Teaching Honest History: A New LFJ Resource for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

LFJ is pleased to introduce a forthcoming educator resource: ‘Teaching the Movement: A Framework  for Teaching the Black Freedom Struggle.’
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Illustration by Simone Martin-Newberry

Introducing the 2019 essay collection Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, editor Hasan Kwame Jeffries points out that most scholars dispute the history that American students—and educators—learn about the movement. That story, he says, is what civil rights leader Julian Bond called “The Master Narrative.” Jeffries sums it up this way:

“In this fiction, the movement begins in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court concedes that segregation is wrong. It gains momentum when an interracial coalition, inspired by the court’s bold action, engages in noble acts of nonviolent protest, ranging from bus boycotts to sit-ins. Dr. King leads this moral crusade and receives the unwavering support of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who put the full weight of the federal government, including the vast resources of the FBI, behind it. It reaches its peak when northern whites learn the disgraceful extent of racial discrimination in the South and southern whites recognize that racial prejudice is morally wrong. Then Congress passes landmark legislation designed to end racial discrimination. Unfortunately, African Americans are dissatisfied with the remarkable progress and undermine the movement by rejecting nonviolence, shunning well-meaning whites and embracing Black Power. Finally, in 1968, Dr. King is killed, effectively ending the movement. But thankfully, by that time, America had essentially righted its racial wrongs, thereby leveling the playing field for future generations and paving the way for Barack Obama.”

As Jeffries notes, this narrative is far more than an oversimplification. It is both untruthful and harmful in its untruths.

“Students aren’t watching this from afar,” explains Learning for Justice Director Jalaya Liles Dunn. “They are living in spaces of injustice. They are at the hinge of oppression.”

Students know the playing field hasn’t been leveled: The effects of redlining are still evident in the noisy fans that clatter in the windows of some schools and the well-kept lawns that stretch beneath the windows of others.

When we offer them a story about civil rights that glosses over the complexity of this history to pretend that the movement ended with all its goals accomplished, Liles Dunn says, “we are robbing students of their rights to discern the world for what it is and for what it has been—and their contribution to what it could be.”

That’s why Learning for Justice is developing a new resource for educators: Teaching the Movement: A Framework for Teaching the Black Freedom Struggle. Tracing the deep roots and many branches of the U.S. civil rights movement, this framework supports middle and high school educators in pushing beyond “The Master Narrative” to teach an honest history of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, the framework offers recommendations and support for teaching a more accurate narrative of the movement—one that recognizes its origins in the days of Reconstruction, details the wide range of resistance with which it was met, encourages students to recognize the diversity of the movement’s advocates and tactics, and clearly locates the movement’s goals not only in political equality but also in true economic and social justice.

Teaching the Long History of Resistance

Temporally and thematically, Teaching the Movement: A Framework for Teaching the Black Freedom Struggle begins where LFJ’s Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery ends. The new framework opens with learning goals that specifically ask students to “describe the systems that limited Black political, social and economic power across the United States,” beginning in Reconstruction and through the early 20th century, and to “describe the ways that Black people and communities pushed back against those systems.”

Neglecting the long history of this resistance and resilience, “The Master Narrative” positions the civil rights movement as a time of rapid and responsive change led by an extraordinary few, rather than the culmination of decades of activism and hard work by countless people.

That’s why focus on resistance is critical. In Teaching Hard History, resistance is one of the 10 foundational “key concepts.” Teaching the Movement continues to trace that thread.

It’s critical, Liles Dunn says, that students get these “stories of resistance, defiant stories, stories of struggle, and victories.” These stories, she says, give students a space to ask, “How do we continue this story?”

Too often, histories of the Black freedom struggle hide these stories from students. For example, instead of starting after Reconstruction, as Jeffries notes, “The Master Narrative” would have the civil rights movement begin in 1954, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Taking this date as a starting point does two things: It centers the Supreme Court’s role in the struggle. And it obscures the history that led up to the court’s ruling.

One instance of that history is that Thurgood Marshall, who argued the 1954 case, had helped forward the NAACP’s legal strategy challenging segregation since 1934. Unspooling history from the nine white justices who signed onto the ruling in 1954 doesn’t just push our understanding of the movement back through time. It also pushes our understanding out from those in power, encouraging us to recognize the critical contributions of those who too often go unnamed.

Illustration of various civic activities, like protesting and voting.

Teaching the Diversity of the Movement

When we move away from the “big names and important dates” idea of history that informs “The Master Narrative,” we expand the frame around Brown v. Board to show students the Black families and lawyers who moved the trial forward, the Black activists and leaders who rallied support, the Black writers and editors who spread the story, the Black teachers and drivers and students and parents and pastors who answered the NAACP’s calls for justice with donations that would fund this work.

Recognizing the Black communities across the nation who worked together—and sometimes apart—for Black liberation, as well as the outsized role of grassroots activism in the fight for change, the framework pushes back against narratives that represent the Black freedom struggle as a single, streamlined, monolithic movement.

