The Jim Crow North
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Episode 6, Season 3

The civil rights movement was never strictly a Southern phenomenon. To better understand the Jim Crow North, we explore discrimination and Black protest in places like Milwaukee, Omaha, Cleveland and New York. To examine the Black Freedom Movement beyond the South, we examine the Black-led fights to gain access to decent housing, secure quality education and end police brutality in these cities.


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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: I had some excellent social studies teachers in high school. That’s Midwood High School—in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York—where I gained a good grasp of American government from Mr. Wilner. And Mrs. Altman made sure I learned the basics of American history. But neither taught me much about the Civil Rights Movement, and nobody taught me anything about the Black freedom struggle outside the South.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It really is a shame I didn’t learn more about the black freedom struggle, especially in northern cities like New York. My hometown has such a rich history of African-American activism, from the nonviolent direct-action protests of CORE in Brooklyn and Queens, to the Black nationalist proselytizing of Minister Malcolm in Harlem.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now intuitively, I knew these were more than just riots; violence for the sake of violence just made no sense to me. But I had no factual basis to support my hypothesis. It was frustrating knowing there was more to know about uprisings. And I suspect, students feel the same way today when they see people taking to the streets in Ferguson, Minneapolis, and Louisville.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The civil rights movement was never strictly a Southern phenomenon. Wherever Black folk resided, Black protest surfaced, which is why it’s important not to overlook movement activism outside the South. But what should we look for when examining the movement above the Mason-Dixon Line, and where should we look? Well, let’s find out.

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 U.S. 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, historian Patrick Jones unpacks the Jim Crow North, showing us how it was similar to and different from the Jim Crow South. Then he examines movement activism in cities such as Milwaukee, Omaha and New York. He explores Black-led efforts to gain access to decent housing, to secure quality education, and to end police brutality. This helps us understand why it’s so important to learn about the Black freedom struggle beyond Dixie.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’ll see you on the other side. Enjoy.

Patrick Jones: Up until recently, the story of the North when it did make it into the popular narrative of the Civil Rights era, it kind of comes in at the end of the story. It's a story about the late '60s and the emergence of Black power, and it's told as a, what scholars call declensionist model, a decline. So essentially, the narrative is, you know, the movement starts with Brown, and then the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And it kind of gathers steam in the early 1960s with sit-ins and freedom rides and Birmingham and Selma. And then we get these historic legislative achievements with the Civil Rights Act in '64 and the Voting Rights Act in '65. And then the movement kind of loses its way.

Patrick Jones: The initial early interracial and integrationist spirit of the movement declines with Black power, and African Americans increasingly embrace separation and segregation, right? They decreasingly embrace nonviolence and increasingly are willing to turn to armed self-defense, to civil disturbance, or urban rebellion, and even maybe in some cases revolutionary violence to achieve their ends. And this is kind of the cause of this great white reaction that staunches the movement and leads to a new conservatism that would dominate over the next several decades.

Patrick Jones: So we have this problematic vision of the North; this inability to really see it. And when we did see it, to see it in some problematic ways. So my work, and the work of a growing number of scholars, has really been focused on the Northern movement and struggles for racial justice outside of the Deep South to literally expand the terrain of the civil rights era to what I call beyond Dixie. These are critically important stories, I think, for teachers to teach and students to learn, because they tell us important things about the world that we're living in. They help us understand the roots of the ongoing urban crisis. They help us make sense of both the resurgence of white nationalism as well as the resurgence of mass-based national activism and Black Lives Matter. They help us think about the terrain out of which these things are happening, and then hopefully in more complicated ways about what kinds of solutions we might need to address those issues and to move forward in new ways, and to live up to the ideals that we have always claimed but never quite achieved.

Patrick Jones: So it's a critically important job to, I think, avoid reinforcing the problematic trope that the civil rights movement was primarily, let alone solely a Southern phenomenon. This is a key duty that teachers have, particularly in the moment that we're living through right now. So the question then is what does the struggle for racial justice look like beyond Dixie? And the first thing that we need to understand and that students need to understand, and there's all kinds of great ways that teachers can help them understand this, is that race grows up out of, and it takes place within a unique context in the urban North. So before students can understand activism, struggles for racial justice in this context, they need to understand the context and understand that the context is not the same as the Deep South and Jim Crow South. That there is a different version of racial inequality, and systems and structures of racial disempowerment. And so central to this Northern story is the Great Migration, the movement of thousands, ultimately millions of African Americans from the rural South to the urban, and from the South to the North and Midwest and ultimately West during the World War One era, and then again during the World War Two era and post-war era.

