Beyond the “Master Narrative”

Episode 2, Season 3

Students don’t enter our classrooms as blank slates. When it comes to the civil rights movement, we often have to help our students unlearn what they think they know while we’re teaching them what actually happened. The people were more complex, the strategies more complicated and the stakes more dangerous than we like to remember. In this episode, historian Nishani Frazier and social studies teacher Adam Sanchez demonstrate the value of teaching the movement from the grassroots up. 


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Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

Edited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries

Own the book from the University of Wisconsin Press that inspired and informs season three of the Teaching Hard History podcast!

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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It is easy to forget that students don't enter our classrooms as blank slates. They come in with very specific versions of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, these versions are often wrong. So as teachers we have to help our students unlearn what they think happened, as well as learn what actually happened. In the tradition of veteran grassroots organizer Ella Baker, we've got to start where the people are.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our students need to understand what's distinctive about the movement, and also that the movement is a part of a long and rich tradition of Black resistance. And this tradition wasn't just in the South. This was happening across the country. And our students also need to understand that icons like Martin Luther KingRosa Parks and Malcolm X are much more complicated than the simplified and sanitized ways they are usually depicted.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We’re a production of Teaching Tolerance—a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we’ll be offering a detailed look at how to teach the Black freedom struggle or the US civil rights movement. In each episode we’ll explore a different topic—walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In this episode, we’re going to continue our conversation with historian Nishani Frazier and high school social studies teacher Adam Sanchez, using their valuable insights to help our students unravel even more of what movement veteran Julian Bond referred to as the master narrative. And we're going to begin by talking about how the movement was largely shaped by grassroots organizing. I'm glad you could join us.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So Nishani, you and I both teach college students, and we don't get to talk to high school teachers nearly as much as we would both like to. And so this podcast is actually a way for us to reach high school teachers. What's one thing that you would tell teachers that they could do to make the students that they encounter more college-ready when it comes to learning about the civil rights movement and the Black freedom struggle?

Nishani Frazier: Oh, that's a great question. It's important for them to explain to students that nonviolence is a very complicated strategy that didn't always prove as successful. There are multiple reasons for that, and to talk about the ways in which activists faced death and how these questions then begin to challenge their philosophical attachment to nonviolence. Or at least have them think about how it's not so cut and dry, whether one would be nonviolent or engage in self-defense.

Nishani Frazier: The other thing I would really like them to help students understand is that—I would love for them to take the civil rights movement out of the South. My God! That is so essential for them to understand. And I get students from the Midwest who are particularly void of this understanding of civil rights being an issue, or even going back historically, lynching, or the presence of the Klan. I have to explain to my students about the second phase of the Klan in the 1920s, what's the location for the largest membership of the Klan? And they're like, "Alabama! Mississippi!" And I'm like, "No. Indiana." Which is right next door.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right next door.

Nishani Frazier: Right next door! So having a sense that this is a pervasive problem, I think would be also important, because then it helps to set the stage for understanding why Black power appears, too.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Nishani Frazier: In terms of your experience, what would you like students to learn before they enter into college?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I would love if they just came in with an understanding that this movement—or Black protests specifically—does not begin in 1954 and it doesn't end in 1965 or 1968. They gotta know what comes before, what comes after or even what comes in between. If they just come with a knowledge that Black folk have been engaged in struggle before, and that what we're seeing in this moment is building off of and extending what came before, and that once this moment is over, that the protest and the struggle continues and will lead up to the current moment, I can work with that. I can really build off of that so that the kids will have a better understanding of what this whole thing is that we're trying to convey to them.

Nishani Frazier: Mm-hmm. Exactly. Oh, and can I just add one thing? None of this took place without strategy. The images that people see of protests and marches is only the culmination of days and weeks and months of strategizing, organizing, interaction. I'm telling you, there are many, many nights, both SNCC and CORE would talk about being up all nights, right? Arguments and fights well into the night over what's the next move and how to go about it. I think it's important for them to understand that Martin Luther King doesn't just come along even by himself, but that there are folks who were really thinking about ways to obtain freedom, and it is not just as simple as marching.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, thinking about and trying to convey these critical points about strategies and tactics to students, I always wrestle with that because it's so important that we do. So I actually asked Adam how he approaches this in the classroom. And this is what he had to say.

Adam Sanchez: Before we even discuss tactics and strategies, I think one of the most important things for students to learn is that the civil rights movement was a movement that was led, organized, pushed forward by students like themselves. When they don't understand that history, when they have the Rosa sat, Martin dreamed narrative, they are robbed of the ability to understand that they can affect history, that students and young people throughout social movements in this country have been essential parts of every movement for change we have seen. Uncovering the history of SNCC, I think for a lot of my students has allowed them to see themselves as potential change-makers. What I do is I take them through a series of activities that focus on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, because you can tell the story of the civil rights movement through the debates that happened within SNCC.

Adam Sanchez: We start with these Freedom Rider letters, where students write a letter to their parents talking about why they joined SNCC and why they're going to join the Freedom Rides. We move from there into a series of debates that SNCC actually went through from 1960 to 1964. Students debate those themselves in student-led discussions. Then we look at two case studies. And throughout these discussions and debates and the case studies, the students are seeing how SNCC organized, how the debates that SNCC had transformed the movement, and are putting themselves into the role of activists, of organizers, of discussion leaders and learning skills themselves on both content of how this happened, but also skills to run a meeting to organize in their community, etc.

