Making a Scene: The Movement in Literature and Film

Episode 10, Season 3

From the hard work of organizing to the reality of everyday life under Jim Crow, films and literature can bring historical context to life for students. In this episode, we recommend several “must use” films, books, poems and plays for teaching the civil rights movement. We also discuss strategies for incorporating these works across the curricula and for turning even problematic texts into grist for meaningful critical discussions.

 

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Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

Edited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries

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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I taught my first class on the civil rights movement two decades ago. My goal then was to teach students everything that I had learned about the movement, about its origin and evolution, key events and influential figures, guiding philosophies and leading strategies, as well as victories and defeats. That goal has not changed over the years. But what has changed is how I go about getting there.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When I started out, I used to focus on distilling the movement into digestible nuggets of information. During lectures I'd say, “It's vital to remember this," or "Make sure you remember that." And my students learned a great deal about what had taken place during the Black freedom struggle. But a few years ago, I started to notice something about my students, not about those who were enrolled in my class at the time, but about those who had taken my class before, my former students, the ones I had already taught. I heard from them on occasion, an email here, a direct message there, even an office visit now and then, and each shared a personal story about their civil rights class. But their stories were never about my meticulously-researched, digestible nuggets of information. Instead, they talked about specific discussions tied to specific civil rights literature that we had read or films that we had watched.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Some recalled the time when we debated armed self-defense after reading a graphic novel about the life and times of Malcolm X. Others, the pall that fell over our classroom when we watched 4 Little Girls and talked about the Birmingham church bombing. To be sure, my former students were able to recall essential facts about the movement, who did what, when they did it and why. But what they remembered most was how they felt at a particular moment in class. They remembered the new ideas and the different perspectives that they came to understand on those particular days.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And more often than not, it was a book or a film about the civil rights movement that led them there. Today, our students have immediate access to more information on their cell phones than we could ever impart to them in our classes. And the truth is, if they forget the facts that we share, they can Google it. But they can't Google how something made them feel when they read it or watched it or discussed it. And that intangible is what they internalize. It's what they carry with them long after they leave our classes. It's what becomes a part of the prism through which they interpret the world. And it's what civil rights literature and films can add to our classes.

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. Whether you're bringing lessons about the movement into your language arts or social studies classroom, films and literature can enhance students' understanding of the era. In this episode, Dr. Julie Buckner Armstrong and I discuss how we use literature and films to teach the movement: from strategies for creating historical context, to turning problematic books and movies into grist for meaningful, critical discussions. And we recommend a couple of must-use films, books, poems and plays. I'm glad you could join us.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I am delighted to welcome Dr Julie Buckner Armstrong. Julie, welcome to the Teaching Hard History podcast.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Oh, Hasan, thank you. And to everyone at Teaching Tolerance, I assign this podcast all the time. I am directing students there all the time.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Phenomenal.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: It is such an honor to be here.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, I have been so looking forward to this conversation because it is going to be about civil rights literature, but it's also going to be about film. I teach a course on the civil rights movement and teaching African-American history through film. So I'm really excited to think about how those two forms of art work together and how we can use them in the classroom. So, Julie ...

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Help us wrap our minds around what constitutes civil rights literature.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, that's a really good question, and there are a couple of ways that you might look at it. In a specific sense, we're talking about the poetry, the fiction, the drama, and other kinds of creative writing that are from and about the movement, so works that deal with key people, places, events. This kind of literature can be contemporaneous to the historical moment, and it can also be contemporary to our time or literature that looks back. And in a more general sense, we might also think of civil rights literature as works that don't specifically address the movement, but they do engage key themes and ideas, such as literature that emerged during the long history of segregation and Jim Crow, or even more current works that deal with the movement's legacies, its unfinished business, the new Jim Crow or Black Lives Matter, things like that. So this is what I'm talking about when I teach civil rights movement literature. It's a long trajectory that looks at movement-specific literature within a long context.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think that long context is really important because we don't want to too narrowly define both what the civil rights movement was.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. Absolutely.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But also then what the civil rights movement literature is. I mean, it has to work together.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Absolutely. Right, absolutely. Absolutely. Do you make a distinction when you're teaching film?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, sometimes, depending upon the subject and what I'm teaching, I may want to draw on something, particularly like documentary film that may capture something from the moment.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But then I move back and forth chronologically. So it may be a period piece that was created more recently.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Mm-hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And also context is so important.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And one of the things that I do in using film is I choose films that offer context even before I get into what we might formally consider the heyday or high point of '40s, '50s, '60s civil rights movement literature, for our students who don't have a very good grasp of American history.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, that context is so critically important. Do you find something similar with literature, and how do you address that?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: In a civil rights movement literature course, we use literature as the vehicle into the history. But there are many situations where I'm teaching just a basic literature course, you know, introduction to literature or American literature survey. And I might bring in examples of civil rights movement literature just to get my sly little history lesson in.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: So, you know, it might be we're teaching the Harlem Renaissance, say, and we read Langston Hughes. Then I can bring in a poem like “I, Too” which deals with segregation, and this is a literary work that is appropriate for many grade levels. I'll read it.