Patrick Jones: So we get this influx of African Americans from the early part of the 20th century through the mid part of the 20th century, and it's absolutely transformative to those cities. And African Americans move to those cities hopeful to find new possibilities, a new promised land, as some put it. And those cities were different from the South. The Northern landscape is urban in a way that the Southern landscape is not. The economy, rather than being primarily an agrarian one, is this huge, sprawling industrial economy with all kinds of both skilled and unskilled jobs and labor needs. Labor unions, organizations that have a very small and weak presence in the South have a strong presence in the urban North. And in fact, in many industrial factories, the only way you can get a job is to be a part of the union. When they need someone to do plumbing or welding, they don't just put an ad out publicly, they contact the union that they have a contract with and they say, “We need five welders,” and the union sends over five welders. So the strength of labor unions and access to labor unions is really key.

Patrick Jones: The North has the presence of all these white, ethnic working-class immigrants, a stew of different people that had come from southern and central Europe looking for economic opportunity in these Northern factories. And with that, came the centrality of space. In the urban North, we have the strong coordination of ethnicity, religion and physical space. So you will get, as you look at these cities, a strong Irish or Italian or German neighborhood. Often at the center of these neighborhoods stands a Catholic Church, another dominant institution and unique feature of the urban North through which race relations as well as all other issues often and usually play. And so physical space, the control of terrain in these cities for different groups is really important, and the strength of the Catholic Church. Black people can vote, which is unique in the North. And so Black people will have rising numbers in this region, and they will have a rising political power, even if it is limited and circumscribed ultimately in some ways.

Patrick Jones: So there's hopefulness initially among many African Americans that by leaving behind the Jim Crow South, they might be finding new opportunities and a new possibility in the urban North in this strange landscape that I just described. But instead of the promised land that they'd hoped for, African Americans find just a different system of really the same old thing in what we might call Jim Crow North. And so industrial factories and labor unions are largely closed off to African Americans. And when they can get a foot in the door and work at one of those factories, it's most often in the most risky and low-paying and dangerous jobs. When they do the same work as whites within that factory system, they are often paid less. When discriminatory white unions, who don't allow—most unions don't allow African Americans to join, and so it's a key access point to jobs that's closed off to them. But when those unions try to use their labor power and go on strike, many Black workers are brought in as strikebreakers by business owners, undermining working-class inter-racial solidarity.

Patrick Jones: Black-owned businesses, while there will be a small circle of them in most of the segregated Black communities in the urban North that cater to the black communities within those boundaries, Black-owned businesses are difficult to start and maintain due to discriminatory practices in real estate, in financing and insurance, as well as a segregated consumer market where they are largely limited to Black consumers. And so all these things and others leads to high rates of unemployment and poverty in the urban North for African Americans, and an inability to build intergenerational wealth and pass it along, as many whites who had come as a part of that white immigrant working class were increasingly able to do.

Patrick Jones: In housing, African Americans are increasingly ghettoized. That is, they're limited to a small geographic region of a city for housing. Redlining, blockbusting, steering and again, discriminatory real estate, financing and insurance practices, as well as a pervasive unwillingness of white people to accept Black and brown neighbors all play key roles in the creation of Northern segregation. Ultimately, this creates segregation, ghettoization, the separation of African Americans and the kind of maintenance of African Americans in small areas. And in most segregated urban neighborhoods, whites own the vast majority of homes and apartments. So in Milwaukee, for example, in the 1960s, a mere three percent of African Americans owned their own homes in the segregated northwest, what they call there the inner core. 97 percent of all African Americans rented from white property owners who increasingly were dividing up what had been single family homes, making them apartments, jamming as many people into them as possible, charging elevated rates to live there, failing to upkeep the property. And the broader white power structure not enforcing the regulations that they had on property owners when it came to upkeep of property.

Patrick Jones: The most segregated place in the United States wasn't Birmingham, it's not Atlanta, it's not Selma in the 1960s, it's Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee, in fact, had the highest concentration of African Americans living in the central city anywhere else in the United States. That includes everywhere in the South. So—and note, you know, we had throughout the Black Lives Matter movement, you know, a series of conflicts and flashpoints in Milwaukee today as well. And here are the roots of that. And so over time, as we move from the '20s and '30s into the '40s, '50s and '60s, the conditions in these ghettoized neighborhoods, in these segregated Black and brown neighborhoods in the urban North, they begin a sharp decline into what we might call slum-ification, right? So the quality of the conditions that they initially moved into decline sharply, right? And within these deteriorating racialized spaces, infrastructure is in decline, right? Schools are unequal. Political and civic representation to do something about it is limited. Access to capital is difficult to come by to renew or rebuild or build for the first time, right? Remaining white residents who had lived in those communities increasingly move to the suburbs in what we call white flight, and as they do that they're taking their businesses, they're taking their tax dollars with them, right? They're disinvesting in central cities, the places where Black and brown people are increasingly trapped. And they are moving to new suburban communities, suburban communities that are fortified and subsidized by the very same policies—redlining in particular—that have limited and constricted and devalued Black neighborhoods and Black property values.