Adam Sanchez: So I have a student-led discussion, and I talked to SNCC veteran Judy Richardson about how SNCC actually ran meetings. And I have students run meetings in the same way. So they have a facilitator that they choose and that facilitator calls on people, and they always try their best to get to a consensus because they know that everyone's lives are at stake. But ultimately, if they need to, they take a vote. One of the other things that Judy Richardson told me that I've implemented in my classroom was that if at any moment in the debate it gets really contentious and things are heating up and people are going back and forth, often a member of SNCC would begin to break into song. And they would sing together to remind each other that, "Look, you know, we can debate, we can fight it out, but we're in this together. We are in the struggle united, and we'll move forward together." And so I start these series of debates by teaching my students, [singing] Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around ...”

Nishani Frazier: [singing]

ALL: [singing] “Turn me around, turn me around. Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around. I'm gonna keep on walkin', keep on talkin', marching up to freedom land.”

Adam Sanchez: We sing this together, and it's a little awkward as a history teacher to sing in a history classroom. But in some classes they can really take it and run with it. I've had students sing it after a lockdown drill to kind of refocus our discussions.

Nishani Frazier: Oh, let me just tell you I just love that he taught his students "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." What students mostly learn is "We Shall Overcome." And "We Shall Overcome" takes out the defiance. "We Shall Overcome" takes away the assertiveness and resistance. But "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," that is, I think, more evocative of the movement and what it took to be in a movement. I'm so glad he teaches them that song.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music was vital to the civil rights movement, and continues to be critical to global freedom struggles today. In this installment of Movement Music, historian Charles Hughes explores the importance and power of songs about work. Here's Charles.

CHARLES HUGHES: The Swan Silvertones recorded the gospel standard “Working On A Building” in 1955.

[Swan Silvertones “Working on a Building”]

CHARLES HUGHES: The song describes the building of a church, both a physical structure and within ourselves. Lead vocalist Rev. Claude Jeter’s soaring performance expresses the joy of the work and the struggle in laying each stone. Supported by his fellow singers, this bubbling a capella arrangement features harmonies that echo from the sanctuary to the street corner. The Silvertones assure us that they “never get tired,” but it’s clear that their success is the product of ingenuity, determination, and most of all, hard work.

CHARLES HUGHES: Songs about work have a crucial role in Black musical history. An entire tradition of work songs emerged in earlier centuries that gave energy to laborers’ lives. Often sung while working, their insistent rhythms, vocal interplay, and straightforward structure allowed for the repetition of multiple verses and the addition of new ones.

[“Stewball” Unidentified performers (Library of Congress: John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip)]

CHARLES HUGHES: These songs became crucial, particularly in settings like slavery or chain gangs, where the work was physically taxing and done under the threat of violence. Work songs don’t deny these realities, often describing them in detail. Rather, they provide a powerful counterpoint of Black humanity, even in the most inhumane setting.

CHARLES HUGHES: Work songs were closely linked to the gospel tradition, from which “Working On A Building” emerged, bridging the sacred and the secular, their lyrics both literal and figurative. Many times, labor is a metaphor for personal survival, interpersonal connection, and the larger creation of community. In songs like “Working On A Building,” for example, it's not hard to hear the importance of sacred spaces as social and political centers for Black folks throughout history. There are songs that use work to symbolize faith in a better world beyond these earthly bounds, and to critique the unjust world that exists here and now. And there are songs that use work to illustrate Black accomplishment, genius, humor and beauty. Musically, the work songs and their gospel neighbors enact the call-and-response that would be central to the music and organizing of the movement era.

[The Freedom Singers “Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”; album: Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs]

CHARLES HUGHES: In movement meetings, songs like the insistent “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round” linked the participants in a dynamic chorus, steady and flexible. One can hear the way that grassroots activists built on the true foundation of the freedom struggle one stone at a time.

CHARLES HUGHES: As this episode explores, a central challenge of teaching the movement is reminding students of the hard, gradual, behind-the-scenes strategizing that laid the groundwork for its famous events and pivotal figures.

[“Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” Two little Girls at March, album: Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)]

CHARLES HUGHES: Songs like “Working On A Building” illustrate, through lyric and sound, the process and the outcome of this labor. They help students remember that the movement was built by organizing, and through a culture that created the building through a great deal of work.

CHARLES HUGHES: Songs about work have remained a key strain of Black music, from the killin’-floor blues of Bessie Smith and Howlin’ Wolf to the dancefloor drive of Chic and Rihanna. Like those of earlier periods, these are songs of aspiration, persistence, protest and pleasure. And artists across eras have fastened the language of labor to that of resistance. They link the past with the present, finding new ways to work on the building of a freer and more just future.

CHARLES HUGHES: Some of these most powerful links continue to come from the church. In 2000, gospel duo Mary Mary released “Shackles (Praise You),” which drew on the spirituals and work songs to celebrate throwing off the chains of enslavement to find joy and fellowship.

[Mary Mary “Shackles (Praise You)”]

CHARLES HUGHES: Offering a 21st-century remix of the musical blend of secular and sacred, Mary Mary find freedom in setting the terms of their labor. The two vocalists sail over hip hop rhythms as they describe trading the shackles of repression for the self-determined work of praise, dance and celebration. In “Shackles,” like “Working On A Building,” we can hear the work that made the movement and the reason why that work took place. All we have to do is keep listening.