Julie Buckner Armstrong"I, Too," by Langston Hughes. 1926. I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh and eat well and grow strong. Tomorrow, I'll be at the table when company comes. Nobody'll dare say to me "Eat in the kitchen" then. Besides, they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed. I, too, am America.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: I just had a situation where I taught that poem, and I realized that students did not know the context at all. They read it as this is a poem about a brother, and the family sends him to eat in the kitchen, and one day he'll be part of the family again. So they completely missed the meaning of what Hughes was trying to say. Hughes is talking about a very common experience of segregation and the relationships between white people and their Black domestic help. But it's also a microcosm of segregation more generally, meaning he's good enough to make the food, but he's not good enough to join in and be included at the table.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in Cornerstone Baptist Church in Bedford Stuyvesant in Sunday School, we had to learn "I, Too" and say, "I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother." My little light-skinned self. But I got it. I got it then.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So that's a powerful poem that has been speaking to the struggles of Black folk and their vision, and their goals and objectives for generations.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: I love the movement in this poem, from the first line to the last line.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Where he begins with, "I, too, sing America." You know, he's talking about it. He's either celebrating to sing, or he's mourning to sing. I'm not sure what the perspective could be, because it's up in the air. But then in the end, it is. "I, too, am America." So it's about being. It's not just about being the outsider looking in.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: It's about being part of that larger, unified constellation of what it means to be an American.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: For better or for worse.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: For better or for worse. Absolutely.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. You know, we have the luxury of taking four months to teach civil rights history.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. Yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Where most of our teachers, you know, they have four hours at most spread out over a week. Sometimes they may just have 40 minutes.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I keep in the back of my mind a list of go-to films for certain subjects, for certain periods and for certain issues.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Do you have, for creating context, do you have a go-to piece that you could recommend, either short story, poetry or whatever it is, for helping students get a sense of that context that they need to know before they dive in?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. Absolutely. And I'd like to preface that answer by saying that there is more civil rights movement literature than people know.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: There are literally hundreds, maybe even thousands of examples. So that becomes problematic when people want to make a choice about what to use in the classroom. So I would just like to say at the outset, for teachers who don't know where to start and know that there's an overwhelming amount of literature and don't know how to make those choices, there are a couple of really good resources. And one is Margaret Whitt's Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement. And another one is Jeffrey Coleman's poetry anthology, Words of Protest, Words of Freedom. And one can also look at the Poetry Foundation website. And each of these resources has a thematic organization. So it links you to those key people, places and events. And what I like especially about that is that, with a short story or a poem, these are shorter works that one can bring in for one class period, for example, or half a class period or a segment or something like that. So there are many good resources and places to start.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: But if I had to name one work, I think I would start with the award-winning March trilogy, which is a graphic narrative treatment of the life of the late John Lewis, which is written by Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. So March is appropriate for middle and high school students, and even has been used as a common reader at several universities. So what's good about this is the trilogy takes a long view of history from Lewis's years growing up in rural Alabama in the 1940s to the election of President Barack Obama. So along the way, it touches on so many major events, from the Freedom Rides to sit-ins to 1963 Birmingham, and obviously the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. And for those of us who do have that luxury of a long time, you could use the whole thing, but for those people who don't, you can use excerpts from it. So if you want to cue students into that Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March, you can look at just a section of the book. So it's very flexible in that way, and appropriate for a wide range of audiences.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I got a little envious as you were saying that there's just an abundance of civil rights literature, because there is not an abundance of films on the civil rights movement, and certainly not an abundance of good films on the civil rights movement.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of my go-to ones is a small film that was never released on the big screen. It was a TNT production, but the advisers were former SNCC activists. It came out in the early 2000s called Freedom Song, a wonderful film about grassroots organizing and SNCC's work in Mississippi. I mean, it hits all of the right notes in terms of the importance of local people, grassroots folk, and at the same time, you know, somebody you never see in the film, Martin Luther King Jr.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right? So it really sort of offers kind of a different way of thinking about the movement. For context, particularly Jim Crow-era context, one of my go-to films is The Great Debaters. There is a scene very early on where Forest Whitaker's character, who's a member of the African-American elite, he's the president of Wiley College down in Texas. And this is, you know, sort of 1930s Jim Crow-era America. And he is riding in his car that he owns with his family, his daughter, his son and his wife along a dusty road in the backwoods of Texas. And they're enjoying themselves, they are singing, they're laughing, they're playing games. And then suddenly, boom! They hit something. And they're not sure what it was. Right before they hit this object, there were some white kids running along the side of the road.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And so the fear is that they actually may have struck one of these white children. And as the scene begins to develop, we're not sure what it is. And the father steps out of the car and he looks to see what he hit. And there's this real moment of trepidation, and he realizes that it's just a hog. And so there's this sense of relief that it's not a white child, but then there's also this sense of dread because this is Jim Crow America. And when the owners of the hog, the pig farmers come out and they realize, who's this Negro, right? Dressed to the nines with their own car, and I'm just a pig farmer. And we see the power dynamic shift. We see the tension escalate. We see the kids on the side, both Black and white, watching this interplay. And we also see and feel the danger that at any moment in Jim Crow America, one's life could be immediately in peril.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So now the decision is for the father, like, what do I do? The pig farmers are demanding compensation for the death of the hog. And the only thing that the president, Forest Whitaker's character has is a full month's paycheck, 20-some dollars. And they said, "Well, we'll take that." And, you know, the wife is like, "Well, I don't know about that. Like, we got—we can't give a whole month for this hog. What are you talking about?" And Forest Whitaker's character's like, "No, no, no, no. Like, you got to hand it over because we got to get out of here alive." And so I show that to my students to get them to get a sense of the peril and the danger, and how things can go from ordinary to so dangerous in a blink of an eye. And then I ask them, what should the father have done? And then that becomes the conversation, where people are exploring Jim Crow and the options that people had, and what was the scene and how was it playing out? And we always have a very good discussion around that one scene in The Great Debaters.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Can I add something to that?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Oh, certainly. Please.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: When you talked about the pig farmers coming out and confronting the Forest Whitaker character, it reminded me of a portion of Eudora Welty's short story, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" which is told from the point of view of the man who killed Medgar Evers. In that scene, and students always remark on this, one of the things that really triggers the murder is the jealousy that the white protagonist has over the Black man who's killed—he's not named as Medgar Evers in the story—because the Evers figure has nice green grass, he's got a nice house, he's got a new white car. And it's the Black success, it's the Black advancement that really motivates his violence.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And I have to say that I owe one to your colleague Koritha Mitchell for pointing out that concept to me, how it's success that often prompts the violence. But there's this really terrible scene. And I'd just like to read that paragraph.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: He says, "I was on top of the world myself. For once. I stepped to the edge of his light there where he's laying flat. I says, 'Roland?'—and that's the name of the Medgar Evers figure is Roland—"I says, 'Roland? There was one way left for me to be ahead of you and stay ahead of you, by Dad, and I just taken it. Now I'm alive and you ain't. We ain't never now, never going to be equals and you know why? One of us is dead." So yeah, it's very striking.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, when I think about these types of scenes, one of the things that helps me get students to realize is that Jim Crow was not just a minor inconvenience, but it was about power and control, and it was enforced by violence. And your life was at risk if you were Black at any given moment.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And I think students come with this mindset that the movement took place in the streets or in the courts, and it was about protesting. But very often, it's taking place in people's personal spaces. It's about people having to navigate the very dangerous terrain of the world in which they live. And it is about what happens when you walk down the street or you drive down the road, and your ability to be in public space that way. You know, your ability to sit where you want on a bus or your ability to drink out of a water fountain or not have to go to the back of the store. So it's very much about those everyday instances or interactions of just being human in the world.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The Jim Crow routine.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And then how this performance, this expectation, and film and literature really help by dramatizing that, help students understand what that was like, what the color line was like, what Jim Crow was really like.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: It's so important.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, recipient of the 2020 James Harvey Robinson Prize for the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history from the American Historical Association. And this podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this collection of essays, which I edited. From now until the end of April, they are offering a 30 percent discount to listeners who order this collection. You'll find a link to purchase the book at tolerance.org/podcasts. Just use the promotional code, CIVILRIGHTS—all one word. Now let's continue our conversation with Julie Buckner Armstrong.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: When you're using film or works of literature even in a civil rights movement history course, when and why do you bring it in? One of the reasons that we like to use works of art is because they do make the past come alive for our students. They help to put audiences into a historical moment. So specifically, what moments or viewpoints do you think are most important for students to feel that history?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. That's a great question, because it's something I really had to learn as a teacher, as a historian. It's all about the facts, ma'am, right? And you realize that for learning, it's also all about how people engage the facts, how they interpret it and how they feel the facts. And so one of the things that I want students to feel, so that they can understand decisions that activists make and local people make to support the movement, to join the movement or to stay out of the movement, is the fear that sort of enveloped the South, enveloped America and Black communities when trying to fight for their civil and human rights. And film to me, does a wonderful job of conveying that.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Absolutely.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And now you have to be careful, of course, with the scenes, and what you choose. But there's power in that.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: When you talk about fear, there's a really wonderful short story by Anthony Grooms called "Negro Progress" from 1994. And it's in that Margaret Witt anthology. It's also in an anthology that I edited. It focuses on an African-American protagonist named Carlton, and he doesn't respond in expected ways to the 1963 protest in Birmingham. He's not about to join the movement. He wants to move to Paris with his fiance.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: So that's really good. And there's a wonderful scene in there where they're at Kelly Ingram Park during the Birmingham protest, and he does not want to put his body on the line. He's just passing through. So one of the nonviolent protesters encourages him to kneel down with him in front of the firemen who are holding water cannons that are aimed at them. And the person says, "Kneel and pray." And Carlton says, "Well, what are we praying for?" And the man next to him says they're praying that the water won't come on.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs]

