This toolkit—adapted from our viewer’s guide for An Outrage: A Documentary Film About Lynching in the American South—provides guidance for educators hoping to tackle this tough topic in the classroom. Educators hoping to draw a clear connection between the racial terrorism of the past and the racial inequity of the present should also utilize the Equal Justice Initiative’s incredible online resources as well as the feature story A Museum. A Memorial. A Message.
Teaching About Lynching
Teaching about the history of lynching means being prepared to talk about challenging topics, including violence, murder, racial terrorism and racism, not simply as remnants of a long-gone past, but as real forces in the world today. Issues that will come up in this conversation remain relevant today: the death penalty, the misuse of police power and the power of symbols to intimidate.
Analyzing these topics may be challenging for students to process. Our guide Let’s Talk: Discussing Race, Racism and Other Challenging Topics provides pedagogical approaches to help students learn to sit with their discomfort and to moderate it over time.
Consider taking this moment to use our Let’s Talk! graphic organizer to think ahead about how you can create emotional safety in your classroom.
Know How to Talk About Race
Certainly, we must talk about race to help students understand the role that lynching played in our nation’s history.
Educators have varying comfort levels when it comes to talking about race but, regardless of your comfort level, setting clear guidelines for discussion is an essential first step.
Involve students in this process by asking them what kinds of guidelines they need to feel safe to express their ideas. Remember that conversations about race are not only about color but also about whiteness. Too often, teachers discuss race without making white privilege visible and subject to investigation.
Teaching about the history of lynching in the United States provides relevant and historically appropriate opportunities to talk openly with students about ways in which discrimination and privilege have shaped and continue to shape American society. Teachers who choose to talk about race in the classroom will be rewarded with students who are more fully engaged and who gain a deeper understanding of the civil rights movement and its context.
Keep in Mind:
- Acknowledge the importance of race in your students’ lives.
- Dispel ideas about a biological basis for race.
- Brush up on the history of race as a social construct used as a means of social control.
- Create a safe environment with clear communication guidelines.
- Identify common roadblocks to productive discussion.
- Recognize that disparity exists but need not persist.
- Speak from your own experience.
- Create opportunities for students to speak from their own experience.
Tools for Teachers
Start with yourself.
Before starting conversations with your students about race and ethnicity, it is good to begin by reflecting on your own identity using the self-assessment tool from Let’s Talk.
Read about it.
Teaching Tolerance offers a number of articles that grapple with lynching in the classroom:
Teaching Tolerance also offers articles that address how to talk about race:
Read a book like Talking Race in the Classroom by Jane Bolgatz (Teachers College Press, 2005). Spend some time with Teaching Tolerance’s online professional development tools about culture in the classroom. View the Let’s Talk! webinar. Talk with other teachers to find out how they talk about race with their students.
Take care of yourself.
Facilitating difficult conversations can be emotionally draining or even painful for teachers. Make time to process, reflect and recharge in positive ways. Find colleagues or friends who can listen while you debrief conversations about race and racism. Take advantage of professional learning communities where you can discuss the dynamics in your classroom. Keep a professional journal and use writing to process and reflect.
Other resources for teaching about lynching
These resources can both inform you as you embark on or improve upon your teaching of this topic and become key parts of a more comprehensive unit on the subject.
Through the voices of scholars and activists in communities across the South, as well as through the descendants of the victims themselves, this classroom-friendly film (available to stream) takes viewers to the very communities where heinous acts of violence took place, offering a painful look back at lives lost to lynching and a critical look forward.
Our complete guide offers historical background, teaching tips, lessons and action steps for educators hoping to comprehensively teach this topic to students.
EJI’s interactive map of lynchings in the South provides a striking visual aid for underscoring the scope and geographic epicenters of lynching. The map can be used to highlight lynchings that occurred in or near your students’ communities. The interactive map also helps educators and students visualize how this era of racial terrorism gave way to the “Great Migration.”
This report from the Equal Justice Initiative documents the history of racial terrorism from the Civil War through the world wars—and helps connect those horrors to the lingering injustices of today.
These audio stories depict generations of people and families impacted by lynching. These not only give a literal human voice to the effects of racial terrorism, but also help students understand how recent these horrors took place.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander explores complex questions about the criminal justice system and the history of race and racial justice in the United States. Use our teacher’s guide to bring this pivotal book into the classroom.
This interview—conducted in 1985—chronicles the experience of a man who witnessed a lynching as a 5-year-old in Jacksonville, Florida.
This story, published in McClure’s Magazine in 1905, offers a chilling description of a lynching and the mob mentality that surrounds it.