Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Top 8 Mistakes Teachers Make When Teaching the Modern Civil Rights Era

And a Few Suggestions on How to Fix Them

I am a little concerned that I am biting off more than I can chew with this post, but I feel compelled to address these issues, as I see them often--not just in classrooms that I visit, or stories I hear from kids about what they have learned in their classes, but even in the mainstream media and among adults. And I see some of these problems even as I look through my own class materials on this unit. So the problems are something I, too, have been working to address.

Jaquelyn Dowd Hall, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote an influential essay in 2005 in The Journal of American History. It is available on Jstor, though you can get the sense of her argument from the second paragraph which I quote below:

Centering on what Bayard Rustin in 1965 called the “classical” phase of the struggle, the dominant narrative chronicles a short civil rights movement that begins with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, proceeds through public protests, and culminates with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then comes the decline. After a season of moral clarity, the country is beset by the Vietnam War, urban riots, and reaction against the excesses of the late 1960s and the 1970s, understood variously as student rebellion, black militancy, feminism, busing, affirmative action, or an overweening welfare state. A so-called white backlash sets the stage for the conservative interregnum that, for good or ill, depending on one’s ideological persuasion, marks the beginning of another story, the story that surrounds us now.
This is the narrative that many of us teach. And it is not completely wrong. But it is "a" narrative. And, like any narrative, it leaves things out. It hides the nuances and the complications. So I'm going to try to highlight at least 8 of them. (For more on the historiography, you read this brief article by historian Eric Arnesen, "Reconsidering the Long Civil Rights Movement.")

Mistake #1: Teaching that the Civil Rights Movement Begins in the 1950s

The narrative highlighted above by Hall could not have happened out of the blue. We know this. We are supposed to be teaching cause and effect. So what caused the events of the 1950s--the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the Brown decision? If you teach about Brown v. Board, you have to review Plessy v. Ferguson. If students studied that as part of an earlier unit on Reconstruction or the post-Reconstruction period, then you will likely need to review.

But the bigger issue is presenting the start of the movement when Rosa Parks was too tired to move to the back of the bus (more on Parks in mistake #2). The best "fix" for this problem I have seen is a lesson by Bruce Lesh described in his fantastic book, Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer.
The lesson he describes in chapter 7, "Using the Civil Rights Movement to Teach Historical Significance" is worth the price of the book (and is where I was introduced to the Hall essay I mentioned above). In it, he first asks students to consider what makes something significant. By showing images--some really famous, like the ones on the left and others that are less so like the one below. Students were instructed to pick one or two they thought were most associated with African American civil rights. Then you discuss the criteria they used to decide whether something is historically significant or not. Why is it that the rise of the black power movement in the mid-1960s is not as clearly fixed in our minds as a key moment of the civil rights movement as Rosa Parks on the bus? Having students reflect on that is a powerful way to get them to think about history in general and how we choose which stories become a part of our "national story." Lesh's book offers a more complete discussion of how to go about this, so I urge you to check it out. Click here for the slides I created to go with this lesson, though of course you could create your own.

Following the phase above, students examine a list of key events connected to African American civil rights dating back to the first decade of the 20th century and use the information to complete a chart. I know--I have criticized the use of such things in earlier posts, but this is different. Because you have to let them know the purpose of the chart.
They will NOT have to memorize ANY of this, so they don’t need lots of detail on the chart. The idea is to get a general idea of all the things that happened involving Civil Rights in the period before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, which is when most history books start talking about the Civil Rights Movement. Then they apply the criteria you developed in the first part of the lesson when looking at the pictures to decide which time period could best be described as "the birth" of the Civil Rights movement. here's the chart I used (Lesh has a reproducible one in his book that is longer. I designed mine to be more appropriate for my 8th graders, though it is also usable for high school. There's more to the lesson than that, but that is the main idea. Again, check out Lesh's book. 

And also keep in mind that if you have taught some African African history all along, you are better equipped to avoid the mistake of relegating civil rights to only the 1950s and 1960s. (See my earlier post on Blacks and the Progressive Era.)

Mistake #2: Overemphasizing the Role of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King

We have done a very good job of teaching about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. So good that when students were asked in a series of studies who are the most famous Americans other than presidents, of the thousands of names that students listed, King and Parks showed up on a quarter of all lists. (Check out this this article by Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano.) But a Civil Rights movement with only Parks and King is a woefully incomplete one. Ava DuVernay, the director of the recent film, Selma, described her focus for the film, "My interest was showing people on the ground in Selma. The band of brothers and sisters who were around King." (quoted here). Her point is well-taken (Though oddly, I'd argue that the film doesn't do that nearly as well as focusing on King. See the segment, "The Man or the Movement?" in the podcast, BackStory: Pop History for a similar view from the historian Brian Balogh.) 

There are plenty of other famous and non-famous folks who made the movement happen. Try this game with fellow history teachers: have them guess who was on the cover of TIME magazine on August 30, 1963 with the banner, "The Negro Revolution to Date." Click here for the answer. 

Surprising isn't it?