Patrick Jones: Increasingly, as whites leave central cities and they move to outer rings of the suburbs, public policy flows away from urban needs and towards suburban white aspirations, as the suburban ideal in the post-war period becomes the new American dream. An American dream that the vast majority of Black and brown people literally do not have access to, right? And so the redlining—in terms of redlining, a stat that is always mind-blowing to students and the general public is to note that of the billions of dollars in public tax dollars that subsidized federal loans for home ownership in the—from the Depression era through the 1960s, about two percent—really less than two percent of all of those dollars, dollars that created the mid-century middle class through home ownership, less than two percent of those public dollars in subsidized home loans went to non-whites. 98-point-some-odd percent went to white people. So we literally manufactured lily-white affluent suburbs and property values that would increase in value over time. And we created with those same policies an inverse, a converse in the city, where people of color were trapped in increasingly declining circumstances, and where property values were plummeting as well. So when it came to the accumulation of wealth, that thing that you get to pass on to the next generation, whites were being subsidized through public policy in the creation of wealth, and Black people and brown people in cities were being disinvested in, wealth was being pushed out of those communities as well. And this has a generational impact over time as well.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement—recipient of the American Historical Association’s 2020 James Harvey Robinson Prize. 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 the year, they are offering a 30 percent discount to listeners who order this collection. You’ll find a link to purchase the book at Just use the promotional code: CIVILRIGHTS—all one word. Now let’s continue our conversation with Patrick Jones.

Patrick Jones: As conditions declined and people became more desperate in increasingly impoverished and struggling urban communities of color, crime, drinking, drug use, property damage and violence all increase and become significant issues, or at least perceived issues as well. Police, who were made up almost exclusively of white working-class men who came to the job with racial stereotypes until the civil rights era and all kinds of racial bias in their minds, were tasked with patrolling the color line, a situation that then was increasingly tense and ultimately explosive. And again, here's a great place teachers can look in the newspapers from their cities and you can find littered throughout the '30s, '40s, '50s and ‘60s and beyond, small articles about racial conflict, incidents that have happened between police and local Black people. It's sometimes it's at bar time when people are coming out at the end of the night. You know, sometimes it's pulling over a motorist at the end of the month when police officers are trying to reach a quota for tickets to give. There's often a—you know, an initial spark that leads to conflict in the community.

Patrick Jones: And police-community relations, police brutality, is something that unifies the Black community because, whether you're a more affluent African American or a working class or poor African American, your class status usually does not protect you from having some sort of problematic experience with the police. So while class or migratory status, old migrant versus new migrant—these are all divisions in the Black community which isn't monolithic, but most people either had an experience that was negative with the police or knew someone who had an experience that was negative with police. So police-community relations, police brutality and the question of whether Black lives really matter is a long-standing one as well.

Patrick Jones: And so as a result of these unique contexts in the North, the activism then plays out differently because of the different racial reality in the urban North. So I want to talk a little bit about some of those issues, the different kinds of civil rights activism that we see in the North. From the Great Migration period in the teens and '20s all the way through today, economic equality and racial justice have been deeply intertwined. So for instance, we can go and look at the 1930s as capitalism is struggling and has seemed to have failed with the Great Depression, there is a series of examples we can find of interracial labor activism and interracial political radicalism, with the Socialist Party and the Communist party and various local labor unions during that period.

Patrick Jones: Also during the Depression era and the World War II era and the early post-world War II era, there is a broad campaign in a number of Northern cities called the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaign. In Black communities, there are all these businesses, but those businesses like the property, like the homes that people are living in are owned by white people. And they do business with Black people, they take Black people's money at the corner store for instance, but then they leave at the end of the day and they go back to their own community. They put that money that they've made in the Black community in a bank that's in their white community. That bank doesn't loan back into the Black community, it gives it to other white people to start another business or buy a home or send their kids to college or buy a new car or what have you, right?