[Mary Mary “Shackles (Praise You) [MO-apella]” vocals-only remix]

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That right there was righteous. The power and politics of work songs, of movement music from the sanctuary to the street corner. Let the church say, "Amen!" Now be sure to listen to the latest Spotify playlist for this episode. Dr. Hughes has curated dozens of songs that amplify these ideas. Just follow the link in the show notes at Now back to my conversation with Dr. Frazier.

Nishani Frazier: You know, the power of music, I cannot overstate how important it was emotionally, for creating community, for dealing with fear. One of the things that happened during Freedom Summer is when they started to get on the bus, and once they crossed over the Ohio River from Cincinnati into Kentucky, right, and they were clearly in the South, the bus went silent. And the fear was palpable. All of a sudden, someone started singing a freedom song. That was the power of the freedom songs, it sort of pushed the fear out of you, and to let you know, in the cacophony of many voices that you were part of a community of people, you were not struggling alone.

Nishani Frazier: One of my favorite songs of my mother's songs is [singing] "Which side are you on, boy? Which side are you on?" And it actually comes from the coal mining wars in Kentucky. Civil rights activists take that song and utilize it for the movement. But what was so powerful about "Which Side Are You On" is that it's that moment of reckoning, right? Where you must make a decision, and in the making of the decision, you know that you could possibly face death. And which side are you on? Which side are you on? Beautiful, beautiful song.

Nishani Frazier: All of these songs. "In the Mississippi River." Again, one of those songs that, you know, by the time you finish singing it, you know, [singing] "In the Mississippi River, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord! In The Mississippi River. Well, you can count them one by one. It could be your son. And count them two by two. He could be me or you."

Nishani Frazier: And I mean, when I'm teaching that song and I sing a song because we're talking about the death of Schwerner and Goodman and Chaney, honey, I'm almost in the classroom by myself about to lay out on the floor. You know, when you think about all the people who were found dead while they were looking for Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, and you can count them three by three. You know, it's just—it can be overwhelming, right? And at that moment, you know, the power of music and the power to uplift. Beautiful.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. To bolster the resolve.

Nishani Frazier: Yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: As you're saying. And to push the fear away.

Nishani Frazier: Yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: All that. All of it wrapped up in a song.

Nishani Frazier: Or to assert victory, right? [singing] "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around." I mean, that's a defiant song. I love that song, right? I have my students sing it, and, you know, after a while they get into. [singing] "Ain't gonna let nobody ..." They just get right into it. You know, and I'll talk about the whole improvisation, right? I was like, "Some of y'all didn't do well on your quizzes." [singing] "Ain't gonna let Professor Frazier turn me around." [laughs]

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. Is that they turn on you.

Nishani Frazier: But it's a great way to sort of have them think about how these songs could empower people. And of course, after they've learned "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," I have them listen to that section on Mighty Times where the kids have busted out of the school, and they're finally at 16th Street Baptist Church, which is a great, great moment. And the kids, [singing] "Ain't gonna let nobody ..." and then all of a sudden they realize this song that I was teaching them, right, exists in this moment. And they can see now the power of the song and its relevance in this moment where they're about to face down firehoses and dogs. Incredible.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Two of the most important organizations to be active in the 1960s are SNCC—Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—and CORE. But too often we overlook both organizations. If we want to get this history correct, if we want to teach it accurately and effectively, what should our teachers know about both SNCC and CORE, and how should they approach it in the classroom?

Nishani Frazier: So if I were talking to teachers on how I would like them to introduce CORE, I would say—CORE and SNCC, I'd divide them in two ways. CORE would be our intellectuals and our philosophical guides, right? The Congress of Racial Equality, created in 1942, CORE plays an important role in providing advisory roles to Martin Luther King with the Montgomery bus boycott, to the Greensboro sit-in activists in North Carolina with Gordon Carey at the forefront. You see this in the form of Bayard Rustin, who is advising Martin Luther King during the Montgomery bus boycott, and James Lawson, who tangentially is related to nonviolent protests and training through his relationship with Fellowship of Reconciliation. He in turn trains the Nashville Student Movement.

Nishani Frazier: SNCC? The best way to understand SNCC is that they're our shock troops. They'd go into spaces that the other big four have been fearful and/or slow to get into. And more importantly, they bring with them this idea of grassroots organizing. They believe in the ability of the Black community to lift themselves up. And so you have the philosophical belief system of civil disobedience coming from CORE, and you have the power and the on-the-ground activism of SNCC, and the two combine as an incredible force in the movement.

Adam Sanchez: So from there, after we set up the debate, students go into a series of debates that SNCC actually debated, starting right in their founding in 1961, with whether they should exclusively focus on voter registration or continue the direct action SNCC forms out of these sit-ins. So they're used to doing a lot of direct action, but the Kennedy administration is really pushing them to focus in the direction of voter registration and to stop this direct action that is causing problems for the Kennedy administration. So that's the first debate. After that, they get more complicated. We start going into Freedom Summer, where there's a plan to bring down a thousand white volunteers, mostly from these elite colleges across the North. And SNCC has been carefully building young Black leadership in the South, and there's a real worry about bringing down all these white students that are going to think that they are more articulate and have more knowledge than these Black leaders that SNCC had been cultivating. And so there's a debate on what should the role be of these white volunteers that are coming down. Should we have them exclusively organize in the white community in the South? So there's a big debate around that that foreshadows some of the debates around Black power later on.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History. You can find links to Adam's lessons, along with a full transcript of this episode and a robust selection of classroom resources about the civil rights movement at And now back to our discussion with Dr. Nishani Frazier.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I really love this idea of looking at an organization, looking at a movement organization, especially for students looking at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and looking at the debates that they had within the organization as they wrestled with how to move forward strategically and tactically.