Julie Buckner Armstrong: So there's fear, but there's a little humorous aside that lightens the tense moment there.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely. And the humor is such an import—you talk to activists, I interview activists, former activists, and they say, "I don't know why y'all thought we were so serious."

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: "We had to laugh and joke to keep from crying." And so being able to capture those aspects, those human elements of interaction, like that is what certainly film and I think literature do so well.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: You're absolutely right that there's a misconception that everything is serious and fraught. And you see this in the literature. One of my all-time favorite stories is by Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, "Direct Action." And this is from 1963. And I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say it involves a restroom, and unexpected ways of thinking about sitting in. So it's ultimately a very funny joke. So a lot of the work that I bring into the classroom, the movement is not the central issue, it's the family dynamics. If you think about a play such as A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, first of all, the play comes to us from the heart of the civil rights movement. And it's really its own piece of history, because it's the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: But in that, the family has received some money, and they want their chance to get what you call "freedom rights." They want the right to own a home in the neighborhood of their choice, but they are facing neighborhood segregation. And, you know, the question is, will they be able to realize their dream and realize their inalienable right to happiness? So I like to use a lot of stories like that and plays and poems like that that focus on how families are navigating the world as individual, ordinary people while these extraordinary events are going on around them. And that, I think, humanizes it for students.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And humanizing it is so important because it provides students an avenue to connect with these folk in the past.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Who in many ways they think are completely unlike them.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But in every way are just like them.

=Armstrong: Right. And so many of the movement stories that students get involve these larger than life figures, these heroes and villains, it's good versus evil. It's very black and white. But you think about Martin Luther King the superhero, or George Wallace the supervillain, and the literature deals with people who are more like us, who are ordinary, everyday people. That's very important to see, I think.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I like Raisin in the Sun in particular, because both the film adaptation if you will, but the play itself, it's one of those pieces that really disrupt the master narrative. In this instance, the geography, right? Because it's not set in Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia. Here we're looking at a major northern metropolis.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And the issues that Black folk are facing there. So I think literature, especially if you're thinking about sort of the basic narrative of the civil rights movement, then literature and film can help you disrupt that in very productive ways.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: With A Raisin in the Sun, I have a go-to assignment that I use with that. We read Raisin whether in the Civil Rights Movement Literature classroom, or we also use it in American Lit and Introduction to Lit. And I ask students to research, either individually or in groups, background information on the play, historical context such as neighborhood redlining, or literary context such as Black arts movement. So in one class period, we discuss it, in the next one, students do their library or internet research, and then they come back and share with each other what they've learned. And especially with the neighborhood segregation, I ask students to pull up those homeowners loan corporation maps and look at neighborhood segregation where we are.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Oh, yes. Yes.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: But you can do it for many communities across the United States. So again, it's not something that's long ago and far away and foreign.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: It doesn't necessarily humanize it as much as it brings it home.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: This is what segregation looked like in the town close to you.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's an awesome assignment, and I can see how leading with those maps, leading with the local community, and then pairing it with something like A Raisin in the Sun, you then get a better understanding not only of the maps, but also of the reaction of the characters in a play like A Raisin in the Sun to why they are doing what they're doing and why they're responding to these various factors in that way.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. Absolutely, absolutely. You know, it's a great play for bringing in the civil rights movement's connection to intersections with the Great Migration, Jim Crow North, youth counterculture, Afrocentrism, feminism and so many other things. It's just a very rich play, and I love teaching it.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Educators, we have something brand new just for you. You can earn a certificate issued by Teaching Tolerance for one hour of professional development just by listening to this episode. All you have to do is go to tolerance.org/podcastPD. PD for Professional Development. That's podcastPD, all one word. Then enter the special code word for this episode, "freedom," all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. Now let's continue our conversation with Dr. Armstrong.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, we can also use literature and film to do more than just convey emotion and feeling, we can use it to convey understanding, to help students really understand how the movement unfolded, how it operated.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Are there some texts or books that you find especially useful to help students understand sort of the mechanics of the movement, if you will?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: There are several short stories in that Margaret Whitt anthology, and it's organized by theme. So there are sections on sit-ins, there are sections on school desegregation, and so especially short stories are really good to get students involved in okay, well, what did a march look like? What were people thinking? Where were they going and what were they feeling in all of that? Poetry, I think, maybe deals with some of the emotional or even some of the ethical issues. But there are a couple of novels that might be too big for younger audiences, but you might be able to use them in excerpt. Of course, like I said, March is really great for that. But also there's John Oliver Killens' novel, ‘Sippi, and then there's Alice Walker's novel, Meridian, which are excellent for giving that bigger scope and for diving into the details. And actually, probably one of my favorite novels is Anthony Grooms' book, Bombingham, which deals with the intersections between Birmingham and the Vietnam War.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: So that's a really good text as well. What about you?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. I had mentioned earlier Freedom Song. You're introduced to these wonderful characters in a local movement in Mississippi, but after you look at it you're like, wow, I just saw how a movement started, how it evolved, what the obstacles were, and I just thought I was enjoying the film.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And so you really get to see these different elements and really understand, okay, what does it take to actually have a sit-in, have a nonviolent protest, right? And then what are the ramifications of it? Another one that is useful—but only part of it—is the film The Butler.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Ah, yes, yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: For those who aren't familiar, The Butler is about literally a butler in the White House and who serves various administrations. And it looks at his family's experience, not only in Washington, DC, but the parts that I'm really excited about and use in the classroom are his son's experiences as he participates in various movement activities in the South. There's a wonderful series of scenes that dramatize Reverend James Lawson's Nashville sit-in workshops.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And so you get a good seven- or eight-minute chunk there of Lawson talking to these young students, who would have been Diane Nash and John Lewis and James Bevel, and talking to them about what does it take and how are we actually going to engage in this revolution in a nonviolent way?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And so that's one of those films that is really useful. Now there's parts of the film when you get to Black power, where the darn thing just falls off a cliff, but we do something with that, too. But certainly on sort of the mechanics, that's one that I think is really useful in the classroom.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: I have a follow up question about The Butler.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: The sequence of civil rights activities that the son is involved in, it almost seemed like he was everywhere.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, he would go from high point to high point to high point, and I wondered, you know, how realistic that was. But also kind of the bigger question is, you know, as a historian, when you're using film in a classroom, what is more important to you? Is it that kind of historical accuracy, or is it good filmmaking? Is it telling a good story? And how do you address that with your students?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, The Butler is the Forrest Gump of civil rights movies.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He's all over the place. And no, no person, no single person, you know, was in all those places doing all those things. You know, it's a device.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think I use film in different ways for different purposes. And so the thing I never do is just put a film in and just play it and say, "Okay, now we're done." Right?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. Absolutely.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Because no film, no work of art can do all things and do all things perfectly. So I think the answer to the question is really it depends on what I want them to do.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And what I want the film to do. Using The Butler, for example, looking at those nonviolent workshops I was like, "Hey, I want y'all to pay attention, because this really dramatizes it in a way that reflects the reality."

