MAGAZINE FEATURE

History Moves With Us

A movement veteran reflects on teaching civil rights history.
Illustration by Alleanna Harris

The United States is at a crossroads. In the wake of the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd—a 46-year-old, unarmed African American—by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding justice for the victims of police violence and seeking meaningful changes in law enforcement. They did this in the middle of a global pandemic that in only three months’ time had claimed the lives of 100,000 Americans, hitting Black, Latinx and Native American communities especially hard.

Students helped lead the way. They joined and organized marches and demonstrations, calling attention to the gross injustices facing African Americans and voicing their own personal experiences with racism and prejudice.

The protests have already had a remarkable impact. The officers who killed George Floyd were arrested and charged; major municipalities announced plans to reallocate millions of dollars earmarked for police; states rewrote their use of force guidelines, banning chokeholds; state attorneys opened investigations into past police killings; and legislation designed to rein in police misconduct moved through Congress.

Still, the ultimate goal of a racially just and equitable society—a more perfect Union—remains elusive. History can help.

The civil rights movement offers a blueprint for creating meaningful social change. The movement transformed America, ending the most egregious forms of legalized racial discrimination, including de jure segregation in education.

But for students to learn the lessons that civil rights history has to offer, they have to learn more than the “Master Narrative,” the version of the movement that reduces the struggle to Rosa Parks sitting down and Martin Luther King Jr. standing up. In fact, they have to learn how to deconstruct that narrative, to see the ways that it distorts the past and misconstrues the present. They also have to learn how the movement actually happened, how ordinary people brought about such extraordinary change.

Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement was written to help teachers teach the movement accurately and effectively. A collection of more than 20 original essays by civil rights history educators, the book offers detailed overviews of essential civil rights content, suggests practical strategies for teaching civil rights icons, identifies and explains the best ways to use primary source material, and presents proven methods and tools for engaging and exciting students.

The book begins with a reflection on teaching civil rights history by veteran civil rights activist Charlie Cobb Jr. Cobb was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and originated the idea of Freedom Schools as a part of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. He worked for many years as a journalist and recently taught civil rights history as a visiting professor at Brown University.

In an abridged version of his essay, which is featured here, Cobb offers insightful observations and shares important lessons learned from teaching movement history in formal and informal settings for several decades. His dispatch from the front line of civil rights education is a powerful reminder that civil rights history is useful history, capable of teaching us about the past and the present. It can help students pursue a racially just and equitable society, but only if we take the time to learn what actually happened during the movement and have the courage to teach it truthfully.

—Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Editor
Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

From “Who Is Fannie Lou Hamer?”

Nearly two decades ago, I returned to Mississippi, where I had been an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I traveled back to the Magnolia State to hand-deliver copies of Radical Equations, a book I had just written with legendary SNCC activist Bob Moses, to friends from my movement days. One of the first people I visited was Shae Goodman Robinson, the principal of Brinkley Middle School. Her school is located in the heart of the capital city of Jackson. My visit was delightful, and afterward, as I sat on the front steps of the school building waiting for my ride, I could not help but think about the many movement people who had sacrificed so much in the fight for freedom. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) activist Medgar Evers, who was shot dead in the driveway of his home very near where I was sitting, came immediately to mind.

“In every way, Mrs. Hamer represented the heart and soul of the Mississippi movement.”

As I reflected on Evers, I wondered what the half dozen or so middle school students who were sitting with me knew about him. So I decided to engage them in what I only half-jokingly call “old guy” talk. After I told them that Medgar Evers’s home was not far away, I asked, “Can anyone tell me something about him?” I waited eagerly for an answer, but my question was met with stony silence. “You mean none of you can tell me anything about Medgar Evers?” I asked incredulously. Again, nothing. Then one kid finally said, “Didn’t he get killed?”

Directly across the street from the school is the Fannie Lou Hamer Public Library. In every way, Mrs. Hamer represented the heart and soul of the Mississippi movement. She was an ordinary person who faced extraordinary circumstances yet never yielded to fear or failure. The youngest of twenty children, she dropped out of school after the sixth grade to work on the cotton plantations of Sunflower County. She was evicted from her home after attempting to register to vote, but that didn’t keep her from getting involved in the movement. In fact, it deepened her commitment to fighting for freedom. With a powerful singing voice and keen organizing skills, Mrs. Hamer partnered with young SNCC organizers to help transform Mississippi by challenging the power of southern segregationists and northern liberals. Without Mrs. Hamer, the movement in Mississippi would not have been nearly as effective as it was.

So, having gotten nowhere with Medgar Evers, I decided to shift gears. Nodding toward the library, I asked, “How about Fannie Lou Hamer? Who can say something about her?” But once again, no one said a word.

