Reframing the Movement

Episode 1, Season 3

Teaching the civil rights movement accurately and effectively requires deconstructing the myths and misconceptions around it. Most people are familiar with a very specific version of the movement that exaggerates government support and denies the existence and persistence of racism outside the South. Julian Bond called this the “Master Narrative.” It celebrates sanitized icons and downplays grassroots organizing. And it overhypes nonviolence while disparaging self-defense and Black Power. In this episode, we talk with historian Nishani Frazier and social studies teacher Adam Sanchez about how to separate fact from fiction in your civil rights teaching.

 

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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: Most people are familiar with a very specific version of the civil rights movement. It’s the narrative that’s taught in schools; the story that’s depicted in movies; and the tale that’s told by politicians, preachers and parents. It goes something like this: The civil rights movement began in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was wrong. Dr. Martin Luther King then emerged on the scene to lead a nonviolent crusade and received the unwavering support of the federal government. The movement peaked in 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and then unraveled when African Americans rejected nonviolence and embraced Black Power. Fortunately by that time, America had already righted its racial wrongs, paving the way for Barack Obama to become the nation’s first Black President.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [sighs] Historians call this version of the civil rights movement the master narrative. And although its framing of civil rights history is deeply ingrained in popular culture, it is rife with inaccuracies. Government support is overblown; white participation is overstated; Dr. King’s role is overemphasized; women’s leadership is overlooked; and nonviolence is overhyped. At the same time, the master narrative downplays grassroots organizing; denigrates armed self-defense; disparages Black power; and denies the existence and persistence of racism outside the South.

Hasan Kwame JeffriesTeaching the civil rights movement accurately and effectively requires deconstructing the myths and misconceptions about the civil rights movement. This is necessary because the master narrative informs nearly everything that students have learned about the movement. And we have to explain what really took place. Here, we set the historical record straight by separating civil rights fact from civil rights fiction.

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 talk with historian Nishani Frazier. She’ll help us unravel the master narrative. We’ll also hear from high school social studies teacher Adam Sanchez, who has valuable teaching insights to share. We begin by examining the things that students think they know about the civil rights movement. I'm so glad you could join us.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The only thing more exciting than being able to start season three of Teaching Hard history is being able to start it with my good friend and colleague, Nishani Frazier. Nishani, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us. I really am excited to be able to talk some civil rights and Black power history with you.

Nishani Frazier: Thank you for inviting me, I'm looking forward to it.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So to start this season, I really want us to unpack the master narrative.

Nishani Frazier: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And at the heart of the master narrative is this false temporal assertion that what we call the civil rights movement began in the 1950s and ended in the 1960s.

Nishani Frazier: Correct.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about the movement, how should we be thinking about it in terms of its chronology?

Nishani Frazier: Well, I think there has got to be sort of two ways to look at it. There's a longer history of resistance. There's never a time that Black people didn't resist. We hit the shore of the United States and resistance started. That's the way it is. But I do think it's important to distinguish that distinctive moment of mass action by the Black community. And to that extent, the issue is not the long history of resistance. Of course, there's been a long history of resistance. But how does our resistance change? And what way does it change? How did the strategies become something that's not connected to a small organization but then spreads, right, throughout the Black community? There's a moment where civil disobedience enters into the conversation, and it's not among a bunch of elite intellectuals and it's not among activists, groups and organizations, it's among the people themselves. That's a key moment where the Black community begins to think about what does it mean to break the law in order to attain our freedom? And that's a distinctive moment.

Nishani Frazier: That doesn't begin with the Montgomery bus boycott, which is what a lot of people like to focus on. It begins much earlier. When you look at groups like the March on Washington movement, when you think about the work of Ella Baker and her organization activities with the NAACP, it should begin around the 1940s where we begin to think about, what does it mean to have a people's movement? What does it mean for the voices of folks to stand up en masse―emphasis on masse―and then lead a non-violent direct action movement? So the chronology is actually much further back than we’d like to start. And I think it's important, in part because we want to think about a civil rights movement that's beginning on the ground. What makes a movement? How did these people decide that they're going to get the courage as a community, as a people, to stand up?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I like to look at it by distinguishing in part the difference between a movement, an actual genuine social movement, unifying ideology shared in similar tactics and the like, common goals and protests. Like, we've always had Black protests. We've always had Black folk engaged in struggle.

Nishani Frazier: Absolutely.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But there's only discrete moments when that protest, I think, rises to the level of a genuine social movement. So we can look at a smaller chronological period and be like, okay, we see a definite social movement here, but we can stretch it back and locate that movement on a broader continuum of Black protest and struggle.

Nishani Frazier: Exactly.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Are there some other core characteristics of this moment in time, in addition to the discourse around civil disobedience―so not just elite Black thinkers, but on the ground―that for you make this moment in time, this movement moment unique and distinct?

