Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

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.


What Glatthaar Was Probably Not Looking At

In his somewhat obscure review of Joseph Glatthaar new book, Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, Dimitri Rotov suggests the following:

Perhaps he was looking at the succession of volumes of Russel Beatie’s Army of the Potomac thinking, “Why not the ANV?”

Let me suggest that Glatthaar did not have any of Beatie’s books in mind during the writing of this study, which predates Beatie’s own work. I’ve actually finished reading Glatthaar’s book, though from Dimitri’s commentary it is difficult to know whether he has read it other than the sections that have to do with the Antietam Campaign.  Glatthaar’s book is a tightly argued overview of the history of the Army of Northern Virginia.  While I do not believe that every chapter represents a new interpretive step Glatthaar does an excellent job of synthesizing much of what has been published about Lee, the ANV and the Confederate home front over the past two decades.  [Previous posts on the book can be found here and here.]The book has absolutely nothing in common with Beatie’s work and we should be thankful for that.  I tried reading through the first of his three volumes and found so many interpretive and factual mistakes that it was impossible to continue.  I wish I had read John Hennessy’s review of volume 1 in America’s Civil War before setting out.  The reconstruction of dialog and almost unquestionable use of postwar material was just too much for me.  Perhaps successive volumes are better organized and better judgment was employed in terms of what to include and what to leave out.  I just don’t see how the piling on of information without any coherent analytical/interpretive threads is helpful to the reader. 

What I can say is that Glatthaar’s book is well organized and a useful tool to understanding the ANV’s structure from the top-down and its evolution through the war.   


No Confederate Plates in Florida

Actually, the situation is much worse:

Finally, before they hit the road, lawmakers passed only two
transportation proposals. The first will outlaw motorcyclists from
popping wheelies and increases penalties for all motorists caught
driving more than 50 miles per hour above the speed limit. The second
bans the introduction of new specialty license plates which nixes
proposals for a new Christian "I Believe" specialty license plate and a
"Confederate Heritage" specialty license plate

So, in addition to not being able to express their Confederate heritage Floridians are also being barred from expressing their Christian faith.  It’s not all bad news however.  A bill allowing the police to ticket vehicles with replica bull testicles hanging from the rear did not make it through. 

Nice to know some things are still sacred in this country.


Can You Identify This Image?

This will be my last full week of teaching before a few days of review and the final exam.  My survey classes are reading through parts of Harvard Sitkoff’s The Struggle For Black Equality and they seem to be enjoying it immensely.  The book does an excellent job of getting beyond the high-profile figures and moving to the complexity of what took place on the ground in various places.  Organizations like SNCC and CORE receive a great deal of coverage and I am especially pleased that Sitkoff emphasizes the fact that the civil rights movement was in large part a youth movement.  I can’t tell you how often I hear from my students that there is nothing they can do in the face of perceived injustices because they cannot vote.  They simply throw their hands in the air in frustration or are already too cynical to even consider the possibilities of activism.  When we discuss desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education I show my students a fairly large number of photographs of young black teens walking between angry mobs of white people into the public schools.  I simply ask my students to consider the images and ask themselves whether they would have had the courage to engage in such behavior.

We’ve heard quite a bit of late about how little our children know about major figures in American history, but it

seems to me that we fail to understand the past if we don’t also give them a sense that some of the most significant changes cannot be understood simply from the top-down, but must be acknowledged as the work of ordinary people who risked everything.  The decision of the Supreme Court and the reluctant decision of various individuals, including President Eisenhower, to enforce the court’s ruling around the country would have meant very little if ordinary Americans did not step forward.

Now to the reason for the post.  When we first started I had my classes analyze the image on the book cover.  It’s a wonderful image, but unfortunately, I have been unable to identify the scene.  We worked to put some of the pieces together.  We discussed why the Capitol dome had been painted black and came to the conclusion that it must have been an attempt to camouflage it during WWII.  The crowd of African-Americans was much more difficult, but by the time we discussed it they had read the first chapter which covered the period between 1900 and 1954.  So I asked what a crowd of black Americans might be holding in front of the Capitol building during WWII.  The consensus was that they were holding copies of Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order No. 8802.

Given that this is just a guess can anyone identify the image?


Getting Right With Wright

The commentary in the mainstream media surrounding the sermons of Jeremiah Wright and what it means in terms of Barack Obama’s vision of American have been sickening to say the least.  We rarely get any serious discussion, just the same few tapes played in an endless loop.  Worse yet most conservative commentators, who have taken the lead in beating this story to death, rarely tell their viewers the rationale behind it all.  In other words, they never quite get to the conclusion that lingers in the background which is the assumption that Obama holds the same views as expressed in those short snippets.  What I find so depressing is the fact that if Obama had been a member of a church that did little or nothing in the form of community outreach and included a reserved pastor there would be no problem at all.  I admit to finding it hard to believe that Obama was not aware of Wright’s occasional outbursts, but to reduce his church membership to these clips and ignore all of the work that he engaged in through this institution seems to me to be unfair.  All of this comes down to the question of whether Obama shares Wright’s vision of America.  And if the answer is no than what is all of this really about?    Ultimately, this comes down to our inability as a nation to talk openly and honestly about the history of racism and its continued effects within the black community.  That is why it was so nice to see someone on television last night actually say something thoughtful.  No surprise that it was Bill Moyers.  I’ve included his commentary in its entirety.

I once asked a reporter back from Vietnam, “Who’s telling the truth over there?” Everyone he said. Everyone sees what’s happening through the lens of their own experience.” That’s how people see Jeremiah Wright. In my conversation with him on this broadcast a week ago and in his dramatic public appearances since, he revealed himself to be far more complex than the sound bites that propelled him onto the public stage. Over 2000 of you have written me about him, and your opinions vary widely. Some sting: “Jeremiah Wright is nothing more than a race-hustling, American hating radical,” one viewer wrote. A “nut
case,” said another. Others were far more were sympathetic to him.

[click to continue…]

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