By then, my ride had arrived, and as I got up I pointed at the library and told the kids that Black Mississippians made a big difference in the civil rights struggle and that Mrs. Hamer was one of the people they needed to learn about if they wanted to understand how those African Americans did it. She was a native Mississippian, I added for emphasis. I also told them that I would be happy to share my remembrances of Mrs. Hamer since I knew her personally.

Just then, as I was about to tell a story that I thought might bring them back to the school’s steps when I returned in few days, one of the kids leapt to his feet and in sheer amazement exclaimed, “Mr. Cobb! You was alive back then!”

The student’s surprise at discovering that I knew Mrs. Hamer personally is easy to understand. After all, her name was chiseled into the facade of a public building, albeit a modest one. For a middle school student at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the 1960s were ancient times. Anybody who knew someone whose name was on a library was most likely dead or tottering on the brink of death, and certainly not likely to be sitting on the steps of their school talking to them.

At the same time, the student’s reaction, and the entire conversation for that matter, disturbed me greatly. I had increasingly become distressed over how very little civil rights history the generation to whom the twenty-first century would belong actually knew, and this conversation only intensified my anxiety. But it also changed me forever.

I had increasingly become distressed over how very little civil rights history the generation to whom the twenty-first century would belong actually knew.

Up to that point, my career as a journalist and writer had revolved around foreign affairs. I had bounced all over the world as a writer for National Geographic and as diplomatic correspondent for AllAfrica.com. Yet, with the exception of my book with Bob Moses, I had written almost nothing about the southern freedom movement. The kids on the steps of Brinkley Middle School forced me to face up to the fact that I had an obligation as a writer with a movement background to figure out how best to convey movement history and culture as I understood it. But this charge presented serious challenges, something I learned as a writer and as an occasional college professor.

As a former SNCC organizer, I was inclined to approach telling movement history the way I had organized, from the bottom up and inside out. But despite an expanding body of scholarship stressing the importance of an approach centering on the tradition of grassroots community organizing, elementary and secondary schools across the country continue to stress a top-down and outside-in approach. As a result, a handful of charismatic leaders receive all of the attention to the exclusion of nearly everyone else.

At the same time, the movement is often taught in such a way as to separate and isolate it from the broader American story. Indeed, Black protest is usually confined to the South and separated from the much longer history of Black protest. The truth is that civil rights era protest was national and a part of an organizing tradition—largely at the grassroots—that includes enslaved revolts, the Underground Railroad, and continuous efforts to challenge the double standards of law and custom under which African Americans have been expected to live since the colonial era. In other words, insisting that “Black Lives Matter” is not new to the struggle.

Season Three of our Teaching Hard History podcast explores the victories of and violent responses to the civil rights movement into the present day. Stream individual episodes or subscribe and automatically download the lessons we should have all learned in school, through the voices of leading scholars and educators.

Similarly, white opposition is frequently reduced to a handful of mad dog sheriffs. Generally speaking, the idea that the movement was a popular challenge to core American values, systems, and institutions that were firmly rooted in the soil of white supremacy is ignored. So too is the fact that America was founded on a great contradiction, immortalized in the words and actions of Thomas Jefferson, who famously declared “that all men are created equal” and infamously held Black men, women, and children in bondage. Rather than ignoring these con­nections, they should be explored, since reconciling this fundamental contradiction has been a motivating factor in the Black freedom struggle since the colonial era.

Civil rights history needs to be conveyed in a connected way. Although today it is taught much better in colleges and universities, it is still not taught the way it should be, especially at the elementary and middle school levels. Indeed, having students memorize Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or sing “Lift Every Voice” during Black History Month is no substitute for learning the intricacies of civil rights history. And using textbooks that barely mention the Black experience during the rest of the year does not help either.

Illustration of Charles E. Cobb Jr.

My experiences in the movement and in the classroom have con­vinced me that if we want civil rights history to be useful to young people, then what we teach has to portray Black people in meaningful ways. This can and should be done at every educational level, for it is the usefulness of history—what history teaches us to understand about ourselves—more than classroom exercises or syllabi that determines a history lesson’s ultimate value. I speak here not as an academic, because I am not one. Instead, I speak as a veteran of the southern freedom movement and as someone still committed to fighting for freedom. What’s more, it is clear to me that in the very near future, if not already, we will need to incorporate the current wave of activism and organiza­tion by young people into our discussions of the movement. After all, #BlackLivesMatter, Dream Defenders, Moral Mondays, and the many other newly formed organizations of the twenty-first century that have taken up the struggle for change are history in the making.

Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

Edited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries

Use the code CIVILRIGHTS for a 30 percent discount on this book from the University of Wisconsin Press.

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