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Because they actually based that on these films. There was a news story that actually went in and filmed these actual workshops. And so it was based on that. So there we get a pretty accurate depiction with characters that they become familiar with. But then, you know, you fast forward to the scenes with the Black Panthers, and like I was saying, that's where it falls off a cliff. So I will show that and I'll say, "Hey, now given what we've been talking about Black power and how reasonable it is and what the demands were, what do you make of this scene?"

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So there's some aspects where I'm like, "Hey, we're going to use this to critique it because it's just supporting and amplifying the master narrative. And we got to be aware of that." There's other aspects where I'm saying, "Hey, this really captures this element, but in profound ways and accurate ways. So let's take a look at that for that." So it really depends on what I want the work to do.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Is that something similar to how you engage with literature?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think sometimes I will teach literary works because they're doing something that I want to illustrate. An ethical position, it's an emotion, it's a strategy or an idea that I want students to get. But sometimes I will bring in a literary work because I want to talk about the ways that even good art can fall into stereotypes. And I want students to be very aware there are certain storytelling conventions, especially when you come to civil rights movement literature and film that are almost like intellectual traps. Personally, I avoid texts that, you know, reinforce ideas about white supremacy rather than breaking it down. But if I do have to bring in something like that, it's very often to say, okay, this is a perspective that you want to avoid.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. You know, they appear in film all the time because they're being used as shorthand and shortcuts.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right, shortcuts.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now there's some, just as you point out, I mean, there's some stuff that I will bring into the classroom and say, "Okay, we have to critique this," right?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, the scene on the Black Panthers in Forrest Gump, right? Because so many people have seen it. We got to talk about this. But there's also stuff where I'm like, you know what? I don't have the time to deal with this. This is just—it's too much, too bad, right? And The Help, for example, is one that I have no desire to deal with at all, right? I mean, the film adaptation of the book. I mean, so there's some stuff I just leave out there and, like, just trust me, y'all, just don't—like, on your own time at the end of the class, if you want to go look at it, you can, and you'll see it differently. But so I think we as teachers can't solve all the problems in all literature in the world, right? You've got to be selective and see, okay, how can this work for me in helping to teach these kids?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And, you know, sometimes I think conversely, I will bring it in because I want to teach the stereotype, I want to teach the literary convention, because it isn't just in the film and it isn't just in the literature, it's something that really permeates our society. And to go back to Forrest Gump, for example, it employs—if you think about Bubba, specifically the character of Bubba, who is a friend of the main character, Forrest Gump. That they are soldiers together in Vietnam. So Bubba fills this role of what's called the "magical Negro."

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yes.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And that is a Black character who really has no plot function except to aid the white protagonist. And it's usually aiding the white protagonist to reach some sort of enlightenment. And when that job's done, the character, the Black character typically dies. So, you know, this is something that, you know, these ideas of African-American figures in service roles relegated to the help, even in a literary way, is something that I want students to see. So, you know, Bubba gets shot in Vietnam, but not before he gives Forrest inspiration for the business that will make him rich. But here we are in real life with the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company as an actual restaurant.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, right,