Nishani Frazier: So when we're talking about SNCC and the Freedom Rides, it's important to note that Congress of Racial Equality actually is the creator of the Freedom Rides, and the Journey of Reconciliation is the precursor to the Freedom Rides. It's at the second phase when there's a firebombing of the bus at Anniston and then the attack on the bus in Montgomery, CORE temporarily stops, and this is where we begin to see the Nashville students and members of SNCC come in to participate. But we also see the New Orleans chapter of CORE. And together they're coming from different directions: Nashville, Tennessee, and then up from New Orleans, the CORE chapter to then meet in Montgomery to restart the Freedom Rides.

Nishani Frazier: One of the things that was quite interesting for CORE was there's a moment where the Cleveland chapter is struggling with whether they're going to move forward with a continued direct action with a focus on police brutality in particular, or if they're going to make a pivot to community organizing. And this is a really difficult conversation to have. At that moment in 1965, 1966, where there seems to have been some forward movement in terms of the Civil Rights Bill, the Voting Rights Act, and people were thinking about what's next. And at this point, Northern spaces have become kind of foci of attention, in part because of riots like what had occurred in Watts and what occurred in Hough, a neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. And so there's this sort of tension between what does it mean when you have received a victory, but freedom is still not yours.

Nishani Frazier: I think that's something that the overall civil rights movement struggled with. Dr. King struggled with it, SNCC struggled with it, CORE certainly did. And so in the middle of the Cleveland chapter's struggle, the question is what kind of strategy will we follow? Quite an interesting conversation for students to have, even though it's quite complicated. The other thing that was interesting and I think would be a useful conversation if we look at CORE, is the whole question of white liberal allies. And this is particularly a contentious issue within CORE because of its integrated origins. From the very beginning it had white and Black members. In fact, in early CORE it had more white members than Black members. But as Black power comes about, there's this question about what is the role of white ally-ship within the organization? And should white allies be turning their attention to the white community, right? There's this moment where Black activists say the problem is not the Black community. We don't have the problem, right? Racism is a problem of the white community. So what does it mean for white allies to go into the white community and organize against racism? What does it mean for white allies to submit themselves to Black leadership? This also became a major issue within CORE because they assumed that it would remain shared. And as Black power comes to the fore, Black activists began to argue that, no, this is not shared. We understand what we need to be free. What does it mean to be an ally? And I think this conversation is particularly important in today's circumstances because we're seeing a lot of people struggle about what is their role in a freedom movement.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, in thinking about those kinds of internal discussions and debates, the answer usually isn't black and white, if you will. It's usually somewhere in between. That's what makes it, I think, so challenging to teach, but then also challenging for students to wrap their minds around. And perhaps no subject or no issue is clearer than the question of armed self-defense. I asked Adam about how he approaches that, and what his goals and objectives are in talking about that and introducing that to students. Let's listen to what he had to say.

Adam Sanchez: Yeah, I mean, I think often students think of these debates about non-violence and self-defense in this abstract philosophical way: that it's just about you holding your philosophical position around violence or nonviolence, and that different activists held these positions and stuck to them and were very rigid. In reality, the Black freedom struggle since its inception, since way before the civil rights movement, had used these tactics concurrently. And that even organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—I always have students point out in debate that our name is—there's "Nonviolence" in our name, that even activists in an organization like that that is explicitly nonviolent, as they are confronting white violence on a daily basis, their philosophical commitment to nonviolence is constantly challenged. And then we continue also towards the end of Freedom Summer, you have the first debate emerge around violence versus nonviolence. And this begins to happen as SNCC moves into the more rural areas in Mississippi, where there is a long tradition of armed self-defense that goes all the way back to Reconstruction. And I think what triggers it in particular is there's a shipment of arms that is intercepted in Illinois that was supposed to make its way to, I believe it's the Greensboro Klan. The Greensboro office begins debating well, maybe we should carry guns in our office. And many of the SNCC members are already carrying guns in their cars, and local people as well, there's this tradition of armed self-defense in these rural areas. This is Klan country, and local people think they're crazy to not be carrying guns at this point of high racial tension.

Adam Sanchez: And, you know, SNCC more than anything was about organizing with local organizations, listening to local leaders. And so this is what the local leaders are telling them. And so the debate around violence and nonviolence emerges in this context. And of course, there were many SNCC members who were never philosophically committed exclusively to nonviolence. And so these debates emerge in context, as the constant white violence is expressed against nonviolent protesters trying to protest for basic rights. And I think that is what often students miss in these debates when they're solely had out in this philosophical realm. And I think it's so crucial for students to participate in these debates, not in some abstract philosophical way, but in the real conditions that prompted these debates in the movement.

Nishani Frazier: Can I just jump in?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Go ahead.