Few of our students know about Claudette Colvin, the 15 year old girl who first refused to move to the back of the bus. Focusing on young people can send a powerful message to our students about their ability to effect change. The documentary, Mighty Times: The Children's March, is a good example of this, that works well with students (and is about 40 minutes--good timing.) There is also a wonderful book, Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories, by Ellen Levine that I have used successfully. The excerpt by Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine works especially well to read aloud to middle or high schoolers. Another useful collection of oral histories is Voices of Freedom by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer. You can also find online collections of oral histories from the Library of CongressCivil Rights Movement Veterans, The Southern Oral History Program, just to name a few.

Mistake #3: Over-simplifying Martin Luther King

When elementary school students listen to the same part of King's "I Have a Dream" speech every year on Martin Luther King Day, it is no wonder that their understanding of King is so narrow. To quote Jacquelyn Dowd Hall again,

Martin Luther King Jr. is this narrative’s defining figure—frozen in 1963, pro-claiming “I have a dream” during the march on the Mall. Endlessly reproduced and selectively quoted, his speeches retain their majesty yet lose their political bite. We hear little of the King who believed that “the racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem” and who attacked segregation in the urbanNorth. Erased altogether is the King who opposed the Vietnam War and linked racism at home to militarism and imperialism abroad. Gone is King the democratic socialist who advocated unionization, planned the Poor People’s Campaign, and was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike
I can think of no better resource to help remedy this mistake than "The Fierce Urgency of Now" podcast from the 3 historians at You can listen to the podcast, or read through the transcript from the website. It offers a lot of insight into the March that will change how you and your students think about it. And they offer some excellent additional resources if you need more. Students should understand what the march was supposed to be about and that other folks were there besides King and the masses (show 'em the TIME magazine cover). If you like, you can have students read all or some of the famous speech by Rabbi Joachim Prinz that was delivered just before King's speech. But most importantly students should know that the "I have a dream" speech has more in it than just the "I have a dream part" they hear year after year. Have students read the first half of the speech!

And then you have to make sure that read more of King than just this speech. King's letter from a Birmingham jail is a classic source for good reason. Here are excerpts from that letter with questions that I used with my 8th graders last year. But we also need to use speeches King gave after the successes of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can look at to find some of these speeches. His "Beyond Vietnam" speech given at Riverside Church in April of 1967 is a good example. Read more about the speech in this NPR interview with Tavis Smiley.

Mistake #4: So were JFK and LBJ Good Guys or a Bad Guys? 

I actually had a student ask me that question once about LBJ in connection to Vietnam. He had decided (probably based on my flawed Civil Rights unit) that LBJ was a "good guy" because of his role in the 1964 and 1965 legislation. Then came Vietnam, and, well...that's another narrative for another post. But the question is embedded in the way we teach Civil Rights, too. And not just for Johnson, but also for Kennedy. Kennedy's speech of June 11, 1963 (view here): good guy. But Kennedy before that: not so good. (Read a commentary about this shift from The Atlantic.) And the same for LBJ. Ever the master politician, Johnson seems to flip on issues whenever it is politically expedient to do so. For more on Johnson, check out this Terry Gross's interview on Fresh Air with Todd S. Purdum, the author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come. Or even better, put Robert Caro's The Passage to Power on your summer reading list. If there are too many other things on your summer list, just check out the chapters that discuss the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

My point is that neither JFK, LBJ or MLK for that matter are flawless heroes. Life is complicated. Politics are complicated. There is good and bad. Our job is to help students understand multiple perspectives and the fuzzy, gray areas.

Mistake #5: Neglecting to Discuss the Civil Rights Movement in the North

I don't know about you, but last year when I was teaching the Civil Rights movement, I looked at the calendar and realized if I wanted to get to Vietnam, I better get moving! Poor planning can lead us to mention a few riots in the North, mumble something about the appeal of Malcolm X to urban blacks, and then give the unit test and push along. But a Civil Rights movement that starts in Montgomery, moves to Little Rock and ends in Selma is woefully incomplete. It suggests to our students that once segregation officially ended, all was well. I suspect that for those of us who live in the urban North, it is unpleasant to admit that racism was alive and well in the North, too, and still is. But with recent events in Baltimore, this is just...well, urban legend.

Because I am in Chicago, I like to teach about King's summer in Chicago in 1966. If you live in or near a different northern city, I would try to find something from your own city. But if not, Chicago is still a great case study, because the movement was not terribly successful there, pointing out the challenges of solving all the racial and underlying economic problems in the North. (On a side note, I often wonder what it must be like to teach U.S. history in the South--the burden of having to teach the Civil War and about things like Birmingham and Selma. The reading that follows on the movement in Chicago should make Southern students feel better that it was hardly just the South that was "the bad guy"in the 1960s).

The first thing I did when I taught this to students was to show them a pile of nine U.S. history textbooks commonly used in middle and high schools--including theirs--and ask them why they thought only one mentioned King's summer in Chicago. That discussion in and of itself was fascinating (and quite revealing about what the assumptions students make about textbooks). But that was just a brief introduction before reading an article about the campaign in Chicago. Students read the article for homework, and prepared discussion questions which they used in class the following day. The article is adapted from a story in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine. The lesson was made even better by the fact that the assistant principal's mother had grown up in Marquette Park, so she (the assistant principal, not her mother) came in to talk about it. Never pass up an opportunity to make history personal. If you can find a guest speaker, or an article about your own city, go for it.