Patrick Jones: So it's extracting resources from the Black community. And meanwhile, these businesses are not hiring African Americans, either at all because of racism, or only in very low numbers and in the lowest kinds of jobs, the most manual and menial and lowest-paying kinds of jobs. And so their idea is that hey, if they're not going to hire Black people to work here, if they're not going to reinvest that money back into the community, then don't shop there, right? And so people would picket outside of stores, and they would try to compel them to hire Black workers with the idea being that you should hire the same percentage of Black workers as the percentage of business that you do with the Black community. So if a store in a Black community in New York or Chicago or Omaha or Cleveland or Detroit or Baltimore does 60 percent of their business with local Black residents, then 60 percent of their workforce should be African American. So using boycotts, using picketing, you know, protest politics to try to embarrass and compel businesses to hire more African Americans.

Patrick Jones: And they often have success, but the rate of success is slow. You know, it's a few more workers at this shop or store. It's a few over here, right? This is not able to achieve broad and fast success in this regard, either. We can see in terms of economics something like the Omaha bus protest in the late 1950s before—or the early 1950s and mid-1950s before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In Omaha, there was a bus company and train company, because they had a train system at that time as well, and they refused to hire African-American men as bus drivers or trolley drivers. And at that time, that was a really good job. It was a good working-class job, and many of the men who would not—we're not able to be hired as bus drivers and train drivers had been in the military in World War Two or in the Korean War, and had driven jeeps and other vehicles there. And so a protest emerges in Omaha in the early- and mid-1950s to protest and boycott the bus system as an effort not to deal with segregated seating, as the Montgomery Bus Boycott is famous for, but rather to try to compel the company to hire African-American bus drivers. And they—you know, there are—and you can find these documents online, fliers and leaflets and photographs. One of them is a great photograph that has a man holding a sign, an African-American man, that indicates that hey, I was good enough to drive a jeep or a truck in Korea, but I'm not good enough to drive a bus here, or a delivery truck for the ice cream—the popular ice cream place here, etc. So playing on that issue about citizenship, service to the military and the rights and obligations that the society has back to veterans afterward, right?

Patrick Jones: So we can find lots of really interesting campaigns and struggles across the urban North around economic equality throughout the modern civil rights era. Another key issue is education. And education, one of the questions after Brown is, does the Brown decision apply to segregated schools in the urban North where we don't have explicit laws that are mandating segregation? But because of housing patterns, because of the way school districts draw district lines, school boards draw district lines, because of the way they allocate resources or place teachers, or build new infrastructure and place new infrastructure, the result is a segregated and unequal education system along lines of race and class again. And so throughout this period from Brown onward, there's a discussion among Black lawyers and—in the NAACP and within Black newspapers about how or does Brown apply to the urban North? And ultimately, they decide it does, and they begin to press. And they press through a combination of legal work, political work and an increasingly militant activism.

Patrick Jones: And there are a number of interesting cases around this. One notable one in New York City that comes to be called the Case of the Harlem Nine. And that first took place in 1956. So remember again, this is just after Brown. Mae Mallory, a mother, African-American mother there, was the founder and spokesperson of this group of African-American mothers who ultimately come to be called the Harlem Nine by the media, playing off of the Little Rock Nine that was going on around the same time. But they got together as Black mothers and protested the inferior and inadequate conditions in the schools that their children were required to attend in New York City. They could see that there were other schools that white kids went to that were better. Their schools were often overcrowded too, and there was space oftentimes in white schools. They were inspired by a report by Ken and Mamie Clark on the way inexperienced teachers and overcrowding in classrooms and dilapidated conditions and gerrymandering in the education system were all used to promote segregation in New York to a host of negative effects on Black schoolkids.

Patrick Jones: And so the mothers' group was inspired by their experience and by this report by the Clarks, who had been so important in the Brown decision, and they sought to be able to transfer their children to integrated schools that offered higher-quality resources. And so the Harlem Nine becomes known nationally. Their activism included lawsuits against the city and the state that were filed with the help of the NAACP. In 1958, it still was not resolved, so it escalated to public protests including a 162-day school boycott that involved more than 10,000 parents and their children. The boycott campaign didn't win formal support from the NAACP, interestingly, in terms of the politics within the Black community, but was assisted by other civil rights leaders such as Ella Baker, Adam Clayton Powell. It was endorsed broadly by African-American newspapers across the country, including the New York Amsterdam News. And so there's some interesting possibilities to help students think about the complexity within Black communities when it comes to activism and strategy and tactics. Again, the Black community is not monolithic and we can see that here.