Nishani Frazier: I really love that. And one of the things that it's interesting for me to teach is when I start to talk to my students and I ask them, there's this moment in the Freedom Rides where they get to Anniston, Alabama, and a white mob attacks the bus. And I ask the students, "So will you stay on the bus or will you get off?" When they have to think about that conundrum, “Do I remain on a bus that's being set on fire or do I throw myself into an oncoming mob,” they get stuck, right? It becomes real all of a sudden, right? Would I remain on a bus that's on fire? Would I throw myself in the mob? And I have to explain to them, you do realize when you do that you are likely to get killed, right? They don't know what to do. What kind of decision can I make in that kind of situation? And that really brings home the life and death nature of what it meant to resist and what it meant to protest. And so this question of violence then comes up even before I even have to mention it to the students themselves because, of course, the students response to the mob or the burning bus is, well, surely I could fight the mob. Of course, that's not the nature of nonviolent protest. No, you may not fight the mob.

Nishani Frazier: When they're placed in those circumstances to choose one or the other, they themselves are then lost in what it means to continue in a protest without being able to engage in self-defense. One other thing I wanted to note. Freedom Summer, the training takes place in Oxford, Ohio, at the Western College for Women. Now the Western College of Women has been incorporated into Miami University of Ohio, which I formerly taught at. One of the things that was interesting is that during the two weeks of training, a lot of tension emerged about the whole role of white students in the South, in Mississippi, particularly because SNCC had focused on this grassroots leadership training, education, putting forth the grassroots leadership. And Stokely Carmichael is actually at the training, and he already starts having this conversation about self-defense. And it doesn't go over well with the other SNCC members, but the inklings of it are already present, even in a moment where they're supposed to be training a bunch of students on how to engage in nonviolent organizing in the South.

Nishani Frazier: And so there's this issue where nonviolence is doggedly being challenged at every turn by this whole question of when does one defend themselves and how to use—or whether they should—not how, they know how—whether they should use armed self-defense. And CORE, part of the problem about how CORE has been couched is that the assumption is that from the very beginning, they believed in nonviolence. And that's not true. Even one of the white founders had some concern about being too attached to nonviolence in circumstances that would be a life or death decision. And I think that's really important to have this conversation that when people made a decision for armed self-defense, this is not a kind of Western shoot-'em-out set of circumstances. I'll shoot my way through, right? We are at the moment where death is imminent. And what will you do? What decision will you make? How will you proceed? It totally changes the dynamics, right, of this beautifully outlined, if you could just be nonviolent, it'll all just go away, right?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Nishani Frazier: It changes that. And also by the time we talk about armed self-defense in my class, historically speaking, we've gotten to a lot of people who've died, right? Medgar Evers has died. Malcolm X has died. When we were looking for Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, nine people have been found dead. So by the time they have seen so much death historically, even the students themselves are at a loss as to whether self-defense or whether nonviolence is still the way.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: At that moment, just as you were saying, I find that one of the most effective ways to convey these points, the difficulty of making these decisions, what's the right thing? How do we go forward? This is one of the times where I have class debates. And we don't debate the issue, whether it's—you know, I'll give them a prompt on, you know, self-defense or voting rights or desegregate a school or not. But it's situational. So I'll give them a prompt, right? So whether it's you're a tenant farmer or you're a sharecropper, you're a parent, it's always situational.And then I don't give them the option of saying, "What do you want to do?" I say, "This is your stance. Defend it." Right? This is your philosophical stance. This is what you're going to do. Now I need you to make an argument. Everybody has the same situation. But you're going to advocate for nonviolence. You're going to advocate for self-defense. Discuss. And I'll break them into their groups. You know, give them 15 minutes to come up with key points based upon the things that we have been reading, all connected to the situation. And boy, we have some really great conversations. And I even try—like I'll ask, "Where are my self-defense people?" And they'll raise their hand. And I'll say, "Okay, good. Y'all are the nonviolent people. Argue that point," right? "Oh, Dr. Jeffries, come on! I'm like, "No, but that's—I need you to stretch your minds." And it's always amazing because I'll have kids who are like, "Man, I was really on the self-defense side, but I see that in this situation, I got to go this other way." And it just really gets them to see how difficult these decisions were when you move it out of the realm of theory and put it in the realm of on-the-ground practice.

Nishani Frazier: Mm-hmm.

Adam Sanchez: One of the most important absences from the traditional curriculum is understanding the civil rights movement as one that was not just led by charismatic leaders, but one that was led by organizations, by people debating, by people taking action together, assessing that action and strategizing. Right away, when I ask students what they know about the civil rights movement, none of them have ever heard of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which to me is to this day such a shock because the civil rights movement was led by students like themselves and they have not learned that. And, you know, I teach 11th graders, so I always hope that they have learned it by the time they get to me, but it's often not the case. I'll give a quote from one of my students, Nikaya, wrote in her final course evaluation: "Learning about SNCC was so interesting because SNCC was so effective, and knowing that the racism they experienced still exists in a similar but different way today, made me want to make a change and gather my generation to fight." To me, reading this really shows that learning about SNCC helps give students an understanding that the movement is not just about these kind of incredible, charismatic leaders that they think about in ways that are untouchable, right? That the movement is about people like them. It was organized and participated in by people like them, by students like them.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's an important observation. Nishani, what do you think?