Nishani Frazier: Well, the nonviolent direct action is one of those key moments to me. It's not that African Americans or Black people have not had a history of nonviolent struggle, but the philosophy of it, the idea of it begins to take root in organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality, like March on Washington movement. The other thing I think is important is that what you begin to see on the ground is the work of people like Ella Baker. She is organizing NAACP chapters in the South. And she's creating a network of organizations. And you add that to the work of Black women and barbershops, beauty shops becoming spaces for political engagement. Not that they weren't always spaces of political engagement, but particularly so in the 1940s. So I think there's something interesting about the kind of work that Ella Baker is beginning to do with the NAACP and the kind of outreach that they're doing to the everyday average Black person in those spaces within the community, like the barbershops and the beauty shops.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the challenges I think that we face as teachers of civil rights history is trying to convey to our students what was going on leading up to this particular movement moment. And I asked my friend Adam Sanchez, who is a high school social studies teacher, how he sets the historical context for the civil rights movement for his students. And Nishani, this is what he had to say.

Adam Sanchez: Students get these problematic narratives from the very start of the Black freedom struggle in this country. It begins with the absence of abolitionists, the absence of enslaved people themselves in fighting for emancipation. And instead, you get a very top-down narrative that Lincoln freed the slaves. And then it continues into Reconstruction, right? That instead of this incredible flourishing of interracial democracy, where you have Black and white people on the ground in the South working towards an anti-racist future, towards economic justice together, instead you get this kind of top-down narrative about Reconstruction being a battle between Congress and the president. And then, of course, there's a backlash against it and you get the Klan. And so it's a narrative that really centers white people. It's also a narrative that looks at things very much from the halls of Congress rather than the streets. And that's similar to the narrative you get about the civil rights movement, but also little different.

Adam Sanchez: The civil rights movement, I'm not totally sure why, but maybe it's because there are people who are living who lived through the civil rights movement, it's not like anyone credits people like LBJ or JFK with the wins of the civil rights movement. What you do get is a kind of sanitized version of the movement that focuses on these charismatic leaders, that narrows the focus about them to what makes sense in the narrative. And it's a narrative of progress. It's a narrative that there were these bad laws, exclusively in the South of the United States, and that's where racism always is, of course. We never talk―whether it's the abolitionists fighting against racism in the North or the North turning its back on Reconstruction in the South, or the North very much being part of the backlash against the civil rights movement in the 1960s, we never talk about the crucial role that racism in the North plays. This narrative is a narrative about progress in the South, that there were these racist laws, and the only place you have racism in this country, which is in the South, and that they were taken away through the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. And what it fails to deal with is actually the places where the civil rights movement failed to achieve its goals that we are still living with very much today.

Adam Sanchez: And so that's one of the through lines is these problematic ways that the narratives of the Black freedom struggle have been shaped. The other big through line from Reconstruction has to do with the fact that Reconstruction is when the civil rights movement really begins, right? It's a battle over the definition of freedom. And if you look at the battles that are happening over Reconstruction, they are replayed during the civil rights movement, right? These are battles about economic justice, about should Black people separate from white people and start their own communities, or should they unite with white people to fight racism together? All these discussions about nonviolence, violence that are happening in the civil rights movement also have their roots in the abolitionist movement and the movements that flourish after the Civil War. So that's another key through line from the early history of the Black freedom struggle.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things that stands out as I listen to Adam is the value of looking at some of these earlier periods in which African Americans are engaged in challenging white supremacy, Reconstruction, being one of these critical moments. What's the value to you, Nishani, in taking a look at these periods before the '40s, '50s and '60s, before the civil rights movement? And what can that help us understand about the things that Black folk are doing during the height of the civil rights era?

Nishani Frazier: There's a tendency when we look at history before then to sort of talk about the civil rights movement like it just busts on the scene. Nobody knew how it came about. It was just there, right? And I think a nice way to think about it is, what are the roots of the Black freedom movement? And so having this conversation about Reconstruction and some of the conflicts even among the abolitionists about this whole question about using rebellion or whether to use nonviolence, this is a conversation that takes place among abolitionists. So this is not new. And I think it's important for students to know that this tension between violence and nonviolence has always been a part of the Black movement, and even a tension between ideologies of Black nationalism and integration. That's always been a tension, and it's not something that, again, just displays itself in the middle of the 1960s. Black nationalism has been a philosophical through line of the Black community's experience going back as early as the 17th century.

Nishani Frazier: So having this conversation where we begin to think about origins and roots. What are the roots to a freedom movement? How does resistance look from the 19th century to the 20th century, I think is really important. There's a couple other things, I hope you don't mind if I kind of jump in. One of the things that I thought was interesting was that he talked about the top-down narrative approach. You know, a lot of American history is about these major leaders, and that's how we'd like to frame the narrative. And the civil rights movement obviously has fallen prey to that set of circumstances. So there is this tendency to talk about the movement as if there were only a few key figures. To the extent that people like Rosa Parks has now become well known among students, although they have no clear understanding about her role outside of Montgomery and the bus boycott movement. And in fact, just as an aside, some of the work I do as a professor is I do advanced placement testing and evaluation. And so every year we have a question and any question that seems to involve the role of Black women, it doesn't matter what century it is, Rosa Parks appears, right? So Rosa Parks is apparently also on the Underground Railroad freeing the slaves. And then Rosa Parks also appeared in the Salem witch trial. I don't know what she was―I guess she was free in the white women from being accused of being a witch. But the ways in which the figure becomes so much of a definer, right, that it doesn't matter what century she appears in. Rosa Parks, that's what's important. We remember Rosa Parks.

