Practice 4. Resist telling a simple story.

The March Continues
The Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
Practice 4: Resist telling a simple story.

When we tell a complicated story about the civil rights movement, we refuse to sanitize the past. Students learn about the realities of racism, systems of racial control and racial violence that prompted the civil rights movement and persisted after 1968. Showing students that racism wore both institutional and individual faces will help them understand just how large the achievements of the movement were and see the work that remains.

Too often, students learn that school segregation ended in Little Rock, that the Montgomery Bus Boycott stopped segregated busing, and that passage of the Voting Rights Act eliminated all obstacles to voting. They learn that racial violence ended after Birmingham. Yet those same students may notice that they attend segregated schools, live in segregated neighborhoods, and that poverty and race seem to go together. As educator Terrie Epstein observes, teaching a “disingenuous national history” leaves students without the tools they need to understand present-day inequalities.20 When teachers reach beyond this commonly accepted narrative, they make the struggle real for students. 

To show our history, warts and all, leave the textbook behind. Anthony and Keffrelyn Brown, University of Texas historians, analyzed commonly used history textbooks. They found that acts of racial violence were portrayed as “aberrational, or temporary exceptions, in the narrative of American democracy. Here, violence becomes a ‘moment of darkness’ in which specific people (e.g., ship captains, slave owners, KKK members, Northern workers, Southern officials) living in specific spatial contexts (e.g., the South, the North) acted in ways that were abnormal and inconsistent with the American ideals of democracy.”21 This kind of narrative focus on individual bad actors distracts students from seeing how systems of political, social and economic inequality manifested, and continue to perpetuate, institutionalized racism. When students understand the realities of institutional racism, they begin to understand why racism persists.

Refusing to sanitize the past also means refusing to sanitize the movement itself. One common story casts the movement as divided by a debate over violent resistance (often embodied by Malcolm X) and nonviolent resistance (represented by Martin Luther King Jr.). History does not support this dichotomy. Long before Stokely Carmichael called for Black Power, community organizers and activists carried weapons for self-defense. Much of the civil rights movement was “un-violent” rather than nonviolent—even groups like the Deacons for Defense were at times viewed as essential adjuncts to nonviolent protest. These guns are “unseen” in the common civil rights movement narrative. When we make them visible, we help students understand the very real dangers activists faced with little hope of protection from law enforcement, while showing that the struggle had different faces and diverse tactics in different parts of the nation.

Telling a complicated history can mean connecting to a global context. When the classroom’s lens is pulled back to a global view, teachers have the opportunity to capture the unseen international implications of American civil rights restrictions and expansions. Legal scholar Derrick Bell argued that the Brown decision and moves toward school integration were made, in part, with an eye toward geopolitical strategy.22 Historian Manning Marable attributed John F. Kennedy’s decision to support civil rights legislation in part to Cold War politics.23 Students may also learn how the American civil rights movement directly and indirectly influenced calls for change in other parts of the world. When students examine complex causality, they build essential critical-thinking skills that can be applied in other disciplines and to other eras in history.

Revealing that the past and present are littered with violence and persistent systems of oppression helps students understand the exceptional heroism of regular people in the civil rights movement. When history diminishes obstacles, it also diminishes the work of activists who overcame those obstacles.

Go Beyond the Textbook: Online Resources for Teaching the Movement

Civil Rights Teaching is a project of Teaching for Change. The resources section of its website offers a number of high-quality lessons spanning grades and subject material. The site is designed to support the book Putting the Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching, but stands alone as a resource for teachers.

The Library of Congress provides many quality lessons and materials for teaching the civil rights movement. The LOC’s Teachers site is now searchable using the Common Core as well as state content standards by grade level, making resources immediately accessible for any teacher.

The Voices of the Civil Rights Movement project archives many oral histories.

The National Archives offers many outstanding resources for teaching with original historical documents. The Teaching With Documents site includes lessons aligned with original historical sources related to the civil rights movement.

Docs Teach offers an interactive tool for teachers to build their own activities using documents and timelines.

The National Park Service maintains the Selma-to-Montgomery, Little Rock, Brown and other interpretative historic sites related to the movement. Their website collects curricular materials online that include original historical documents and lesson plans.

PBS Learning Media helps teachers find excellent resources and lessons. The collection is searchable by Common Core standards and other criteria. There are many civil rights resources.

The Stanford History Education Group collects inquiry-focused lessons to teach American and world history, including many about the civil rights movement. The Reading Like a Historian curriculum is especially good for using original historical documents.

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