Julie Buckner Armstrong: So students need to know the history of these things. And, you know, how they kind of ease their way into our thinking, and our thinking itself becomes a shortcut. And really what we want to do is give our students a broader vision of the world.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I like that description of our thinking itself then becomes a shortcut, because it does really speak to the need for addressing these stereotypes and shortcuts as they appear in literature, because what happens is our students take them on and they believe them, right? And it becomes their way of understanding.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right, so then it becomes if you want to—if you're a white person and you need to educate, you need to learn about race or the Black experience in America, that it's not the job of African Americans to be your help in that service role. You need to educate yourself.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, right.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: You can't just go up to someone and say, “Hey, give me a reading list,” you know? So it's not their job to do that, you know?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I got you. So along those lines, are there works of literature that are just unavoidable in today's classroom? You know, especially middle school and high school teachers that deal with the civil rights movement in some way, shape or form, that they need to be thinking about differently in terms of how they teach?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Well, you know, as a literature professor, it is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: So this is a novel from 1960. And worldwide, it is the most frequently taught work of literature from the civil rights era. So it's actually set in Depression-era Alabama at the height of Jim Crow segregation. And it focuses on a coming of age experience for it's young white female narrator Scout, whose father, Atticus, defends a Black man accused of raping a white woman. And on the one hand, people like to teach this novel. It's very popular, because it's typically taught as a means of understanding empathy. So in chapter three, Atticus tells Scout that you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. And, you know, that's great. Who's going to disagree with that? But the novel also suggests that empathy is the end, rather than the means to the end. If white people just put their hearts in the right place, then justice will be served. And I don't think it quite works that way. Not in the real world.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, the reality is more that, you know, the civil rights movement teaches us that dismantling white supremacy is an action. It involves changing policies as well as hearts and minds.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Are there works of literature that you would recommend pairing with To Kill a Mockingbird?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: What makes it resonate for so many younger audiences is the coming of age narrative. And Scout is an age where a lot of them are. So her story of learning to see the world, they're able to make connections. But Scout's experiences come from a position of race and class privilege. So it's not the only way that people in that time period learned about violence or white supremacy. And I think it's important for students to know that there are other ways of experiencing that framework.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: So I might bring in something like Richard Wright's Black Boy, which is a memoir. And, you know, his experience of coming of age in Jim Crow, Mississippi, is very different from what Scout faces. I might also bring in Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi, which is again a memoir, and her way of learning about the broader racialized world in which she lives in. For me, one of the more pivotal scenes where she does have a kind of political awakening, happens when she is working as a young teenager as the help, as a domestic in a home. And she hears people talking about the murder of Emmett Till. And this, of course, is the teenager who is killed near Money, Mississippi, for saying something to a white woman or whistling at a white woman. The circumstances are unclear, but her family members come back later and pick him up from his uncle's house and they take him to the river and drown him.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And Anne Moody hears that story, and she has a lot of questions about it. But when she asks those questions, she gets into trouble, and she realizes that something is amiss in her situation. She eventually goes on to college. She becomes active in the movement, and the story follows her through the different actions that she takes, and also the physical and emotional toll that it takes on her as an activist. I mean, what it's like to put your body on the line in that way, and to live with that fear but also with a conviction that you know you're doing the right thing, but you don't know how the situation will turn out. It's very powerful. And again, it's about people that students can very much relate to, because she's talking about events that happened to her when she was their age. And so it's easier, I think, for students to put themselves in the place of someone who is active in a protest or a march or a sit-in. It's not just Martin Luther King riding in with his superhero cape to save the day. So those works, either in their entirety or in excerpt, are great ways to provide a counter to what is happening with Scout in that novel.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think the equivalent of To Kill a Mockingbird for civil rights films is Mississippi Burning.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. As a film, it's still the most viewed, most watched civil rights film. And it's sort of FBI as hero in the Freedom Summer, Mississippi freedom struggle. So Freedom Song, which I had mentioned several times earlier, is actually the response of actual activists to Mississippi Burning.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But what I tend to do is pair films with documentaries.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Sometimes just pulling out pieces and excerpts of interviews or small segments. You know, maybe 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there. And I found that helps the work a lot. Now I get to cheat a little bit, Julie, because there's a little bit of an internal bias among our students for believing what they see on TV.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right? If it's on TV or on a device, then it must be true. And so I get to lean into that a little bit. But I also use that to flip the script, if you will.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And say, "Yeah, you thought this was true. But now look at these other interpretations. So how do we make sense of the difference?"

Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, I think Mississippi Burning is a really good case to bring up because that too relies on character types and those conventional narratives. In that case, I would think specifically about the white savior motif, where the white person comes in to save Black people from some kind of racial ill, giving the impression that they can't save themselves. So I typically teach the white savior motif with The Help. I don't always bring in The Help. I don't use that in the class. But students have read it or they've seen the movie. So I could say, "You know how in The Help, Skeeter comes in to record the stories of the Black maids like they have no voice or agency?"

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, right, right.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: "Until that white person comes in to help them?" And the same thing is true of Mississippi Burning, that there's a crime committed and it takes the white FBI figures to come in and save the day. So where would these poor people in Mississippi be without them? We don't know.

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 examines the strong relationship between music and civil rights literature and film, starting with two movie soundtracks that took on important themes of Black pride and racial justice. Here's Charles.

Charles Hughes: In 1971, Stax Records’ star Isaac Hayes scored the Gordon Parks film Shaft. Part of the late-'60s, early-'70s "Blaxploitation" craze,the movie followed private detective John Shaft through the streets of Manhattan.

Charles Hughes: Hayes' arrangements of lush strings, brilliant horns and propulsive guitars, ranged from the Academy Award-winning title track to a tender tribute to urban Black neighborhoods called "Soulsville."

Charles Hughes: The "Theme From Shaft" hit number one on the Billboard charts, despite the first three minutes being completely instrumental. Hayes then sings Shaft's story in call and response with a Greek chorus of back-up singers. In the film's score, Hayes, a master of Memphis soul, offers a new vision of Black musical genius and a celebration of Black power.

Charles HughesShaft was followed by more soundtrack masterpieces by Black composers: Curtis Mayfield's Superfly, Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, and film work by Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, and others.

Charles Hughes: In the civil rights and Black power years, works like Shaft and its soundtrack heralded the creative connections between Black art and politics, serving as their own reminders of the breakthroughs and challenges facing African Americans.

Charles Hughes: Music has long been a central element of Black literature. Authors like Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin incorporated musical themes and lyrics into their classic fiction. These writers—and many others—also wrote essays that explored the power of Black music as a cultural and political force. The Harlem Renaissance, The Black Arts Movement, hip hop literature, all considered music as an essential component of the cross-currents and call-and-responses.

Charles Hughes: In contemporary literary considerations of the civil rights movement, music permeates the characters' experiences and introduces the broader narratives. Similarly, music has been foundational within Black cinema. From the earliest films through the ongoing Black movie renaissance, music has provided both narrative accompaniment and emotional impact. Songs have been vehicles of memory—adding weight and texture to historical depictions of Black life. And they've been the soundtrack of innovative futurist visions, from sci-fi to comedy to—of course—musicals. And, like Isaac Hayes, Black artists used film scores and soundtracks to depict complementary—and sometimes contradictory—perspectives on cinematic representations, from the problematic to the pioneering.

Charles Hughes: One film student, Spike Lee, led a new renaissance in Black cinema starting in the mid-1980s. Building on the work of previous eras, but adding a sensibility forged by both the rise of hip hop and the legacies of civil rights and Black power politics, music in Lee's films was a critical component. The jazz textures in his debut She's Gotta Have It, and the musical sequences in its follow-up School Daze, set the table for the anthem that became both theme song and character in Lee's third film, the masterpiece Do The Right Thing.

Charles Hughes: Public Enemy’s " Fight The Power" is a clarion call for action, emerging out of the tumultuous 1980s and perfectly accompanying the cross-generational tapestry that Lee weaves in his depiction of the hottest day of the Brooklyn summer. With their characteristic musical drive and lyrical eloquence, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and the other members of Public Enemy update the Isley Brothers' Black power-era anthem of the same name—remixed and reinvigorated for the late Reagan Era. They take on violence, racist misrepresentation and the mythology of American greatness, while insisting that people keep marching, shouting and, indeed, fighting.