Nishani Frazier: What that does is mar the ways in which masses of people had to stand up, the way every person who was a part of this movement served some sort of role. And it may not have been big in the way that we understand Rosa Parks or even John Lewis, who's recently passed, was still essential to understanding the civil rights movement. So I think it's really interesting that he sort of talks about the way this top-down history plays itself out, not just in how we study history broadly but then, of course, the civil rights movement in particular.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This obsession, really, with iconic figures, it really is one of the core features of the master narrative. And of course, Rosa Parks being probably one of the two main ones now, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. And in doing so, we don't even get a full picture of either one.

Nishani Frazier: No.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: As you were pointing out with Rosa Parks, for example, it's a snapshot. She's literally frozen on that bus and that's it. We don't hear about, you know, the 20 years of activism with the NAACP, fighting for the Scottsboro Boys before, and the nearly half century of activism afterward.

Nishani Frazier: Right. In Detroit.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In Detroit. Exactly. And we do the same thing actually to a greater extent with Martin Luther King. Let's give a listen to how Adam approaches this in his classes.

Adam Sanchez: The first thing I do in my civil rights unit is to try and get students to understand that they almost always are coming in with a particular narrative. And so some of the activities I start with are specifically designed to get students to understand that there are multiple ways to explain the history of this movement, and they've often only been sold really one way, and that that way hides more than it reveals. Students often have these "A-ha" moments where they move from thinking, "I know everything about the civil rights movement," to "Well actually, there seems to be a lot I don't know about the movement." And so that's really a great place to start for a history teacher because then students are more hungry to learn what they realize now that they don't know. And then from there, I go on to try and bust up some of the big myths that they have been taught. One, that it was a movement of charismatic leaders. Often we'll look at those leaders and they realize whether it's Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, that they actually know much less about those people than they thought. So complicating some of their narratives can also be a really important way to begin to open up students' eyes.

Adam Sanchez: Another thing I do at the beginning of the unit is hand students 10 quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, because students had told me that what they know about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is that Martin Luther King was nonviolent, Malcolm X was very violent and was always really aggressive. So they have these very stark pictures of Martin Luther King on one side of the movement and Malcolm X on the other. And so I tell them, well, if these pictures that have been painted of these people to you are true, then you should easily be able to tell who said what. And so I hand them 10 quotes, they go through them and they just kind of mark-up whether they think Malcolm said it or Martin said it. And Martin Luther King is much more radical than students realize. When Martin Luther King says he celebrates the magnificent new militancy within the Negro community all across this nation, and I welcome this as a marvelous development. The Negro of America is saying he's determined to be free, and he is militant enough to stand up. Of course, students see these words "militant" and "militancy" and they immediately think it's Malcolm X. But of course, that's Martin Luther King.

Adam Sanchez: Similarly on the other side, students have this vision of Malcolm as being very adversarial, very aggressive. So when he says things like, "It's a disgrace for Negro leaders not to be able to submerge our minor differences in order to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a common enemy," that doesn't sound like Malcolm to them. Or when he says later on in his life that he's become convinced that some American whites do want to help cure the rampant racism which is on the path to destroying this country, and he actually begins to start working with anti-racist whites, that is not the Malcolm they've learned about. And so they always mis-attribute that quote as well.

Adam Sanchez: What they realize after going through these quotes is they have no idea. In fact, a lot of students get more wrong than they would if they were just guessing. I remember one student, Jeremy, after this activity, said, "I feel like everything I've been taught about the civil rights movement is a lie." Because it's this kind of "A-ha" moment for them where they realize these figures that they supposedly have been learning about year after year after year, are not the figures that they had been taught about. But then we move on to organizations, organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later on the Black Panthers that really move the movement forward and are often left out of the narrative of the civil rights movement.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History: The Civil Rights Movement. Be sure to check out the show notes where you’ll find a link to the 10 quotes from Malcolm and Martin that Adam uses with his students. And for more of Adam's lessons, along with a robust selection of resources to teach about the civil rights movement and a full episode transcript, visit Tolerance.org/podcasts. And now back to my discussion with Dr. Frazier.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Adam makes a great point that we as teachers have to remember that our students don't enter our classrooms as blank slates. They come in with very specific and often very wrong versions of what the civil rights movement was, and to a certain extent is. We have the challenge of not only teaching a new narrative, but very much complicating the existing narratives. We have to do some un-teaching in the classroom. In the tradition of the veteran organizer Ella Baker, as she would approach grassroots organizing, we have to apply the same basic principle that she did of you got to start where the people are. And I think that's what Adam is doing, by complicating what they think they know about the movement. Which brings to mind to me the question Nishani, where do you begin that sort of first day in thinking about ways to challenge the narrative that students may be bringing into the classroom?