Patrick Jones: And while the children were engaged in another boycott, in 1960, the campaign's still going on, the campaign established some of the first freedom schools of the civil rights movement to educate them. So as kids were boycotting and pulled out of school to protest segregation, alternative schools in community spaces with community members teaching were set up. And of course, freedom schools become much more notable and famous because of the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, but in fact, we have freedom schools happening in the urban North around issues of education before that. New York City ultimately retaliated against the mothers, trying and then ultimately failing to prosecute them for negligence, for essentially child neglect, taking their kids out of school. That was unsuccessful, but it gives you a sense of the ways that power was pushing back against these mothers who just wanted the best educational possibilities for their kids. And ultimately in 1960, May Mallory and that Harlem Nine won their lawsuit, and the Board of Education allowed them and over a thousand other parents to transfer their children to integrated schools in New York. And that same year, the Board of Education announced a general policy of open enrollment, which would then allow thousands more Black and brown children to transfer to integrated schools over the next five years in New York.

Patrick Jones: Now this is a success story, but it's also limited in an important way, which is that overall integration in the city and in the school system would be thwarted despite these new and hard-fought mechanisms to integrate, because white people would do what they're doing across the country, which is leave. They would continue to engage in white flight. And so as Black people would get access to a school that had previously been white and/or in a neighborhood that had previously been white, the biggest response from everyday white people was to pack up and leave, and to move to a further outlying area where they could maintain their racial dominance there.

Patrick Jones: And so there's education activism happening all throughout the urban North throughout the 1960s. And again, there are great images and pictures and documents available about the Harlem Nine and others. In Milwaukee, civil rights activists begin by going to school board meetings, and then they begin to picket and protest. And then they escalate and they begin to do things like form what they call human chains: people interlocking their hands to block the heavy machinery that will be used to build new schools that will maintain and expand segregation.

Patrick Jones: A similar kind of protest in Cleveland, Ohio, where an interracial group of civil rights activists was blocking machinery that was being used to build a new building, resulted in the death of a young clergyman. Father Bruce Klunder was killed when the driver of one of those machines backed up over him as he was blocking the machine. And so like the South, you know, there are martyrs to the movement in the urban North, and Bruce Klunder is an interesting example of that.

Patrick Jones: In the mid-1960s, from about 1963 to 1965, there's a large-scale wave of school boycotts in the urban North, in cities across the North. Not just New York and Chicago and others, Cleveland, Milwaukee, but these boycotts—I mean, tens, hundreds of thousands of young people and their families participate then. This is a massive wave of national protest in the school boycott movement of the mid-1960s. Later on, as we move into Black power, there would be fights over curriculum and representation in the content of the education being taught in schools. And we'd see the federally-enforced policy of busing to achieve racial balance in many Northern public school districts often provoke severe backlash from local white people. The most famous example of that takes place in Boston where white parents and community members literally attacked buses transporting Black children to new integrated schools. So education has always been, and throughout the Civil Rights era, and today continues to be a critical site for the struggle for racial justice in the urban North.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Tolerance has a new classroom film. The Forgotten Slavery of Our Ancestors is a critical contribution to the unfolding conversation about what our children need to learn about American history. The 12-minute video for middle and high school students introduces young people to the history of Indigenous enslavement on land that is now the United States.

Margaret Newell: African slaves were not a big part of the slave society of New England until the 18th century.

Paula Peters: If you don’t know the whole story, you’re going to walk away with a fairy tale.

Sven Haakanson: But we need to know this so we can move forward too, both as indigenous communities but as a nation.

Andrés Reséndez: At least 2.5 to 5 million from the time of Columbus until 1900. This is our shared history.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You can watch this film—and find the accompanying teaching resources—at—all one word. Now let’s continue our conversation with Dr. Jones.

Patrick Jones: Perhaps the most explosive issue in the urban North during the civil rights era beyond police brutality was the issue of housing. In the mid-1960s, the federal government, President Johnson, wanted to get a fair housing law passed. And aimed at that in what would have been the 1966 Civil Rights Act, but he failed to do that. And his supporters failed to do that. So it kicks the issue of discrimination in housing back to the states from the federal government. So if they had passed a federal law at that point, it may have helped, you know, diminish discrimination and avoid some of the significant conflict that comes during activism over fair housing or open housing during the mid- and late-1960s. But instead it gets kicked back to the states, and each state is kind of doing its own thing on it. In a place central to this story is Milwaukee, ultimately. And there it's a kind of common story. The state legislature takes up the issue after the federal government fails on it. And they do pass a law, but it's super weak and essentially exempts all of the housing units that are in the inner core of Milwaukee where most African Americans live. And so thereby as a result, it does not change or diminish in any way the discrimination that African Americans faced regularly over housing in the city. And this is not just, you know, working class and poorer people here. I mean, you have to keep in mind somebody like Henry Aaron, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, is living in Milwaukee at this time. He's famous. He's—and he has trouble finding a place to live in Milwaukee because of the pervasiveness of discrimination there.