Nishani Frazier: One of the things that I love about this type of approach, I was trained initially as a public historian, and as a public historian one of the things that we found is that when you put visitors in a participatory experience, they gained a deeper understanding, a greater depth of the historical complexities and nuances that are at play. What's interesting about this approach of having the students strategize is that it does a couple of things. First, it makes history real to them in a very deeply intimate, visceral way and connects them to a historical moment. So that it's not something that's outside of their chronological understanding, compared to then and now. This is a moment. This is now, right? So it places them in the now. So that's the first thing, a sort of visceral connection to history. The other thing that it does is it moves history away from the marching, it moves history away from the visual aesthetics of if you just get a group of people together and you walk down the street, things will magically sort of come to the fore.

Nishani Frazier: One of the things I talk about and what I want to create on my website for Harambee City is that there's a moment where Cleveland CORE is engaged in a protest, and there is a mob at the top of Murray Hill. The activists have gathered at the bottom of the hill, but before they were even faced with the mob, they had already reviewed the geography, right, the spatial analysis of what would happen when we marched up the hill, if there was a mob at the top, could we get people out safely? Is there an alternate route? Should we take another day to march, or should we go and march on this other street? So that kind of thinking process or about even how you make a decision about how and where you march, right, introduces students to the complexities. And the critical thinking that's involved in making these decisions, whether it just be if you’re going to make this march, or the larger philosophical questions about whether the march is even useful for moving a movement forward and obtaining freedom. It's really interesting to sort of have them think about this. And then the other thing is that sometimes instead of teaching some of the philosophical conflicts, the students come upon those issues themselves, right?

Nishani Frazier: So when I present to the students the "choice," and I'm putting this in quotes, right? The "choice" between the burning bus and whether they're going to get off the bus, immediately the question of nonviolence comes to the fore, right? "Wait a minute! Professor Frazier, you said that they believe in nonviolence, but can they fight themselves out?" "Well, no, no, no, no. We don't get to do that." And if you choose to do that, then what are the repercussions? Let's think about what that means. And so having them think through that process is incredibly powerful. It really sort of brings them down to understanding the movement in an intellectual way, right? Not just this emotional way that we see with Dr. King in the "I Have A Dream" speech, which is beautiful and powerful and emotional, but the thinking, the in-depth thinking that goes into when I make this decision, how will I do it? How can I carry forward? What are the potential obstacles? Who are my allies? How will I get the public to notice? Will that make a difference? There are millions of questions that activists had to answer and think about and then answer when it came to making these decisions. And now students are thrown into that mix of having to do it for themselves. I think it's a powerful lesson.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's exactly what I was going to say.

Nishani Frazier: And I think also the other element is to help the students pass the baton. When we see current movements, it seems to be a kind of recurring throwback to the 1960s where there's a kind of reinventing of the wheel. One of the things that I think would be really important for students to learn is what are the strategies and ideas that people utilize so that they can then take the next step, not go back and do the same thing, right? This is about pushing the ball forward and understanding the strategy ideas, I think would be powerful.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. This season is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement. This podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this collection of essays which I edited. You'll find a link to purchase the book at Now let's continue our conversation with Dr. Nishani Frazier.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So we've been talking about the various strategies and tactics that African-American activists deploy during the civil rights era and before and after. And it is a spectrum. It is a range. But I think that's because there was also a range of goals that African Americans were trying to achieve. Too often we get, part of that master narrative, we get obsessed with legislation, right? That African Americans were organizing and trying to get a federal bill passed. But in reality, there was much more that was on the table in terms of what African Americans were fighting for. Could you say a little bit about that spectrum of goals and objectives that African Americans were trying to achieve?

Nishani Frazier: Right. Well, I think one of the things I like to tell my students is that there's this tendency to focus on the freedom movement as togetherness with the white community, right? If I could just have my black child next to this white child, all things will be happy, right? And this is, of course, when you hear Dr. King come with his "I Have a Dream speech," right? And it just is through togetherness.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.

Nishani Frazier: We will have freedom. Nobody thought that. Nobody absolutely thought that. They thought these are different avenues by which I can obtain my freedom, right? The end goal was always liberation. And liberation took multiple forms. So, for example, in Cleveland, Ohio, before the Black parents began to push for desegregation of schools, they actually tried to get levies on the book to build more schools in the Black community. So again, the goal was about getting their child a certain level of education. When they did move for desegregation, it eventually led to a case, Reed v. Ohio. That case says nothing about desegregation alone. There's a whole outline about getting students up to a particular level, students have access to certain kinds of educational experiences. All embedded in this lawsuit is all about what does the educational experience look like when we desegregate? So it's not just that they desegregate. What does it mean for the students to be offered whatever assistance that they needed so that all things were on par. So the goal, right, for those particular Black parents was to make sure that their children got a certain level of education, whether within the context of desegregation or not, they were open to whichever way would get them to that end goal.

Nishani Frazier: There are other end goals. One of the things—because I do work on Black economy during the 1960s—is a job, right? The Montgomery bus boycott, I always tell my students that the first thing on the list was not desegregate the bus. That's not the first thing on the list, right? It's how do you treat customers? One of the things that I had to explain to my students is the tendency of the bus to take the money of the customer, and then, of course, on the Montgomery bus, you had to get on the bus, you had to give the driver your money, you had to get off, you had to go back to the end of the bus and you had to get back on. And the problem, of course, is that you'd have these white bus drivers that would just roll out.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm!