Nishani Frazier: So two ways that I do that. First, I just love to begin with Danielle McGuire's Dark End of the Street on Amazon. They have an audio, and the audio details the rape of Recy Taylor. I play the audio, and after it describes the rape―and of course, these are college students, but regardless, this is incredibly disturbing, right, to hear the unfolding of this story. And then toward the end, they talk about how Recy Taylor turned to the NAACP for help and that E.D. Nixon sent his best investigator. Her name is Rosa Parks. And you should see their faces, because this is 1940s, it's Rosa Parks, and they're like, "Wait a minute. She works for the NAACP? Wait a minute. She's an investigator? Wait a minute. She's investigating rape, and she's just traveling throughout the South by herself?"

Nishani Frazier: And so that throws it all off. And then I include a short piece by Jeanne Theoharis, where it talks about Rosa Parks and Detroit. And Rosa in Detroit is a mess, honey. Right? Rosa in Detroit is engaging in Black power language. Rosa in Detroit is supportive of Robert Williams, a really well-known Black activist in Monroe, North Carolina, who used armed self-defense. And you're like, "Wait, what? Rosa supported the dude who did armed self-defense?" They are all confused and upset by the first five minutes of that class, right? Rosa is in Detroit, not acting right. Turns out she wasn't acting right when she was in Alabama. And so that sort of blows up the narrative of this middle-class, well-dressed, quiet woman who was just so tired.

Nishani Frazier: The other thing I incorporate is Mamie Till and Emmett Till, because of course Rosa Parks talks about when she was sitting on that bus, she thought about Emmett Till. It still surprises me the degree to which students don't know about it, because Emmett Till is such a cornerstone of Black genetic historical knowledge. I like to say genetic historical knowledge. We don't know how we know about Emmett Till, right? But it's somehow passed throughout the Black community. We know the name. And that is a shocking moment for them too. It becomes the foundation for understanding how 14 year olds, who are about the age of Emmett Till become members of SNCC by 1960. The folks who look at that picture and think "That could be me," that's an important moment to sort of recognize if I'm going to die, let me die standing on my feet. Let me die fighting for freedom. And it gives them a deeper understanding for why it is that these kids are prepared to risk their lives.

Nishani Frazier: And then one of the things I also like to share, which is also shocking for them, is the Birmingham Children's March. And this beautiful documentary, Mighty Times, beautiful documentary. And I show a clip of the kids, which are actually in a lot of ways younger than the students that I'm teaching. And I ask the students, you know, if they have younger siblings, how old are your siblings, and I ask them, "Do you think they would be in a march?" And they were like, "Oh, no. My parents would never let them go." And I was like, "Nope. Children ages eight and up." And in Mighty Times, of course, they talk about one four year old who landed in jail. Those are the kinds of things that sort of break wide open this idea of what your power can be. As they recount in the story in Mighty Times, right, talking about how this four year old is in jail and they ask him, "Do you even know why you here?" And he says, "I'm here for teedom." He can't say freedom, right? He can't pronounce his Fs. So he says, "I'm here for teedom." And so now the students have to think what it must be like for children to have this notion of freedom, and then be prepared to fight and be prepared to stand. And so for them, it's a kind of jolting moment.

Nishani Frazier: That kind of approach for me, I think, helps to sort of clear away the cobwebs of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, end of story. We have these kids, eight, nine, ten years old, being hit with firehoses and dogs. We have Rosa Parks, who is in Detroit, and she's not being the Rosa Parks that we knew. And we have Mamie Till, whose one singular moment really is the basis for why we have a movement, right? Her act of courage. And so the students are thrown, and then reorganized, right? In their own head, they're sort of thrown off, and then it's sort of they reorient themselves and it becomes a deeper moment for them.

Hasan Kwame JeffriesMighty Times, of course, is a production of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And there's also a companion one to Rosa Parks that is just as powerful. But you're absolutely right. That connection to the Birmingham Children's Crusade certainly disrupts these narratives. That's exactly what we are talking about.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music was vital to the civil rights movement, and continues to be critical to global freedom struggles today. That’s why in every episode this season, you’ll hear a new segment called “Movement Music.” Acclaimed musicologist―and my good friend―Dr. Charles Hughes, will take a closer listen to songs from the past and present that have something to teach us about the theme we’re exploring. And for each episode, Charles is also curating a Spotify playlist. Just follow the link in show notes at Tolerance.org/podcasts to hear more good music. Here’s Charles.

Charles Hughes: "Rhythm Nation." Janet Jackson, 1989. It may not be the first song, or even the hundredth that comes to mind when you think of civil rights movement music. So perhaps Janet Jackson calling out over the Minneapolis funk of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis is an odd start for discussing how music relates to teaching the movement era. But listen again.