Patrick Jones: And that is typical in city after city across the country. So the state passes a law, but it doesn't really do much of anything. It's symbolic more than anything. And so now it's up to the local politics, the city council. And in the city council of Milwaukee, there's one African American, Vel Phillips. And she got elected as the first woman and first African American to the Common Council, what they call the city council in Milwaukee in the late-1950s. And from the early-1960s through the late-'60s, she consistently filed a fair housing bill, an ordinance for the city that would have outlawed racial discrimination in the sale of rental of property. And every time she put that up, she was outvoted 18 to 1 with all of her white colleagues opposing it regardless of party, regardless of claimed ideology. So this is a central issue, and it's becoming increasingly frustrating in city after city, as conditions in central city neighborhoods that are Black and brown are deteriorating as slum-ification is set in, as rat infestation, as ill-health consequences of housing dilapidation are all increasingly taking their toll on communities.

Patrick Jones: And so in Milwaukee, there's also protest politics happening. And the main group there is a white Catholic priest named Father James Groppi, who's working with the NAACP Youth Council and a group that they've formed called the Commandos. They've been working on a number of issues in the years leading up to 1967: school desegregation, the presence of white judges and other significant local business leaders and political leaders in a fraternal club called the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which has a national whites-only membership clause. They do some protesting around that. And while they're protesting on that issue, they march out to the suburbs at one point to protest in front of a white judge's house who is a member in this racist organization. And they think they'll be able to ply him with public pressure, embarrass him, and he'll cave and quit, and that will make others quit. But it doesn't, and instead several thousand angry white people come out to the streets to protest these few dozen peaceful civil rights protesters in the suburbs. And the KKK in full robes and regalia shows up. The National Guard has to be called out to maintain order of angry white people towards the nonviolent protesters there.

Patrick Jones: And so as a result, the youth council and Father Groppi form an organization called the Commandos. And they dress in what we would recognize now as kind of Black power outfits: fatigues, sometimes. They wear sweatshirts that say “Commandos,” they wear shades. But they don't hold weapons or anything. They practice what they call “not-violence.” And so they march along the outside of demonstrators in a city like Milwaukee, where there's so much anti-civil rights activism from local white people, and where police are often hostile and violent against civil rights protesters. They walk along the outside of demonstrations and they provide a protective buffer. And they're very clear about the fact that we don't start anything, but if white crowd members, counter-demonstrators or the police attack nonviolent civil rights demonstrators, many of whom are young kids in the youth council or clergy or nuns, etc. then they will fight back. And in many instances they do. They fight back with their arms, and they defend the civil rights activists there. So we have this kind of peculiar activist group and movement emerging in Milwaukee. It's nonviolent, but they practice "not-violence." It's not armed self-defense with guns like the Black Panthers, and it's not revolutionary violence, but they're willing to fight back, right? We have the presence of a white Catholic priest, who is a central figure and spokesperson and advisor for a group of young, increasingly militant and ultimately Black power-oriented African-American activists, right? And so this goes against the grain of a lot of the things that we think we know about the civil rights movement, right? The simple dichotomies of the mythic Southern story of the movement.

Patrick Jones: So Father Groppi and the youth council get together with Vel Phillips, and they decide to begin to march around the issue of open housing. A Vietnam veteran has come back from his duty in Vietnam. He's African American, he's married. He and his wife want to buy a home and start a family. And when they go out into the community, they keep facing racist discrimination from white homeowners and renters. So he comes to Father Groppi and the youth council and says, "We need your help." They go to Vel Phillips and say, "Hey, we know you've been trying to pass this ordinance. It hasn't worked. You know, what if we help you by engaging in some demonstrations." And so they do, and in August of 1967, they begin to march and demonstrate. And they march into the white working-class south side of town over the 16th Street Viaduct, a bridge that links—as the joke at the time went, Africa—the north side of the bridge is where African Americans live—to Poland, the white, working-class south side where they were marching to. Many people called the Menomonee River Valley that that 16th Street Viaduct spanned, the city's Mason-Dixon line.

