My students and I are thoroughly enjoying our study of the civil rights movement. We are reading an excellent book by Harvard Sitkoff and my choice of additional primary and secondary sources has hopefully added to the complexity of their understanding. I do my best to get beyond the high-profile figures that dominate our memory of the movement. We spend time analyzing the make-up and structure of organizations such as SNCC, CORE, as well as the Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam. I also challenge some of our gender assumptions regarding the leadership of these organizations. My ultimate goal is to give my students the necessary background to better understand the frustrations and challenges that black Americans faced in Jim Crow America as well as the reasons why various individuals and groups approached the challenges differently. Today we discussed an interesting article by Claiborne Carson on the difficulties that King faced in balancing his support of non-violence and the more aggressive strategies of SNCC and CORE.
In doing so I introduce my classes to individuals who typically fall through the cracks, but without whom the movement would have stagnated. Many of these individuals fall into the age range of my own students. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my students complain about some public issue, but are unable to imagine a way to stand up for their position or challenge a perceived injustice simply because they cannot vote. It is difficult for students to maintain this outlook after I’ve shown them photographs of high school- and college – age kids who integrated southern schools. While most of us are no doubt aware of the “Little Rock Nine” (pictured above) it is important to share with students that across the country young black kids were putting it all on the line by integrating the schools. I give the class some background to understand these images, but my goal is to give them an opportunity to identify with their fellow students across time. I sometimes ask if they can imagine going to school under these conditions or whether they could muster the necessary courage to do so. Consider the image to the right of the desegregation of a school in Chilton, Tennessee in 1956. Can you conceive of a more uninviting scene on the steps of a school? By far my favorite image is of Geraldine Counts who attended Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. When this image was taken she was 15 yrs old (younger than the students in my classes). I can’t help but be impressed by her dignity and her courage in the face of such hatred and aggression.
At times the reaction of my students is one of shame rather than some kind of positive identification with the black youths pictured here. Unfortunately, that reaction sometimes translates into a broader sense of shame in response to the many examples of “massive resistance” at both the level of the state and federal government and in communities across the country. This is even after I’ve explained and shown numerous images of both white and black Americans working together to bring about change in both the Freedom Rides and Lunch Counter Sit-Ins. I do my best to discuss some of these uncomfortable feelings, though I admit it is difficult. It is telling that a certain number are unable to easily identify with the black youths in these images. After all, both the white and black students in these images are roughly the same age as the students in my class.
Most Americans have little difficulty celebrating the steps that the colonists took in the 1770s in dealing with a British government that was perceived to have overstepped its authority, so why shouldn’t we admire black Americans in the 1950s and 60s for doing the very same thing? I think it’s because we still think of American history as the history of white America and the measurement of how well the country is doing morally is necessarily understood along racial lines. When we look at the images above our tendency is to see Americans at their worst. However, if we take that more inclusive perspective the photographs show Americans at their best and standing up in the face of oppression and discrimination – the very values that many of us hold dear. This may seem like a subtle point, but it is important in terms of how inclusive we choose to be and how we interpret what we include in our history.
Finally, another brave American died today. In 1958 Mildred wed Richard Loving, a 23-year-old white construction worker. They drove 90 miles from central Virginia to be married in Washington D.C. and on their return were arrested for unlawful cohabitation. In 1967 the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia, overturned state codes banning interracial marriage. Let’s hope that in the future additional laws banning couples from marriage are seen as equally absurd and are stricken from the legal codes.