Charles Hughes: In "Rhythm Nation," Jackson proclaims the movement's desires and strategies, calling together a community to destroy racism and its consequences. "Rhythm Nation" sounds like the movement, too. It has the marching pulse of freedom songs, the percussive joy of soul music. It calls up past era's energies and then extends them into a new sonic and political era.

Charles Hughes: The grooves of "Rhythm Nation" thus push against key components of the movement's master narrative. The song insists on continuities across eras, rather than suggesting hard breaks between them or an end point. It's a Northern, urban sound outside the geographical and locational barriers we often associate with the music. And its leader is a woman, which points to the still underappreciated centrality of women as organizers and activists.

Charles Hughes: As we consider ways to push beyond the master narrative of the civil rights movement, I suggest we also push beyond our master narratives of movement music. Let's expand the chronology with not only songs from the period, but also responses and remixes by succeeding generations who continued the work done by earlier music and adapted it for their own new circumstances. And let's think not only about lyrics but also about sound, about artist, about historical context and about a song's continuing resonances.

Charles Hughes: "Rhythm Nation" evokes the civil rights movement while decentering its master narrative. It's a bridge song between eras. Janet Jackson drew inspiration from Sly Stone, who the song samples, as well as from Aretha Franklin and other greats of the '60s and '70s. And she also provides inspiration to the generation that's followed her, the artists and audiences of the Black Lives Matter era.

Charles Hughes: And no one embodies this new generation better than Beyoncé, whose songs reach back to the fiery assertions of "Rhythm Nation" and to the movement's music and to even earlier. In 2016, Beyoncé released "Freedom" on her groundbreaking album Lemonade.

Charles Hughes: The song invokes the traditions of Black resistance with the chorus demanding freedom and verses that describe the struggle, and the way that resistance has been expressed musically with its blend of gospel, freedom songs, R&B and hip hop. It also features a guest verse from rapper Kendrick Lamar who, with songs like "Alright" is himself a crucial voice in articulating and shaping the sounds of today's struggle and connecting them to those of the past.

Charles Hughes: "Freedom," like "Rhythm Nation," disrupts the master narrative by complementing, complicating and extending. Lyrically and musically, both songs embrace the lessons of the past but resist the temptation for simplified or comforting stories. "Freedom" is far from the only song that does this. In the past few years―and particularly in the summer of 2020―our airwaves and streaming platforms have been filled with artists both famous and obscure who sing out the modern movement. All we need to do is to keep listening.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Whoo! Did y'all hear what my man Charles just did? Y'all weren't ready for that. I know y'all weren't ready for that, because I wasn't ready for that. But that was pure fire, and you can expect that for the rest of the season. That's hot. All right. Now back to my conversation with Dr. Frazier.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Let me get you to say just a little bit about how we treat King and sort of this King-centric understanding of the civil rights movement, and how that actually works against what we need to be doing to teach the movement accurately and effectively.

Nishani Frazier: Well first of all, let me just say I used to work at the King Center, so don't y'all be talking about my Dr. King now, because ...

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Good Lord, good Lord! Be careful talking about the Lord. The Lord.

Nishani Frazier: Y'all better be careful about how you talk about my Dr. King, okay?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The good Reverend Doctor.

Nishani Frazier: The good Reverend Dr. King. Well, you know, the great thing, you know, about when I teach history is I have a good old time teaching American history, and I just tear down just all of the figures you love. Not because it's just some sort of mean-spirited sort of element in which I delight, although that's partially true. Part of it has to do with complicating the narrative, right? We can get away from this iconography, this almost halo effect on Dr. King so that you can't see a whole movement of people because the light from Dr. King is so bright. And I think it's really important to understand that Dr. King in part is a man of the moment. He's a man who is caught in a movement of people, and in that sweeping river of events, he becomes the Martin Luther King that we know.

Nishani Frazier: But Martin Luther King is surrounded and often pushed on the ground by women, by young activists challenging him, challenging his approach. So Dr. King grows because he's challenged at every turn by individuals who are lock and step with him in the movement. And he is also a person who is afraid. He is a human being. When I worked at the King Center, one of the things that the Atlanta airport wanted to do when they showed photographs of Dr. King was airbrush the cigarette that he was holding in his hand. They didn't even want to give him that one little vice of smoking. Although it's the '60s, everybody freaking smokes, right?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. Right.

Nishani Frazier: That's the thing. But the smoking somehow deterred from the man who is the hero and heroes don't smoke. And so I think what it does is confuses people about the ways in which Dr. King struggled, and the ways in which other people had to struggle during this movement. They struggled with fear. They struggled with stress. They struggled with all kinds of circumstances that would bring many a normal person down. So this is not in any way to deny the way in which these people are remarkable, okay? Because I'm not sure you could beat me across the head before I punch you back. But that doesn't mean that it's out of your reach as a student. And that's also what's important to me. When we talk about Dr. King, sometimes he becomes so unreachable the students can't see themselves in protests. They can't see themselves strategizing. And in a lot of ways, they don't think they could be a part of such a movement because who can be like Dr. King? That's a dangerous narrative to teach and to hold on to, in part because there's so many things that still need to be addressed. And we still need freedom fighters. So you can't have folks afraid to fight for freedom.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that halo effect blinds us, as you were pointing out, from seeing the other people: women, young people, working class folk, poor folk, labor activists. But it sounds like you're also saying that it blinds us from seeing King himself.

