Teaching Civil Rights

Young people need to understand themselves as makers of history, not simply passive consumers of contemporary culture.

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Young people need to understand themselves as makers of history, not simply passive consumers of contemporary culture.

Too often, the teaching of the civil rights movement—usually as a spontaneous eruption of angry, yet saintly African-Americans led by a few inspired orators— discounts the origins, the intellect, and the breadth of participation that guided this complex social movement. The real story of ending formal racial segregation in the United States is a very human story, one that includes strategic brilliance, logistical messiness, exalted joy, heart-rending sorrow, unbelievable courage, sharp tactical conflicts, and near-religious personal transformations. But as well as missing this human texture, the civil rights story told in classrooms tends to focus exclusively on the black freedom struggle, ignoring the struggles of all people for justice, in the United States and internationally.

Teachers also face practical challenges in presenting the full story. The bookends of the modern civil rights movement are often marked with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning school segregation and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Teachers wonder how to explore these 11 years of rich experience within the context of our historical moment: nearly a century and a half since slavery was abolished, or over a century since the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned a "separate but equal" doctrine, or more than 500 years since Spaniards first sought conquest in the New World. Elementary school teachers struggle to explain the movement to young children without being simplistic about the "good" and "bad" guys. Humanities teachers wonder how best to use fiction, film, and art. And all teachers struggle with the demands and restrictions of state educational standards and testing.

A proper telling of the story of the civil rights movement includes the themes of education and economic justice. Despite the many lawsuits related to school desegregation and equity, little attention is paid to the social purpose of education—that is, creating a place where youths can achieve excellence, prepare for leadership, gain a critical analysis of power, and learn to uphold many cultures. Winning economic justice is a parallel narrative to securing political power. In fact, many Northern and Southern activists during the civil rights era learned organizing skills through earlier work with labor unions. A better approach to teaching the civil rights movement encompasses these themes, and also uncovers and humanizes the stories of the many ordinary people who did heroic things. Such an approach enables students to learn useful lessons about their role in the world, to develop strategies to address pressing problems in their lives and communities, and to see themselves as agents of change.

Ideally, the story should be viewed through several lenses that offer metaphorical magnifying glasses for understanding the movement. The lenses include:

Youth. Economic and social forces over the course of the 20th century have reduced the public role of youths to little more than that of consumers. With compulsory schooling laws and laws against exploitative child labor, young people were encouraged to pursue an education rather than compete with adults in the employment market. Economic shifts created a loss of unskilled jobs, making formal education a greater necessity for everyone. One result is that youths now spend many more years "apprenticing for real life." The primary "action" performed by contemporary youths is to shape a separate, media-driven culture generating billions of dollars for adult companies. Politically, youths are expected to absorb and conform to adult society uncritically. Yet, countless examples from the civil rights movement show the young exercising strategic thinking, challenging the authority of white supremacy and of community elders seeking to protect them, and altering the turn of political events at the local and national levels. Contemporary young people need to understand themselves as the makers of history, not simply passive consumers.

Women. Through the influence of organized religion, conventional wisdom, and the law, women have often been discouraged (if not barred) from participating in public debate and holding leadership positions in groups not exclusively female. Nevertheless, they have found ways to speak and to lead from the earliest days of European encounter, through slavery, abolition, and various wars, to the battle for women’s suffrage and the women’s liberation movement. In the civil rights struggle, women’s definitions of their own leadership worked with and against the strategies for change expressed by African-American and white men. Students need to see the distinctive "women’s" ways of shaping social-change movements.

Organizing. The celebrity media culture became even more pervasive with the widening popularity of television in the 1950s and 1960s. The coincidental timing with the civil rights movement was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, people worldwide witnessed the unedited brutality of white supremacy and helped put pressure on policymakers for change. But mass media also glamorized the product (the marches, the rallies, the arrests, and so on) at the expense of the long, sometimes boring, and always difficult process of organizing people to change their attitudes, behaviors, votes, and spending habits. The creation of media stars robs power from the collective efforts of the many hard-working people who make up social movements, even though it may be easier to teach about charismatic individuals. Students need to learn the mistakes, the second- guessing, and the conflicts among planners and activists. Through the organizing lens, teachers can share the complex tactics and strategies that lie behind the observable movements for change and the range of talents and personalities required to achieve success. Such education is an essential part of learning to be active participants in a democracy.

Culture. Enduring movements for social change transform the landscape of people’s daily lives, or their culture. Culture defines what (and who) is beautiful, funny, worthy of praise, nourishing, comforting, and the source of our strength. Music, visual images, language, clothing and hair, religion, and leadership styles are the arenas of the most apparent transformations. The interracial and cross-generational nature of the civil rights movement created new symbols and new uses for culture as a way to attract converts. Many of these cultural shifts also influenced other social movements. Through the lens of culture, students learn how familiar culture (such as songs and call-and-response oratory) was used as an organizing tool, how cultural expressions were central rather than peripheral to building a community of activists, and how the political and economic choices made by organizers and activists were rooted in their daily lives, foods, songs, and modes of worship.

Institutionalized racism. Institutionalized racism promotes the ideology that the "white race" is superior to other human beings, and that this supremacy must be reinforced (violently, if need be) in all institutions that govern daily life. Young people need to understand that racism comes in faces other than the white-sheeted Klan member and the law enforcement officer with attack dogs and fire hoses. They need to know that eliminating legal segregation was only one part of dismantling the continuing vestiges of institutionalized racism. And it is important to show that personal and organized resistance to white supremacy—by indigenous peoples, by people of color, and by whites—has existed since the beginning of European contact in the Americas. Through this lens, students can see why dissent is often difficult to exercise—especially in the face of violence—but that it has always been part of the fabric of public policy and Americans’ personal experience of what is called "race."

As inspiring as the story of the civil rights movement is, students should know that it is one piece of a continuing story.

Interconnectedness. As inspiring as the story of the civil rights movement is, students should know that it is one piece of a continuing story, and is connected to the historical human call for justice worldwide. In the 20th century alone, civil rights activists were connected with the anti-lynching movement, the Spanish Civil War resistance, the labor movement, tenant-farmer organizing, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, India’s independence, the desegregation of U.S. military forces, African liberation, the American Indian Movement, the Chicano movement, the Asian Pacific Islander movement, the farmworkers’ movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, the Free South Africa movement, the Solidarity movement in Poland, liberation theology, the sanctuary movement, gay liberation, the environmental-justice movement, and—some would even argue— the tactics used in the anti-abortion and religious-fundamentalist movements. Teachers need to show the ways in which many people within the various social- justice movements were directly inspired by one another and felt connections beyond their own racial identities and national borders.

James Baldwin reminded us in his "Talk to Teachers" that "in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty," teachers and parents will face brutal and determined resistance. The teaching and learning of this complex history is an active, not a passive, process that should be supported by comprehensive materials. These tasks—resisting the pat story, being energetic and visionary in the telling, and seeking supplemental information—are the essentials of excellent teaching.

To convey civil-rights-movement history in this way enables teachers to be the "midwives" for this generation, as it does what Grace Lee Boggs says each generation must do: discover its mission for creating a more just, caring, and beloved community.

Vol. 23, Issue 38, Pages 28-29

Published in Print: May 26, 2004, as Teaching Civil Rights
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