think of the struggle of the 1950s and 1960s as a series of local movements for racial justice with many participants and leaders.

Judy Richardson was an 18-year-old when she join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and went to Mississippi to struggle for racial justice. You can get a sense of her experience in the video below.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was just one chapter in the black freedom struggle. As many historians have noted, African Americans have been fighting for their freedom since the first slave ships arrived in the Americas. The Civil War ended slavery in the United States, but emancipation did not bring equal rights or economic opportunities to black people. While the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s spurred the federal government into action and won many legal rights for African Americans, challenges remain today.

The Choices Program has a free online lesson “Oral Histories: Students in the Civil Rights Movement” that includes videos and stories of students who went to Mississippi, including those of Judy Richardson, John Lewis, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, and Charlie Cobb. The lesson offers insight into the broad-based nature of the civil rights movement and its role in local communities.

The activists in the videos were not much older than high school students when they joined SNCC. The videos and lessons challenge students to consider important questions:

Did they relate to the SNCC veterans’ stories about joining the movement. Can students imagine themselves participating in the civil rights movement if they had been alive?  Do any students consider themselves activists now? What current civil rights issues or other political issues inspire students in the class? Is there a cause that students can imagine themselves dedicating their lives to? What lessons can students learn from these student civil rights activists?

Continual Reconstruction: The Confederate Flag Controversy in the Classroom

The Confederate flag stands—or sits in a museum display case—as a symbol of very different sentiments depending upon perspective.

For some, the flag flies in pride of past Civil War fighters and American heritage, but to others, it is an archaic symbol of racism, segregation and slavery in the United States. Following the fatal shooting of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley finalized a bill to remove the flag from the state capitol building on July 10, 2015.

“No one should ever drive by the statehouse and feel pain. No one should ever drive by the statehouse and feel like they don’t belong.”  Governor Nikki Haley

When the Charleston shooting first spurred national debate about whether the Confederate flag should be lowered, one female activist took it upon herself to scale the 30-foot flagpole and remove the battle flag herself.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 2.27.30 PM

June 27, 2015. Bree Newsome climbs South Carolina Capitol building’s flagpole, removes flag.   Washington Post.

“I’m prepared to be arrested,” Brittany Ann “Bree” Newsome told police, who demanded that she come down. Then she climbed a bit higher to unhook the flag before descending to greet the authorities, who handcuffed her and immediately put the flag back in its former position.

Newsome spoke for a greater community when she explained her motive:

”We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.” —”Bree” Newsome

Politicians have struggled to reach an agreement about how to best honor history through the flag’s placement. A majority of civilians and government officials haven chosen instead to focus on what lies ahead; whether or not the flag represents a commendable moment in time, it does not represent the future of the United States.

An immense, mostly cheering crowd gathered to see the official lowering of the Confederate flag on July 10 — in the state that was the first to secede from the United States in 1860. Back then, Southern states that depended upon slave labor saw Abraham Lincoln’s election as a threat to their lifestyle and liberty. South Carolina lead the way in separating from the Union to form a new nation called the Confederate States of America. Ten other Southern states followed suit: Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The ideological and legal division between the (Northern) United States and the Confederate States of the South led to the Civil War.

[mediacore height=”375″ public_url=”https://brown.mediacore.tv/media/was-the-american-civil-war-a-war-over-slavery” thumb_url=”https://mediacorefiles-a.akamaihd.net/sites/11066/images/media/3668705l-6ZtcRbOI.jpg” title=”Was the American Civil War a war over slavery?” width=”670″]

“It wasn’t just about rights for African Americans, it was about reconstructing the nation…. It was about wholesale re-conceptualization of rights, on a national and international scale.” — Michael Vorenberg

Tensions continued to rise after officials removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol. On July 19,  confrontation occurred at a rally between members of the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther Party.   At the height of the Klan in 1925, there were an estimated 5,000,000 members, while in the Civil Rights era (in the 50s and 60s) there were about 42,000 members. Approximately 24,000 remain today. While the KKK has diminished over time, this is the first Klan rally in South Carolina since the late 1980s.

Perceptions of race and its relevance throughout history remain a highly contested topic. Still able to provoke anger and pain, past instances of racial inequality can be difficult to discuss.   For students and future leaders who will likely face similar challenges, this history is important to learn.

New standards of the Texas State Board of Education in 2010 will introduce a new social studies curriculum to 5 million public school students this upcoming semester. Many people are concerned that stories of suffering and fighting for civil rights are veiled, important lessons left unlearned.

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Jean Shepherd and the March on Washington

Jean Shepherd (1921-1999) was a fantastic story-teller who spun finely woven tales on the radio from the late 1940s into the 1990s. The stories were seemingly off-the-cuff improvisations about life as a kid in a steel town in Indiana, his time in the army, etc. The stories were often funny, but they were also filled with rich detail, quirky and vivid characters, and philosophical insight. He was an accomplished writer as well. In later years, one of his stories was made into the movie A Christmas Story that is replayed over and over during the holidays. The movie sells him short, I think. His material is better with him delivering it as a monologue over the airwaves and leaving our imagination to color in the details.

On a few occasions he would talk about significant events—he did following the death of President Kennedy. He was also a participant in the March on Washington, which he talked about on the air the next day. I have included audio clips here in three parts of this radio show. It’s a perspective that is interesting and a little different than what we are used to hearing. His excitement about the events is clear. His comments about understanding history really ring true to me too. In any case, if you can forgive my rough audio editing, and you have half an hour, I think you’ll find it worthwhile to listen all three parts.

Audio: Part 1-1963 08 29 March On Washington

Audio: Part 2-1963 08 29 March On Washington

Audio: Part 3-1963 08 29 March On Washington

The Choices Program is marking the 50th anniversary of the March by releasing a Teaching with the News lesson that explores the role of young people in the civil rights movement, including Representative John Lewis (D-GA). We had the good fortune to film him recently and have included him in the lesson.

Is this America?

On August 22, 1964, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi spoke to the Democratic National Convention and to a national television audience. As millions watched her speech on television, President Lyndon Johnson, who did not want political controversy to interrupt his march to his party’s nomination for the presidency, called a press conference to cut off her television coverage. But stations replayed her speech later that night, and her words captured the attention of people around the country.

Hamer’s words were an impassioned plea for justice for African Americans and a call for all the people of the United States to consider what kind of country they lived in.

“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

—Fannie Lou Hamer, August 22, 1964

Hamer was one of many civil rights activists who chose to “get in the way,” as Representative John Lewis says in the video.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s transformed the United States, wrenching it away from the Jim Crow era and challenging the systemic racism that denied African Americans their Constitutional rights. And while national figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are celebrated for their important roles, the foundation of the civil rights movement was the local activism and organizing that took place in communities throughout the country. A new curriculum from the Choices Program, Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi focuses on the local activism of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Mississippi symbolized both the vicious, systemic racism that existed throughout the South, and the powerful black movement that developed in response. The civil rights movement that emerged in small towns throughout Mississippi rarely made national headlines, but thousands of black Mississippians put their lives on the line everyday in pursuit of a better life.

For more than twenty years, the Choices Program has brought controversial issues to high school classrooms. The program’s first publication was about future of the U.S.-Soviet relationship. With the help of scholars at Brown University, the program began by focusing primarily on interational issues that were current and contentious. Over the years, the program expanded to include to include coverage of historical events that had an international dimension. Much of the work makes new and innovative scholarship from Brown accessible to high school teachers for use in their classrooms. With the exception of John Lewis, who spoke at last year’s commencement, all of the people in the video teach at Brown.



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