Teaching the Movement: A Frame-work for Teaching the Black Freedom Struggle also expands the geographic and ideological boundaries established by the dominant narrative of the movement. Racism and white supremacy have never been limited to the South; neither has people’s resistance to them. That’s why the framework includes examples of movement activism from CORE work in Brooklyn to NAACP protests in Milwaukee, from coalitions between Black Panthers and disability rights activists in Los Angeles to the famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Instead of presenting one North Star on which students can fix their understanding of the movement, the framework offers a constellation. As a result, when studying the ways that the movement worked for economic justice, students can still connect their reading of King’s “Mountaintop” speech with “I Have a Dream.” But they are also invited to recognize how King builds on A. Philip Randolph’s work fighting for Black labor unions and to compare King’s approach to the informative pamphlet on “Right to Work Laws” written by Bayard Rustin and César Chávez.

This expanded focus not only helps students better understand the events of the movement—it also helps them better understand its ethos. As an example, Liles Dunn cites the work of Ella Baker and her “political, radical, democratic approach to justice. She thought that everyday, ordinary people carry the power. She recognized that local autonomy is important, that people’s voices are important, that people’s stories are important.”

In Teaching the Movement, those stories take center stage. The framework directs educators to primary sources that center the voices of those on the ground.

As Liles Dunn says, “The people tell their own story.”

Teaching the Movement Today

The framework’s expansive, inclusive presentation of the movement stretches across the nation and back to the 19th century. It also follows the movement into the present day. Each section of the framework includes recommendations for tracing key ideas, accomplishments, strategies and goals into the 21st century.

These connections, Liles Dunn explains, don’t overcomplicate this history. They help students make sense of it.

“Today is so complex,” she says, “but [textbooks will] give me a linear history. It just doesn’t match.”

Jeffries agrees. In addition to editing the text upon which the framework is based, he also hosts LFJ’s Teaching Hard History podcast. The first two seasons of that podcast align with LFJ’s framework for teaching American slavery. Seasons three and four—season four is streaming now!—align with Teaching the Movement.

In a season three episode about teaching the ties between the movement and the present day, Jeffries says that such connections offer students “valuable insights into the world they inherited and the one they inhabit. The challenge for teachers is how to teach the past through the present and how to teach the present through the past.”

In recent months, as the teaching of honest history has become more and more politicized, that challenge has come into sharper focus. This framework is designed to help you meet that challenge head-on.

As Liles Dunn says, students “have a right to discern the world around them.”

We cannot deny them that. We must have the courage to teach honest history.

About the Framework

The result of more than a year of collaboration among scholars and educators, much of the writing of Teaching the Movement: A Framework for Teaching the Black Freedom Struggle unfolded over the summer of 2020. As people across the United States took to the streets in record numbers in support of Black lives, the grassroots approaches and strategies of protesters illustrated the enduring impact of the civil rights movement, even as their ongoing calls for justice evidenced the work left incomplete.

Designed for grades 6-12, the framework is organized chronologically, with sections covering 30-to-40-year blocks of time from Reconstruction to the present day.

Within each historical period, you will find one or more Summary Objectives—broad, era-specific learning goals for students. So, for example, when studying the period including the 1960s and ’70s, one summary objective asks students to understand that “following major legislative victories, the freedom struggle shifted its emphasis to address continuing injustices more directly.”

Each summary objective is followed by a series of more specific, content-based learning goals. These answer the question “What else should my students know?” To better understand how the freedom struggle shifted its emphasis, for example, the framework recommends students know the following: Dr. King focused increasingly on economic inequality and the need for structural reform in the late 1960s; new movements for Black arts, Black Power and Black labor unions continued to develop after King’s assassination; CORE and other organizations expanded their focus beyond the South; and much of this work continues today.

Beneath each of these points, the framework recommends one or more resources to answer the question “How can I teach this?” In this way, the framework offers depth as well as breadth.

Look more closely at a sample summary objective: Students will understand how the freedom struggle shifted its emphasis following the major legislative victories of the mid-1960s. From this, we can narrow our focus to one key point students should know: CORE and other organizations took a more national view. To help you teach this history, the framework directs you to primary sources from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, detailing NAACP protests in that city. It recommends the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project’s oral histories and other resources for tracing the work of CORE in the Pacific Northwest, and it highlights the Brooklyn Public Library’s resources for teaching about CORE’s work in New York City.

The organization of the framework means that you can use it in a number of ways. Those with the opportunity and administrative support can take advantage by developing a new curriculum, a course that takes a deep dive into the honest history of the civil rights movement. Others may choose to excerpt a section of the framework, teaching one of the historical periods or one of the summary objectives as a unit.

But you don’t have to teach the framework as-is. You can also use it as a reference, checking current curricula against the summary objectives and supplementing existing units as necessary. Even individual lessons can be aligned with the framework, with learning goals offering helpful context and recommended resources providing additional approaches for teaching.

While this framework was developed by scholars with expertise in this subject, we know you are the expert on your students—we hope that you will use this resource in the way that works best for you.

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