Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement: New Directions in Civil Rights

This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.

Over the past twenty-five years, civil rights movement historians produced revisionist scholarship to set the record straight by highlighting the untold stories of everyday people who organized grassroots campaigns against white supremacy that fundamentally transformed our nation. Yet, the gulf between the extant scholarship and the perpetual absence of movement history in school curricula is shocking, if not shameful. Who can forget the 2011 report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center in which more than half of the states in the country earned an “F” for systemic neglect to teach civil rights movement history in the classroom. Three years later, a second report tracked little to no progress as school material and resources remained “woefully inadequate” despite the iconic invocation of the movement in national memory, politics, and popular culture. Unfortunately, the limited exposure students have to the civil rights movement is framed by what movement veteran Julian Bond referred to as the “Master Narrative” – a set of historical fictions and sanitized images that distort the power and promise of grassroots organizing. These reports unveiled a devastating reality – as a nation, we think we know all there is to know about the civil rights movement, but the truth is, we still have no idea.

This session features civil rights movement scholars who are tackling the Master Narrative head-on with innovative pedagogical strategies and conceptual tools to teach the civil rights movement from “the bottom up and inside out.” Our panelists offer a snapshot of their contributions to the newly released textbook, Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, from the Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History. Editor Hasan Jeffries, aptly captures the dilemma before us. He writes,

“The popularity of the Master Narrative creates real pedagogical challenges for those teaching civil rights history. Not surprisingly, students accept what they have been taught about the essential leadership of preachers and presidents. They embrace what they have been told about the ubiquity of nonviolence and northern colorblindness. And they reiterate what they have learned about the primacy of integration and federal legislation. Having never been presented with a counternarrative, they have no reason to question received wisdom.” He continues, “Fortunately, the tools and techniques needed to teach the civil rights movement accurately and effectively are at our disposal. We just have to have the courage to use them.”

Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement bridges the divide by offering practical and proven teaching strategies that ignite transformative learning in the classroom. In this session, panelists Charles McKinney and Emilye Crosby, for instance, introduce provocative lessons that humanize the most iconic, yet misunderstood, civil rights figures – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. McKinney’s presentation grapples with the “coronation” of Dr. King as the civil rights movement and the subsequent depoliticization of King’s image. Similarly, Crosby debunks the sanitized images of Rosa Parks, whose political life has been reduced to “accidental activism” – an egregious misrepresentation of her “extensive and determined activist history.” Both McKinney and Crosby’s engagement with specific primary sources enriches our understanding of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the women who organized it.

Scholars convened for a symposium to identify key strategies for teaching the civil rights movement. Their contributions were published in Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement.

While most people are familiar with the sanitized images of Dr. King and Rosa Parks, students tend to know next to nothing about the role of indigenous leadership and grassroots organizing during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. Panelists Nicole Burrowes and La TaSha Levy share lessons from a course they co-teach called “Freedom Summer,” which draws upon the philosophy of the freedom schools to “challenge the myths of society,” especially as they pertain to the myth of democracy, charismatic male-centered leadership, and passive resistance.

Finally, panelist Charles Hughes adds further depth to our arsenal by urging educators to reconsider movement music as a “site of political struggle itself” and the music industry as a “civil rights battleground.” His presentation explores concrete ways to use songs to frame engaging lesson plans on the civil rights and Black Power movements. His methodology extends beyond lyrics. Rather, he demonstrates how freedom songs enacted “beloved community,” reflected ideologies and debates within the movement, and encourage collaboration in the classroom.

Join us for what promises to be a rich exchange of teaching strategies that disrupt, provoke, enlighten and inspire. Indeed, the current political terrain, including youth mobilization of national protests, underscore the urgency of our vocation to intervene with historical accuracy and critical consciousness.

Link to Charles McKinney podcast episode

Posted: January 23, 2020
Tagged: Conference, Previews, Race, Teaching, AfAm, Public History, Pedagogy