Nishani Frazier: Oh, in both cases. First, because it blinds us from seeing those other people, it blinds us from seeing the criticisms that they had about King, right? So in part, these people become inconvenient to the heroic narrative because they raise questions that we don't want to address. That includes everything from Dr. King's attitudes toward women, to Dr. King's decisions and strategy approaches. Not everybody agreed with the way he chose to do things. Selma, for example, is one of those really famous movies, features Dr. King. And of course, as you know without a doubt, it's a heroic moment. But when you see SNCC and the representation of SNCC in the film, what you see is the implication that they're just sort of young rabble-rousers challenging Dr. King.

Nishani Frazier: What you don't understand is that there's really a major strategy conflict taking place where youth activists were concerned about crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and what it would mean to be locked on both sides, right, by the police. And that that was not a good strategy because one, what you did was create a pen for people to beat the hell out of you. So that didn't make sense to them. And that two, the only other escape route was down and over the bridge. So fundamentally, they thought that Dr. King was not making a sensible, good strategic decision about that particular protest. So I think that part of the blinding, right, that feeds each other. The blinding pushes out women, and then in pushing out women, the issues with King and his attitude toward women gets pushed aside. Dorothy Height has a piece, "We Wanted the Voice of a Woman to be Heard," talking about the absence of women at the March on Washington in 1963. Among these men of the big six, they argued that Mahalia Jackson would represent women. And then they decided well, obviously, that's not a reasonable argument, but then all of these leaders represented the women because women were in the organization. And Dr. King was among those people who was particularly fine with the exclusion of the National Association of Colored Women.

Nishani Frazier: So I think that the two feed each other, right? They're linked together. And the blinding allows us to dismiss everything, both the criticism and the people who would likely be in place to criticize.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it seems that one of the things that we lose sight of is what you had just alluded to, is the range of strategies and tactics that African American activists deploy in order to achieve their goals. If we fixate on King, we wind up fixating on nonviolence, and not seeing some of the other strategies and approaches and the disagreements and the dynamic tension between people when they're thinking about strategies and tactics. Could you offer just a word or two, some thoughts, some insights on that kind of range? What were people doing and thinking about in terms of how they were going to engage in this struggle for change? Was it just wait for the big march, or was there more to it?

Nishani Frazier: This whole notion that nonviolence was at the heart of the movement from the very beginning is just false in all the ways that you could possibly think. Oh honey, you done got me on my soapbox now. Let me get myself situated so I can stand right. You know, one of the things that irks me to no end, particularly because my work has been on the Congress of Racial Equality, is the way in which the focus on interracial, nonviolent brotherhood comes to the fore of the civil rights movement. And CORE has really gotten that reputation, right? Interracial organization, starts in 1942. Well, the inconvenient narrative of that is that in 1946, Cleveland CORE member gets into a fight, his gun goes off. 1947, Chicago CORE is talking about self-defense groups to protect Black family members who've been attacked because of this fight over space and moving into white neighborhoods. 1947, Journey of Reconciliation―one of the most famous precursors to the Freedom Rides―as they're journeying down the South, what they leave behind is a conflict in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where white radicals have to protect one of the supporters of the Journey of Reconciliation, and they do that by getting on top of his roof with guns.

Nishani Frazier: So there's always been this whole question about when do we pass the moment between nonviolence, right, and go over into the space of self-defense? And not just a strategy in terms of organizing, right? SNCC runs into this. Can you defend yourself when Klan and white nationalists come and shoot at your house at night? Is that acceptable? Dr. King has that moment himself initially at the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. There's guns all up in that house. But there's that moment where he has this philosophical tension. Bayard Rustin says, "You got to choose," right? There's always been this tension between when is it the time to use armed self-defense. I'm not sure that there is a such thing as nonviolence without armed self-defense. The two have always been locked arm in arm. But the master narrative doesn't allow us to have that conversation. That's an uncomfortable conversation to have, in the same way that it's uncomfortable to talk about all of these riots that have recently happened and then all of a sudden magically the Redskins can change their name.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. Right. Right.

Nishani Frazier: So there's these sort of fundamental questions about the ability of a strategy to be successful, and which strategy is more successful than the other. And of course, nonviolence versus self-defense has always been one of the issues at the heart of the civil rights movement. But that's not the only strategies. One of the things I tell my students when we talk about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I like to emphasize the B-B-B-B-Boycott, all right? The use of economic pressure in order to ensure that businesses downtown and the bus capitulates to the demands of the Black community. And we often leave out the ways in which financial pressure was an important and essential tool for the civil rights movement. And I think it's also unique in that CORE not only considers not just this whole question of boycott, right, or economic pressure, but economy as protection. The early memorandum by James Farmer, who is National Director of CORE in the early 1960s, when he writes the memorandum for the formation of CORE, one of things he says is that there will be repercussions, and the way to protect civil rights activists is to create economic cooperatives that then feeds the civil rights organization. So in that particular case, the economy becomes and finance becomes a strategy for protection of the movement that allows the movement to withstand any pressures and continue forward.