Charles Hughes: The police chokehold strangling of the film’s Radio Raheem, with the song blasting away in the background, was eerily prescient of the real-life police killings of Eric Garner and George Floyd decades later. Songs in civil rights films and literature give us an emotional foothold. The music contributes key elements of historical and contemporary understanding to those stories, ensuring that we don’t just see—but also hear—the history. The songs are everywhere, all we need to do is keep listening.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hear the history. That's what we have to do, we have to hear the history. From "Shaft" to Public Enemy, "Fight the Power." Elvis was a hero to most. That's my generation building off the previous generation. This is awesome. I hope that you have enjoyed, and I hope that you've been able to take as much away from "Movement Music" as I have. Be sure to check out our latest Spotify playlist. Dr. Hughes has curated dozens of songs that amplify even more of the ideas raised in this episode. Just follow the link in the show notes at tolerance.org/podcast. Now back to Julie Buckner Armstrong.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: A great assignment involves stepping back, not analyzing, but just experiencing the power of a particular literary work. And a great example for students of all ages is Dudley Randall's 1963 poem, "Ballad of Birmingham". And this poem is set up as a dialogue between a mother and a daughter. And the daughter wants to join the children's crusades of the 1963 Birmingham protest. And in the course of the poem, the daughter dies in a church bombing, which echoes the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls. So this poem packs a real emotional punch at the end. And that's one of the poems that's online at the Library of Congress. And it really, I think, makes a big difference to hear Dudley Randall reading it.

Dudley Randall:"Mother dear, may I go downtown instead of out to play, and march the streets of Birmingham in a Freedom March today?" "No, baby, no, you may not go, for the dogs are fierce and wild, and clubs and hoses, guns and jails ain't good for a little child." "But Mother, I won't be alone. Other children will go with me, and march the streets of Birmingham to make our country free." No, baby, no, you may not go, for I fear those guns will fire. But you may go to church instead and sing in the children's choir."

Dudley Randall:She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair, and bathed rose petal sweet, and drawn white gloves on her small brown hands, and white shoes on her feet. The mother smiled to know her child was in the sacred place, but that smile was the last smile to come upon her face. For when she heard the explosion, her eyes grew wet and wild. She raced through the streets of Birmingham calling for her child. She clawed through bits of glass and brick, then lifted out a shoe. "O, here is the shoe my baby wore. But baby, where are you?"

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow. That really speaks to the dread of what could happen if you went on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But then, of course, the dread of what could happen if you were Black, just living in Jim Crow America. I mean, the safety of the church provided no safe haven. Randall's poem really powerfully conveys that, no matter where you went, you could not escape white supremacy in Jim Crow America.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Absolutely.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that meant violence.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And I think that's what Randall wants his audience to know. He wants you to experience that grief, that outrage, and to understand both emotionally and intellectually what it was all about. It permeated into every aspect of people’s lives.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yes. What are some things that teachers should look for in civil rights literature when they're looking to use a piece that is strong? Obviously, the universe of civil rights literature is vast.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right. Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But are there some characteristics that teachers should keep an eye out for that will signal that, hey, this is a piece that might really be good for the students?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, I think that, for me, there are two things that go into a work of very good civil rights movement literature. And one is literature that in some ways breaks down ideas of white supremacy or privilege or explains how segregation works, and do that in a very visceral way. So it makes it really hit home for a student. A good example of that might be Eudora Welty's short story from 1963, which is called "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" And I might hesitate to use that for younger audiences, but you could definitely use that in a high school situation. It's a short story told from the perspective of the man who killed Medgar Evers in 1963. And at the time that Eudora Welty wrote this story, she did not know that it would come out to be later Byron De La Beckwith. But she writes from this person's perspective, and it's not meant to be celebratory at all, but to help readers see the connections between racist political rhetoric and violent action. The protagonist of the story feels justified in killing Medgar Evers and shooting him in the back because of the segregationist language he hears on TV.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And that's an important—especially now today, that's such an important lesson in the link between language and actions, which is a problem in our own society with this fracture in civic discourse. Another thing that I like to focus on is literature that shows ordinary people like us, like our students, and how they are navigating these extraordinary events. And a really good example of that—and this one is for middle school readers, I think this would be great for sixth and seventh graders—is Christopher Paul Curtis's The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. And it's just a wonderful little novel. It's mostly about his family. And the protagonist Kenny, he calls them the "Weird Watsons." They live in Flint, Michigan. And the brother, I think, is getting into some trouble. So they're going to take the brother down to visit grandma in Birmingham. And, well, what happens when they get to Birmingham? It's 1963, and they have to learn—especially the protagonist Kenny—how to navigate this whole new world. But it's ultimately about the family dynamics. And, you know, this is, to me, a very realistic way of thinking about the movement. It's not as if people back in the day were always thinking about the march or the protest. They're interacting with their families. They're driving down the street when something pops up in front of them, and it often catches people by surprise. I think it's really good for navigating that everyday-ness, the ordinariness of the movement in the way that people experienced it.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah, I think the same applies for films, thinking specifically about movies as opposed to documentaries. I look for films that have character depth, they're multidimensional. I also look for voice. Whose voices are actually being heard? Literally for film. Like, Mississippi Burning, the only Black folk that you actually primarily and almost completely hear from are Black children. You have adults in the scenes, you see them in the background, but they're silent. So literally, Black folk can't speak for themselves. And then, of course, agency. How is this work acknowledging Black agency? Their ability to impact and shape their own lives and their determination to seize their own agency and act in their own agency.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, that's so important what you say. Again, this idea of people not having a voice or not being given a place in the film, that too, is one of those narrative conventions or stereotypes that falls into something like the white savior motif. And the movement was all about people claiming agency.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: So if you leave that action out of it, you're missing one of the most important features.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. And I think one of the real challenges, too, with film is how are Black women treated?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Because so often and in so many, one, they're not the primary characters, but then two, they're literally often silent. Seen and not heard. And if you know anything about the civil rights movement, there was no movement without Black women, and they were never silent. So, you know, that in itself is problematic. But it's one of those things that, you watch four or five movies over the course of the semester, about a third of the way through, and the students are like—without me even having to say anything, Julie, they're like, well, at what point are we going to hear from a Black woman? Right? I mean, you start with Amistad or 12 Years a Slave or Glory will literally have no lines, right, in Amistad and 12 Years a Slave. And so the silence becomes palpable. But then they begin to see it over and over and over. Again, that's a luxury of having the full semester to sort of see these things reoccurring. But it is one of the things that I look for when trying to select material for the classroom.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And, you know, that reminds me that another one of my go-to text is Jordan's 1997 "Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer." And I often lead off a civil rights course with this poem. We start off—like first day, I mean, before I even go over the syllabus, right? We brainstorm what students know about the movement. And if you remember that Teaching Tolerance report that says that what most students know is two names and four words, meaning Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and I Have A Dream. So that's about as far as they get. Sometimes they'll throw in Malcolm X and, you know, then we're done. But Jordan's poem introduces them to a figure that they might not know, but they really should.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And there's a wonderful reading from Jordan on the internet, San Francisco State University. It's just a really marvelous poem. And you get a sense of Fannie Lou Hamer's voice, and you get a sense of her as—the thing that I like to teach is the courage of an ordinary person doing ordinary things. You know, she's doing laundry, she's cooking, and she's not worrying about bullets flying. She's doing her job.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, Julie, if you have that, I would love to hear it.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Okay. Let's turn to the poem.