Mistake #6: Teaching MLK and Malcolm X as Opposites and Teaching them out of Context

Try this experiment. Type "Martin Luther King vs" into your browser. Does your browser automatically suggest "Malcolm X" as what should follow? Yeah, mine too. How little Google knows about Malcolm X!

Pitting the two against each other is done far too often in civil rights curriculum materials and out in the real world, too. While a lesson like this one from Edsitement offers some good materials, it posits a dichotomy that is overly simplistic and misrepresents both King and Malcolm X.

Or take this lesson from the Gilder Lehrman Institute (note, you may have to sign up to be a member in order to view the lesson.) After reading just a few excerpts from one speech each of King's and X's, students are asked to write an essay that addresses the following question:
“Choose the leader whose methods and message you found to be the most convincing.” 
What a student in 2015 thinks is the most convincing message does not address a historic question. Most convincing about what? And to whom? Convincing to a 20 year old black man in Watts circa 1965? Or to a Mississippi woman circa 1963? Or to either in 1968?

For a more thoughtful analysis of these two men check out these lesson plans, originally published in the OAH (Organization of American Historians) Magazine in 2005. While you probably don't have time to use the entire set of lessons, you can easily pick and choose from it. Plus it offers a useful conceptual background for you, the teacher, to help remedy this mistake.

I created this handout to help students see the evolution of Malcolm X's views and how they relate to those of King's. I also have had students watch a section from the Eyes on the Prize series mentioned in the OAH lesson above. It's the episode, "America at the Crossroads, 1964-1966," though they don't watch the entire thing. And these are the discussion questions that I use with/after the film. See this lesson from lesson plans mentioned about. I put the quotations into a simple handout for students here. If you find yourself getting the answers all wrong, you'll know you need to do some background reading!

Another idea: I haven't read everything on this link which is a debate about MLK v. Malcom X from, but I think you could probably do something interesting with it for high school students. Perhaps having them read some of the entries, commenting on them, thinking about historical inaccuracies....?

Mistake #7: Missing the Opportunity to Connect to the Rest of the World

One of the things that makes teaching the 20th century challenging is the skipping around from domestic to foreign policy to domestic again. I remember the same student who asked me the question about LBJ being kind of amazed by the fact that everything we were talking about in Vietnam was going on at the same time as all the stuff in the previous unit on Civil Rights. (No wonder all our presidents' hair turns gray in office!)
Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King arriving in New Delhi.

So the mistake we need to avoid is keeping our unit on the Civil Rights too separate from that of Vietnam. We don't want our students' hair to turn gray, so we probably need to make it two units, but you can at least remind them repeatedly of the connections during both units.But--and here's the bigger mistake, I think: we neglect to connect the Civil Rights era to the Cold War that may precede it in our teaching, but is happening at the same time in real life. An essay by Kevin Gains, "The Civil Rights Movement in World Perspective" is an excellent resource for this. It is worth reading (and only 8 pages.) Looks like may be able to link to it from your local library here. This article gave me some insights that I used to create this lesson on Martin Luther's trip to Ghana and India. We tend to be rather myopic in U.S. history and fail to connect what happens in the U.S. to what is happening elsewhere in the world. This lesson helps remedy that.
It gives me an opportunity to remind students about a major event in world history--decolonization--and connect that to the Cold War and Civil Rights. Examples like African dignitaries coming to segregated Washington, D.C. are revealing. Or John F. Kennedy realizing what bad PR the photo to the left is for U.S. standing abroad, as he tried to portray the country as Leader of the Free World.

Mistake #8: Failure to Connect to the Present

Click here to read the article and for larger image of this chart.
An article in yesterday's Washington Post points out that public opinion about deaths of black men at the hands of police has changed over the past year. The article states, "The end result is that incidents that would have been local news stories a year ago 'now [appear] to fit this larger national narrative.'"
While public opinion is still split and there is still a big gap between blacks, whites, Democrats, and Republicans, the article claims that the shift from December is significant.

It is challenging to discuss these events in class--not just because it is a controversial topic, but because everything is still so current. But this doesn't excuse us from trying. As history teachers, even when we know that there are few "right answers" in history, we feel a little safer in the past. Teaching about today is far messier. But even raising the questions-- in what ways do recent events in Baltimore suggest that inequality between blacks and whites is still a problem? in what ways do they suggest civil rights for young black males in particular are still compromised?-- helps students see connections between what they are studying and what is going on in the world today.

And in this unit in particular, not raising current examples of inequality sends the message that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s solved everything and was an unqualified success.
You can use this document I created to help dispel that myth.

And here are a few resources for teaching about Ferguson and Baltimore:

And a few additional resources for teaching about civil rights:

See this guide to films/documentaries to use when teaching about Civil Rights by the Hasan Kwame Jeffries, history professor at Ohio State University.

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