Nishani Frazier: With your money!

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Just bounce.

Nishani Frazier: Just bounce! And that's a problem. And it's a problem in two ways. One, if you're a working person, you are not given the bus money for free. That's not how it works.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Nishani Frazier: But second, if you are late, that creates problems for your job. This is an economic issue, all right? The second thing that they were asking in terms of those buses and the economy is for Black bus drivers, all right? The March on Washington in 1963 is the March on Washington for J-J-J-J-Jobs and Freedom, right? We just lop off the "Jobs" part. That gets to be inconvenient because that requires a whole 'nother level, right? And so one of the central essential goals of the Black freedom movement is economic parity. So you have a focus on fair housing. You have a focus on employment, access to unions, jobs for African Americans. Economy is really part and parcel. And when you look at Dr. King right toward the end, his focus on the sanitation workers, that's about how you're treated as a worker. And what he's doing in Chicago, that's about again, how do you empower and uplift poor Black communities in the urban center? When you get to CORE, you have Soul City. Soul City is not just about jobs. When you look at the brochure of Soul City it's just stunning.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Soul City in North Carolina, of course.

Nishani Frazier: Soul City in North Carolina. So I'll just sort of give a brief history. Floyd McKissick is the second national director in the 1960s of the Congress of Racial Equality. He leaves CORE, but he takes the ideas of economic development from CORE to establish a integrated but predominantly Black-led town called Soul City in Warrenton, North Carolina. When he crafts this idea of building a city from scratch, right, what he's doing is eschewing the urban space and trying to reform the urban space, and instead building a space from the very beginning. And there's this whole conversation about environment and green spaces. When you look at the latter part of the 1960s in Cleveland, Ohio, they start talking about neighborhood gardens. And that's something we haven't talked about a lot, you know, freedom food and freedom and health, and how that's connected in the 1960s. So there are many, many goals of the civil rights movement, but all of them connect to this overall conversation about what does it mean to live free? What does it mean to be liberated for your health, for your life experience, for your employment or your business ownership, for your home? What does it mean for your child? What does all of that mean? All of these goals are essential to what does it mean to be free?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I think it leads us invariably to ask the question about movement success and movement victories. And how do we measure that? Because the master narrative would have us believe that, you know, the movement was a success because you got the '64 Civil Rights Act, and 1965 Civil Rights Act and everything was really cruising along until King died and then Black power hit. But obviously, we know it's more complicated than that, and we can't measure victory solely in terms of legislation.

Nishani Frazier: One of the things that I do, because I really hate "I Have A Dream," not because it's a bad speech, but I think people so misrepresent it. I don't like to use it. And instead, I use King’s "Other America," where he talks about guaranteed income. Now you want to talk about a conversation that is shocking for students, what it does is sort of reframe what Dr. King was thinking in terms of the success of the movement, what would have been successful. I don't think anybody in the movement thought the fight was over. There is no question about that. But I want to find a balance between understanding that the fight is not over and the incredible level of victory.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Nishani Frazier: Right? Victory. My father's from Mississippi. So my mother's from Cleveland, Ohio. My father was in the NAACP, Mississippi. State Youth Director. You know, he was there when Medgar Evers—I saw him. I was one of the last people to see him before he was assassinated. There's a great deal of irony about getting invites from USM, University of Southern Mississippi to come talk about the civil rights movement. You can't say that there's not victory. At the same time, when I last visited USM, I saw a sign for the Klan talking about their clean highways or some sort of mad craziness. And I was like, "Okay." This is the dichotomy of the movement. This lock step of victory, and so, so far, way to go. And activists, you know, I remember some activists talking about how we just didn't finish the job. So it's not that the job didn't get partially done, but it needed to be completed.

Nishani Frazier: And I think that's what we need to think about it, right? When we think about the vision that people had, the vision is for clean air and healthy spaces. And the vision is for an end to poverty. And the vision is health care. I was actually just looking at a documentary, "The Power to Heal," I believe, is a documentary talking about the history and the fight for Medicare, particularly access for the Black community, which required desegregation of Southern hospitals, right? It breaks open Southern hospitals. But Black activists are looking for health care access, global health care access. These are progressive ideas that people have left on the sidelines because it becomes more uncomfortable to have these conversations about what does it mean to live in a society, and what is the role of the government in dealing with poverty and dealing with illness, with dealing with the elderly? There are other conversations and other issues that they raise that the master narrative glosses over because the whole conversation is about, "Yay, we won! It's over now. Shut up. You people got your stuff, there's no complaining." But that's not what happened. That's not the full story. Freedom, their idea of freedom is so much more expansive than civil rights.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So one of the things that we want our students to take away from these lessons on the civil rights movement is this understanding of victories and defeats. But there is so much that we want our students to learn from this useful history. Here's what Adam had to say about his students.