Nishani Frazier: I think there are all kinds of strategies that we can talk about. Economic is one. Self-defense, non violence. One of strategies that you also see coming out is in spaces of education, that people begin to think that segregation is not going to fall. And that particularly in the North, they get even more calculated in how they're able to circumvent desegregation in their schools. And so a number of Black parents coming out of CORE as well decide to do separation. And I always tell my students there's a difference between segregation and separation. Segregation are decisions that are made outside of the Black community that attempts to harm or determine or limit their growth and their ability to move and engage the body politic. Separation is the decision by the Black community to provide the services and support that it needs in order to grow and again, engage the body politic: political, social, economic.

Nishani Frazier: And I think for many people, the call for desegregation doesn't work for them. The nonviolent strategy for desegregation doesn't work for them. And so they strategize in another direction that is about creating internal support to bolster up the Black community as a way to protect them from the problems of segregation. So I think there are many ways that we can think about the strategies that emerged in the civil rights movement.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that Black institution-building, your last point, is something we often don't look to, but is a clear strategy with deep roots in the African American community.

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 Tolerance.org/podcasts. Now let’s continue our conversation with Dr. Nishani Frazier.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the ways that we can bring out the full range of goals that were a part of movement activism, reflecting what does it mean to be free and how people are understanding it, is we have to look outside the South. We can't just focus as the master narrative would have us do, solely on Dixie. I asked Adam specifically about that, Nishani. And I would love to get your feedback on what he had to say about the importance of looking outside the South and how he approaches that in the classroom.

Adam Sanchez: My students, both in Philadelphia and New York City, don't understand that these cities were crucial sites of the civil rights movement because, of course, part of the narrative that they've been sold is that it is exclusively a Southern movement against racist Southern laws. To try and complicate that narrative, I just ask students: Where do you think the largest civil rights demonstration of the 1960s took place? They'll shout out Selma, Birmingham, maybe Washington, DC. But of course, the answer is actually New York City. In 1964, nearly half a million students boycotted segregated schools in New York City. And it's always amazing, especially when I taught in New York City, my students never had heard of this. Never knew that New York City was not only a crucial site of the civil rights movement, that actually the largest civil rights demonstration in the 1960s took place in the city that you are living in and was organized very much so by students that you've never heard of.

Adam Sanchez: And then we read together an old editorial from The New York Times that's titled "A Boycott Solves Nothing." I'll read a section of it. It says, "Civil rights leaders, who seem to be hell-bent on staging a Negro and Puerto Rican student boycott of New York City schools on Monday, have set out on a reckless course. They could hardly wait for the new Board of Education plan for better integration and better education before turning loose their mimeograph machines to denounce it. What do they hope to prove with a boycott?" And it goes on to call it “Utterly unreasonable and unjustified.” And so we read this together. We look at the extreme language, some of the extreme words that it uses. And I ask students, "Do you buy it?" Then we explore what were the actual causes of the New York City boycott, and I give each student a clue that has a little snippet or a story, either from a secondary or primary source or a photograph from a protest. And we go around and share these clues with each other. And students learn about the conditions inside the segregated schools in New York, the conditions outside of the schools that have increased segregation, things like redlining.

Adam Sanchez: When I taught in New York City, this was a profound lesson for a lot of my students. One of my students, Morgan, said, "Before I knew that people in New York City were a part of the civil rights movement, I couldn't see myself in the movement. It felt like everything happened in the South, and the West and the North were just sitting back and watching everything." And so students begin to realize that just like they've experienced in their day-to-day life, racism is not a Southern thing. And in fact, they are still living with the failure to desegregate New York City schools. Similarly in Philadelphia, Philadelphia is one of the hotbeds of the civil rights movement, and students are not able to see themselves in the movement until they learn that.

Adam Sanchez: That's one way I talk about the North. The other lesson I use is a role play on the March on Washington, where students are split up into small groups and they take on the perspective of activists in various localities from both the South and the North that are coming to the March on Washington after having participated in local anti-racist fights in their locales, and then they meet each other. When you look at the local struggles, the local fights that brought people to the March on Washington, you get a much deeper picture of the civil rights movement, and a much more accurate picture of the civil rights movement. Of one that was not just fighting against laws in the South, but was much broader. That had an economic justice agenda, that fought against segregation, housing justice nationally and was dealing with white backlash and police brutality on a national level.

Nishani Frazier: Mm-hmm. I'm just gonna be the amen corner. Just say "Amen. Preach."

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And you, of course, have done wonderful work and not just on CORE, but CORE in Cleveland and activism outside the South. Could you say just a word or two on the importance of looking at movement activism during this era outside of Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia and the South?

Nishani Frazier: This whole notion of the South as the bad guy, you see it depicted in television. One of the things that civil rights activists truly, truly hate, is Mississippi Burning.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.