June Jordan: I’d like to begin by reading a poem that I wrote on the occasion of the death of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer a few weeks ago, who was in many ways a mother to me.

June Jordan: You used to say, "June?
Honey when you come down here you
supposed to stay with me. Where
else?"

Meanin home
against the beer the shotguns and the
point of view of whitemen don’
never see Black anybodies without
some violent itch start up.

The ones who
said, "No Black folks Votin in This Town…
lessen it be feet first to the booth"

Then jailed you
beat you brutal
bloody/battered/beat
you blue beyond the feeling
of the terrible

And failed to stop you.
Only God could but He
wouldn’t stop
you
fortress from self-
pity

Humble as a woman anywhere
I remember finding you inside the laundromat
in Ruleville
lion spine relaxed/hell
what’s the point to courage
when you washin clothes?

But that took courage

just to sit there/target
to the killers lookin
for your singin face
perspirey through the rinse
and spin

and later
you stood mighty in the door on James Street
loud callin:

"BULLETS OR NO BULLETS!
THE FOOD IS COOKED
AN’ GETTIN COLD!"

We ate
A family tremulous but fortified
by turnips/okra/handpicked
like the lilies

filled to the very living
full
one solid gospel
(sanctified)

one gospel
(peace)

one full Black lily
luminescent
in a homemade field

of love

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow, wow.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: That's beautiful, isn't it?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That is. That is so beautiful, and then as I was listening, I can close my eyes and I can see Fannie Lou Hamer, right?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, I've seen so many images. But I was thinking this would be a great opportunity at some point then to play for the students, Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where she gives that powerful testimony about her experiences.

Fannie Lou Hamer: It was the 31st of August of 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens. We was met in Indianola with—by policemen, highway patrolmen and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, it's a clip. It's available online. NBC newsreel, you know? And it's three minutes. There's these possibilities of pairing the two that I think add, like, literally full voice and flesh to a person that we all should know.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And, you know, to go back to the John Lewis March trilogy, one of my favorite scenes in that book is of her testifying at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. And in the book, her words are framed in these speech bubbles that just jump off the page, like her story jumps off the page. And other frames focus on how she sits there. She's just so composed, and her hands are folded very properly in front of her. And it's a beautifully powerful microcosm of how the movement's nonviolent activists met Jim Crow violence with grace and dignity.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah, that's so true. I love how all those elements can really come together like this.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Absolutely.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm your host, Hasan Kwame Jeffries. We're hoping you will apply what you learn from the podcast in your classrooms. That's why, for every episode, we prepare a detailed page of show notes just for you. It includes a complete transcript, which our team has enhanced with links to many relevant resources. This means you can easily find the materials mentioned by our guests, including more tools for using literature and film to teach the civil rights movement. You can find these detailed show notes at tolerance.org/podcasts. Let's return now to Dr. Armstrong.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Let me pick your brain for some suggestions. One of the challenges that teachers face in the classroom is dealing with difficult subjects.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, the movement itself can be a difficult subject, it'll be hard history, right?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But there are these subjects within that: sexual violence, violence, murder, lynching, and then, of course, language.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Racist terminology. Do you have some suggestions for teachers when using civil rights literature in the classroom for how to navigate and address those issues as they arise?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: I actually have two. In the beginning of a course, I begin building community among the students. And I have students draw up a conversational plan of how we're going to talk to each other. What are the rules of the discourse in here? Who gets to speak and when, and how are we going to navigate that? I divide them up into small groups and I ask them to come up with the rules of engagement themselves. And they just do a great job. Once we solidify that as a group, then students are very good about adhering to those guidelines.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And, you know, when something difficult does come up, they know what's fair. They know what's right and wrong.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yes.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: And, you know, you don't have to teach them that. Usually when they say something inappropriate, it's typically from a place of ignorance. So how can other students help to educate them in that way? You know, I've had students say, "When someone says something we don't like, we're going to repeat it back to them and say, 'When I hear you say X, Y, Z, this is what I think. Is that what you meant?'" I just love the way that students will come up with their own ways of handling that situation, rather than me as the authority figure imposing it down upon them. But conversely, sometimes still it happens. Students will, you know, say something ignorant, or they will say something offensive or they will say something that you just plainly disagree with. And, you know, the best way to handle that I found is not really to shame them or call them out or get onto them. But typically, when I'm in the classroom and I'm in the moment, my go-to is to turn it back to the text. So if a student says something that is maybe misguided or whatever, I say, "You know, that's a really interesting point," or "That's a really interesting way of saying that. You know, how do you think James Baldwin would respond to you right now?" That often throws them off their game. And if they can't come up with an answer, then another student will come up with an answer for that. You know, like, "Well, what might Audre Lorde say in this moment?" They can usually find the words to articulate, and it kind of takes the tension away. And it's not any more about me and that student or between two students, it's about appropriate ways of having a conversation. Or seeing things from a different perspective. It's about trying on different perspectives. Basic critical thinking skills, you know?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. I know exactly what you're saying. And I love the idea of keeping in mind that what we really want to do when dealing with hard history and these difficult subjects, is that in the classroom, we have to, as you said, create community and create ground rules. And then I love that you invite the students to shape those, right? So that they become invested in the boundaries of that are going to govern this community.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Well, I'd also like to turn that question back to you. Like, how do you deal with it?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, you know, one of the things that happened this semester, obviously everything is remote, we're virtual, we're at a distance, and we started the semester—and I'm trying to remember to remember to hit the record button, right? And I'm forgetting—forget about content, right? I gotta remember to record this thing. And I assign the documentary film Slavery By Another Name, which is about convict leasing, trying to really establish the efforts on the parts of whites in the post-Emancipation era to control Black labor and regulate Black behavior.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I've been assigning this film for, you know, almost a decade or as long as it's been out. So I assign it. Go forth, go forth and learn, young people. And before we met again live Zoom discussion, I get an email from a student that said, “You know, Dr. Jeffries, I learned a lot from the film, but my breath was taken away because there were some scenes in there that were just really hard to stomach.” And she said, “You know, I got through it, but I don't know. It may be triggering for some of my classmates. And I, you know, just wanted to share that with you." And so I emailed her back, and I said, "Thank you very much for sharing that thought, and I'll be sure to address it when we meet again." And so when class—when we convened again via Zoom, you know, I told the students, I said, "Look, it was brought to my attention that you're right, I didn't share what this was about and that there may be violence and hard scenes. And so let me give you my trigger warning. This is American history, right? Like, the whole thing is triggering, right? When you're dealing with the Black experience. Ain't none of it easy, right? I mean, we're going to talk about joy and love and struggle, but this thing is dark, and I need y'all to be prepared for this. No more of that Disney version of history, right? Like we're dealing with all of it. And that means that there's going to be death and there's pain and there's violence, and we're going to confront it head on." I forgot to give them that lecture in the orientation meeting the first day of class. But that's part of the way I just have to be honest with them up front. This stuff that we're dealing with when we're talking about civil rights, that it's just hard to swallow.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we got to be prepared for it. Now that's just sort of the big picture topic, like, what are we going to be dealing with here? And then when it comes to managing the class, I love this idea of creating community. I don't quite do it, and I think I'm going to adopt this, right? And say, "Hey, let's establish community ground rules." I just say, "Look, this is us, right? We're family now. We're going to deal with this stuff." But I'm also very much aware of, in all my classes when dealing with these subjects, there are students that you have to protect, and there are going to be students who you have to correct. As a teacher, you got to figure out who's who and be willing to step in and intervene in the ways that you just described. What would James Baldwin think about this? To do that both protection and correction.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: I love that: protect and correct. I'm going to have to steal that, if that's okay. May I have your permission?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There we go. It's yours. [laughs]