Adam Sanchez: So there's a number of things I want students to take from our unit on the civil rights movement. One is just a better understanding of the history of the civil rights movement, but also an understanding of that history that helps them understand the racist world that they live in today, right? And in order to do that, you have to not just focus on the successes of the civil rights movement and this narrative of progress, but you also have to understand that for all the big goals the civil rights movement had, a lot of them were not accomplished. The consequences of that we are still very much dealing with today. I think one of the key specifics here is segregation, that schools are more segregated today than they were when the Brown v. Board decision was made. If students understand the civil rights movement as this narrative of progress that did away with segregation, they can't understand that. They can't understand that reality that they are living in. So that's one thing. I also want students to leave the unit by seeing themselves in the role of activists and change makers, that they can actually act in this world collectively and make it better than the world they were born into. There are so many things right now that deeply are are crying out for change, whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement, the climate change movement, the #MeToo movement. There's so many movements that students can be a part of that are attempting to make a better world. And I want students to understand that throughout history—and particularly in the civil rights movement—it has been people their age who have led the way.

Adam Sanchez: The other thing I want them to understand is that you don't need to wait for a Martin Luther King. I think I even had one student, Tariq, I remember who said the problem with the Black Lives Matter movement is it doesn't have a Martin Luther King. And I think that is a fundamental misreading of the civil rights movement. In fact, in some ways, the opposite is true, that we would not have heard of Martin Luther King if it had not been for the hundreds of activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who brought civil rights back onto the table in 1960 with the sit-ins and then cohered into an organization that pushed the movement forward. And then for the rest of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King and his politics actually changed and reacted in relationship to the organizations of the movement like SNCC. I think it's so crucial for students to understand this point, that it is collective organizations. It's going—trying to start an organization at your school with your peers, with your friend groups, reaching out to other schools and trying to fight collectively with others to make a difference. That is how change has happened throughout history. That is how change happened in the civil rights movement. And if students are just waiting for a Martin Luther King to come along, they'll be waiting a long time.

Nishani Frazier: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Nishani, he really lays out some important goals and uses for this history in the past. What did you think about this idea of making sure our students see themselves in these civil rights activists, but then also understanding not just the past, but then also the present?

Nishani Frazier: What popped in my head was a song. [singing] "Freedom is a constant struggle." And, you know, that's one of the things I like to sing to my students because I really feel as if there's a sense that 1960s folks have done their job, and so there's not anything for them to pick up and run with, right? But if freedom is a constant struggle, then the issue is not whether they did their job, but what are you gonna do? What's your responsibility? Where are you gonna go? How have you moved the freedom and liberation forward for the Black community or any other community? And I have found that I've had to challenge my students a lot to think about what role they serve in that process, because we keep contextualizing the 1960s as something that's done and over with. And so they don't have a sense about what their role is or what it should be. And then, of course, it's all made the worse because nobody thinks they can be Martin Luther King. And of course, unbeknownst to them, Martin Luther King didn't know he could be Martin Luther King, right?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Exactly.

Nishani Frazier: So they get boxed in by the heroic imagery. And so it becomes unattainable because who can be like Dr. King? To the young man that Adam mentions, right, why ...

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: My man Tariq. My man Tariq.

Nishani Frazier: Yeah, Tariq. Right? So Tariq, let's just take your argument to be true. Why can't you be that Martin Luther King voice. Why are you waiting for someone to take on that voice? You be that person. That is the power of CORE and SNCC and all of these civil rights groups. There was not one person who did not step forward to take responsibility. Of course, some people come to the fore because of ability, you know, alliteration, speech. Somebody like James Farmer, for example, had this booming bass. Of course, we don't all have a bass voice, right, to give a speech. But that doesn't mean that you can't give a talk. Certainly Elijah Muhammad, who was famous as the founder of the Nation of Islam, right, does not sound like James Farmer. I'll leave it at that. Very sort of small sounding voice. But his power to mesmerize, there is no question about that.

Nishani Frazier: So I think we have to embrace the idea that the '60s is not over, and that not only is it not over, but it's all hands on deck. You have a responsibility. You have to determine what it's gonna be. It could be small or it be large, but it has to be you in there in the fight, moving forward.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There it is. Nishani Frazier, thank you so much for helping us get a better sense of what that full story is. And helping us start off this third season of Teaching Hard History. Thank you so much, Nishani.

Nishani Frazier: Yeah, it was fun! Thank you for inviting me. Bye.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: All right.

Hasan Kwame JeffriesDr. Nishani Frazier is an associate professor of American studies and history at the University of Kansas. She is author of Harambee City: The Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland and the Rise of Black Power Populism. She also created a Harambee City website, which has lesson plans and other tools for teachers. There’s a link to that in the show notes for this episode. Dr. Frazier is currently working on a tasty new book called Cooking with Black Nationalism.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And Adam Sanchez is a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School in Philadelphia. He’s also taught high school in Portland, Oregon, and New York City. Mr. Sanchez is the editor of the book Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War from Rethinking Schools. And he's a teacher-leader with the Zinn Education Project.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center―helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance today. We started this podcast by talking about slavery for two seasons, and now we’re tracing that legacy of oppression and resistance into the present day. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts. You can find these online at

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Frazier and Mr. Sanchez for sharing their insights with us. This podcast is produced by Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our Associate Producer, Mary Quintas is our Technical Producer, and Movement Music is produced by Barrett Golding. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Our interns are Miranda LaFond and Amelia Gragg. And Kate Shuster is our Executive Producer. Our theme song is "The Colors That You Bring" by Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is from their album Where Future Unfolds. And from Wendel Patrick's JDWP Tribute.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback. I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.


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