Nishani Frazier: And one of the things that I always find fascinating―I use that in my class, not the whole film, but the images of Southerners as they talk about the freedom activists. And the image of Gene Hackman. Gene Hackman comes in. He's in a sort of crumpled suit, but he's somehow a little bit different from the other Southerners. Willem Dafoe comes and he's a FBI agent, kind of slick look. But when you see white Mississippians talk about the activists, if you ever notice this, they're always behind some sort of farm or agricultural image, right? There's one image of pigs in the background, teeth missing, right? So the visual depiction is to make as much as possible the South look like an aberration through those sort of physical representations. And this is, of course, part of the problem of the master narrative. Segregation is a Southern problem, but as I like to say, Malcolm X says the South is everything below the Canadian border. What that means is this idea that racism is a Southern problem is entirely false. And Malcolm X talks about New York being one of those central locations, particularly around this school fight, where the rabidness of racism really came out with regard to this whole question of desegregation. It became really clear.

Nishani Frazier: You see that obviously in Boston when they began busing. But to give you an understanding of the ways in which violence could appear when you challenged segregation, the first person who is killed in the North―most people don't know this―outside the South is Bruce Klunder, who is a Cleveland CORE activist. He's challenging school desegregation. Activists gathered to challenge the building of a new segregation school. They get in front of the bulldozer. Bruce Klunder moves to get in the back of the bulldozer, and they both lie in front and in the back. And the bulldozer's name is John White. The driver’s told that there's someone in front of you and behind you. But he―you know, there's a debate whether he heard or didn't hear, but effectively, what happens is that he drives the bulldozer backwards and he crushes Bruce Klunder into the ground. And a nurse talks about how when she went to grab Bruce Klunder's body, right, sort of like a bag of sand. He's so crushed. When I tell students about Bruce Klunder, it's shocking, not just because of the violent nature in which he died, but in the location. It's not supposed to be in a place like Cleveland, Ohio, that you have that kind of violent death that takes place as a result of protest.

Nishani Frazier: And my mother, who was a part of Cleveland CORE, her main activism was only in the North. She was in Cleveland, Ohio, Baltimore. The Klan marched in Baltimore, although a lot of people would say, "Well, you know, that's still the South." Right? Baltimore, Maryland is kind of South. But the Klan was quite active in Baltimore, Maryland. And for a long time, Black community members would not come out when the Klan marched. And this is how bold they were: They would march right through the neighborhood until CORE got there and started yelling and screaming, and all of a sudden the Black community kind of got ginned up and the Klan never came back afterwards. But it says a lot about the nature of these Northern urban spaces, that people think that these things are untouched. My mother talks about the worst protest she ever participated in was in Chicago. This is after the violent attack against Dr. King. He's hit with a brick in Cicero.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And this is 1966.

Nishani Frazier: Yes, in 1966. And there's this heated debate about whether he's going to go back. He doesn't. CORE insists on doing the second protest. And my mother said she was never so afraid as when she was in that protest in Chicago. And there was this white woman who was standing on the sidelines. And every time she could hock, right, up spit, and I mean, like it was one of those big old balls of spit, right? She's just, you know, getting it up in her mouth. She would spit on people. And so my mother is walking in this protest, and she's seeing this woman do this to as many people as possible from a distance. And she's on the outskirts. And my mother, there was a fear that she had being in that space, but when that woman started spitting, she said whatever sense of fear that she had just went away and she had just decided she was gonna lock eyes with that woman and if she tried to spit on her, that was the day nonviolence was going to end for her. Because she was not―she was not going to let her―and she would talk about how that woman would spit and the spit would just roll down people's faces. Well it's like, "I'm not having that." And I'm telling you, I thought it was so funny. She's like, "I believe in nonviolence right up until you spit on me and then that's when it's over." So she's walking past this woman and there she is, you know, she's getting ready to hock another one. And she's looking at my mother like she's gonna be the one. And my mother says she locked eyes with that woman and she just gave her such a look that the woman swallowed all of that spit, just swallowed it all the way down.

Nishani Frazier: But my mother remembered the virulence, the viciousness of Chicago. And, of course, Dr. King also talked about Chicago, right, being as bad as Selma or worse. A lot of ways it was easy to make the South the problem, right? So they can say we don't have racism. So, no, you don't have to live in my neighborhood. We don't have racism. So, you know, your child doesn't have to go to my school. And that becomes a shield that these Northern and Western spaces would use as a way to claim that we don't have to give equity and desegregate because, of course, that's that backwater problem with those Southerners, with their teeth missing and overalls, you know, with pigs in the background. We don't have that problem here.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We'll continue to unravel the master narrative with Nishani and Adam in our next episode. Dr. 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 is 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 Tolerance.org.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Frazier and Mr. Sanchez for sharing their insights with us. This podcast is produced by the Rocket City Trash Panda. Russell Gragg is our Associate Producer with additional support from Barrett Golding. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Miranda LaFond and Amelia Gragg are our interns. 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 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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