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Very good. And, you know, it's like you say, you can't teach this history, you can't teach artistic representations of it without dealing with things that are very, very difficult. And I think one of the problems is that, you know, students, what they get from either previous classes or the popular culture is such a sanitized version of the history, that sometimes when they're exposed to things that are more realistic, it's often very shocking to them.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. That reminds me of an encounter that I had very recently outside of the classroom. I was visiting a Catholic school here in central Ohio. And this is the anti-racist movement, so folk are waking up. And I was doing a workshop with these teachers and I was like, “Look, you got to teach the stuff. We're teaching civil rights, teaching slavery. You know, it's hard history, it's difficult. We got to talk about the violence of it, and the fear that is generated and how people overcame.” And a white teacher came up to me afterward. "You know, Dr. Jeffries, I hear what you're saying, but I'm just really reluctant to talk about especially the violence. I don't know if that is appropriate for kids." I said, "Well, what age group do you teach? Because you do have to deal with these things in age-appropriate ways." And he said, "Well, I teach high school." And I said, "Well, what subject do you teach?" And he said, "Well, I teach Old Testament." I said, "So, well ..."

Julie Buckner Armstrong: That's nothing but story after story of violence.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's what I'm saying, right? Like, I grew up in the Baptist Church. Like, people getting, you know, they smiting and smoting in the Old Testament all the time. What are you talking about?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: They are.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So it's not the violence. It's not the subject that people are concerned about when they're like, "Well, I don't know if we should touch that," right? Like, it's not the actual descriptions or the incidents that are captured. It's the idea as it's related to this specific subject. It's because it's dealing with Black folk, because it's dealing with race, because it's dealing with racism, it becomes too personal and they can't detach. But that's exactly when we need to lean into it. And I think both literature and film, art helps us to do that.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: You know, what we're teaching students is not just content, but we're also teaching them to think and—not what to think, but how to think. And, you know, they're going to employ these ways of speaking to each other in the world. So it's not just about the historical facts or the literary genres, but it's ways of thinking, and it's ways of relating to one another as human beings.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: As human beings.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Yeah.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things that I have had to do over the course of my two decades of teaching is I've had to adjust to the students. In other words, what they're bringing to the table in terms of their lived experience—although they're the same age, same demographic, coming from the same places—has changed.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right, absolutely.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Are there things that teachers should be aware of in this moment, as they select civil rights literature that you think would be helpful for them in terms of teaching that literature?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: That is a very good question. Can you answer it? [laughs]

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs] You know, I think one thing for me, for me, one of the things is I always try to think about what's their first public political memory?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Oh, yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Like now, kids in college, you know, 17 year olds, 18 year olds, they have only a vague passing memory of Barack Obama's election.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: They're now four years removed. And somebody who's in high school now, their first real public political memory may be the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So how then does that shape how they would understand Black protest?

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If Black Lives Matter is really what you know, for example, or have heard about. And so for me, I kind of look to that.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: A big learning curve for me has been to not assume anything about what my students know.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, right, right.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: So very often with any topic, I just start off by asking them, "What do you know?" That's where you start.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: No, that's so important. And it helps with the selection of the material that you will present in the classroom.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's the other thing, too, that I like about using film and literature is that you do have some choice.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And as times have changed, as my students have changed, my selections have changed too.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Absolutely. I think if I had one takeaway that I would like teachers to come from this podcast is that in English studies we talk about thinking rhetorically. And first, that means to think about your audience. What grade level are you working with? What do they know? What do they not know? What content, what language are they capable of grasping or what engages them? So know your audience. And then second, what is your purpose? Like, why do you—what do you want a work of literature or a film to do? What do you want it to teach your students? And what do you want them to get out of it? And then choose your literary works or your films based upon achieving that particular purpose for your audience. It's all about that rhetorical triangle.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Julie, thank you so much for sharing.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This has been a remarkable—and we don't have a video feed of this, but if there was, people would see me feverishly taking notes, because I've taken away so much with so many tips and hints and suggestions for classroom material. So thank you, thank you, thank you, Julie.

Julie Buckner Armstrong: Well, thank you. It is always a pleasure and a joy to talk with you.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is really great.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Julie Buckner Armstrong is a professor of literature at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. She is the editor of the Cambridge Companion to American Civil Rights Literature, as well as The Civil Rights Reader: American Literature from Jim Crow to Reconciliation. Dr. Armstrong is also the author of Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching.

Hasan Kwame JeffriesTeaching 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.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: 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 tolerance.org. Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. We began by talking about slavery for two seasons, and now we're tracing that legacy of oppression and resistance into the present. Thanks to Dr. Armstrong for sharing her insights with us.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: 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. And our intern is Amelia Gragg. Miranda LaFond is our managing producer and our executive producer is Kate Shuster.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: 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 FacebookTwitter 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: The Civil Rights Movement.

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