Patrick Jones: And so they marched into that side of town knowing that they were going to get reaction and purposely doing that. Father Groppi had gone down to Selma. He had learned from Dr. King and other movement leaders in the South that nonviolence was predicated on causing a creative tension, flushing out white racism into the public where the media could see it and publicize it and promote it, and then others would see it in the media, and that that would make pressure for change. So they march to the south side. It's about 200 activists, nonviolent and peaceful activists that are marching to the south side. And on the first couple of nights, 10,000, 13,000 angry white people pour into the streets and attack them. They throw rocks and bricks and human feces and urine and cherry bombs at them. They hold white power signs. They attack and beat them with their arms and fists. The police have a hard time maintaining order there. Some police defend the civil rights activists, others participate in brutalizing the activists. And they are forced to make a hasty retreat back over the 16th Street Viaduct to the freedom house that they've established back in the north side of Milwaukee.

Patrick Jones: And the images that people see of those Milwaukee activists being beaten on the south side of the 16th Street Viaduct, seem a lot like the images that people saw on the edge of the—at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma just a couple of years earlier. And so media folks begin to refer to Milwaukee as the “Selma of the North.” Father Groppi and the Youth Council and Commandos, like Dr. King in Selma, they put out an ecumenical call for people across the country to come and to participate in the open housing campaign there. And they do. And people march, local people and their allies from across the city and the state and across the country, march for more than 200 consecutive nights. And later in the year, in the Senate, when a fair housing bill is introduced by people like Walter Mondale and others, they use Milwaukee as the example and say, “Look what's happening in Milwaukee, and this is just over people wanting to be able to get a place to live and not be discriminated against. If we don't do something on fair housing, we're going to have more of this racial crisis happening and violence in our streets.” And so Milwaukee is lifted up by those in Congress, like Birmingham had been during the Civil Rights Act debate, like Selma had been during the Voting Rights Act debate, as an example of the need to act. And it plays a part in catalyzing Congress to pass what ultimately will become the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

Patrick Jones: And so we have lots of campaigns like that one in Milwaukee with tremendous, massive resistance. Like, mind-boggling numbers of massive resistance. 10,000 to 13,000. I mean, that's at least equal, if not more than the places that have made it into our national narrative in the South: Birmingham, Selma, etc. The Freedom Rides, etc.

Patrick Jones: And so we haven't been telling those stories. So why aren't we telling these kinds of stories? So housing is this very explosive issue. There are open housing campaigns across the country during this time period. For many people, they saw in the Milwaukee campaign what Vel Phillips said to the national media was the last chance for an interracial, church-based and nonviolent movement. The movement in Milwaukee used the rhetoric and many of the symbols of Black power, but it was interracial. It was based out of St. Boniface Church, the Catholic Church where Father Groppi was a priest. And they attempted to maintain a militant style of nonviolence, along with that “not-violence” of the Commandos. And so at a moment of time in 1967 and 1968, where Black power was on the upsurge and there was real debate about how do we make change now? We've been doing this for so long and it's not happening. We've had a wave of urban rebellions in dozens of American cities. Is nonviolence a workable solution in the urban North? Or will it take something more than that? And many of those adherents of interracialism and nonviolence, including Dr. King who had the previous year in 1966 failed in such a campaign to demonstrate that nonviolence could work in the urban North when he was in Chicago, he and others see Milwaukee as this important example. And Martin Luther King, while he doesn't come to Milwaukee and participate, in the midst of these demonstrations, he writes a telegram to Father Groppi and the youth council that says, “You've done it. You have found a middle ground between riots and sentimental supplications for justice.” And he goes on to write, “What you and your courageous associates are doing in Milwaukee will certainly serve as an example of the kind of massive nonviolence that we need in this turbulent period. You are demonstrating that it is possible to be militant and powerful without destroying life or property. Please know that you have my support and prayers.”

Patrick Jones: So Milwaukee, their open housing campaign raised all these interesting questions. Like, what's up with this white Catholic priest in what's a Black—essentially a Black power movement? What's up with the Commandos and “not-violence?” You know, how does this fit into this changing terrain of racial struggle in the urban North, but in the U.S. more broadly, as Black power is rising and there are debates over tactics and strategies and how to gain real liberation. Milwaukee is a great and easy thing for people to teach as well, because the urban archive out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has digitized several thousand papers related to the Milwaukee open-housing campaign in a project called March on Milwaukee. And so there's lots of great material, from photographs and fliers, to letters written by angry white people, organizational records, etc. that are available for teachers to work with, and to help students explore the complexity of a Northern open-housing campaign like the one in Milwaukee.

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 brings us three artists who reflect important themes from the Black freedom struggle as it unfolded outside of the Southern United States. Here’s Charles.

Charles Hughes: Stevie Wonder’s 1973 song “Living for the City” is a rich historical text. The Motown genius tells the story of the Great Migration, the Southern roots of the civil rights movement, and the deep discrimination in Northern cities that led the movement into every corner of the United States.

Charles Hughes: Wonder starts with a man born in, quote, “hard-time Mississippi,” who witnesses the injustice of poverty, racial oppression and sexual exploitation on his family both before and after he escapes to New York City. He hopes for a freer and better life up north, but he's faced with unemployment, housing discrimination and police hostility.

Charles Hughes: Wonder’s protagonist—like other Black folks—is, quote, “Living just enough for the city,” the same impulse that provoked vibrant Northern (and Western) campaigns throughout the movement era and beyond. As the movement expanded beyond Dixie, movement music also spread across the country. Like activists, strategies and campaigns, the music connected the struggle, linking Northern and Southern, urban and rural, past and present.

Charles Hughes: Record labels like Detroit’s Motown and Memphis’ Stax symbolized Black excellence and autonomy. Transgressive and transformative artists from Aretha Franklin to Curtis Mayfield collaborated with activists throughout the country. And the ascendance of soul, funk and other genres signaled the permanent cultural transformations of the civil rights and Black power era. These were not regional phenomena. Instead, they knitted local stories together into an internationally-impactful soundtrack. As Funkadelic would call it, “One Nation Under a Groove.”

Charles Hughes: Musicians sounded the alarm from Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark and other places that would become flashpoints. But they also noted the strength and genius of those communities, pushing back against the erasure, marginalization and demonization that accompanied their rise into public consciousness. The lyrics—and especially the sounds—expressed continuities rather than ruptures, linking older threads of blues, jazz and gospel with new innovations in soul, funk and—eventually—hip-hop.

Charles Hughes: Contemporary artists still call back to the movement’s legacies in ways that reveal the links between eras and regions. In 2019, Jamila Woods, the Chicago-based musician, poet and activist, paid tribute to Black artistic heroes on her album Legacy! Legacy! Ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Woods’ subjects reflect the geographical, chronological and creative range of Black cultural accomplishment. On “Basquiat,” she uses the disruptive brilliance of the titular painter to emphasize her own refusal to let anyone “police her joy.”

Charles Hughes: That same year, North Carolina-based hip hop artist Rapsody released Eve, another meditation on Black genius and legacy. Rapsody’s subjects are all Black women, from Nina Simone and Oprah Winfrey to Afeni Shakur and Myrlie Evers.

Charles Hughes: She moves from the killing of Medgar Evers to the larger crime of violence against young Black men. The song “Myrlie”—like “Basquiat” or “Living For The City”—is steeped in symbolism and piercing in specificity. African Americans nurtured connections rather than discontinuities. We can hear these through the music of all styles and eras. All we need to do is keep listening.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Y'all can't see me right now. I got my eyes closed, my head is bopping, because this is one of those times where he's like, "Ooh, just got to let it wash over you." Now look, we still got a lot to cover in this episode, but I need y'all to back this one up and play this again, because that's what I'm gonna do one time and then two times and then three times. You don't go from Stevie Wonder to Rapsody, dropping this knowledge, and think that you can just get it all in on one take. So you gotta back this up, back it up with me, play it again and then we'll go forward. Because one again, Brother Hughes is dropping science and knowledge. Be sure to listen to 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 Now back to Patrick Jones.

Patrick Jones: The most conflicted issue during the civil rights era in the urban North was the issue of police brutality. It was persistent and consistent reality for African Americans and other people of color and poor people more generally throughout the 20th century really, but certainly during this period of expanding Black and brown populations in these communities, and increased segregation. And as African Americans are increasingly unhappy with the circumstances they find themselves in and beginning to protest and press the boundaries of these segregated neighborhoods, it's often the police that are asked to patrol those lines of race and class. And so there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of examples from small to very large conflicts between local police and communities of color, and you can read those and see the growing frustration. And as we get into the period of urban rebellion in 1964, 1965 with Watts, 1966 Cleveland, 1967 Newark and Detroit and Milwaukee and a number of other places, and then 1968 after Dr. King's assassination, where dozens and dozens of urban communities experience urban rebellion, that in many of those instances, the spark is an incident of police brutality, and conflict between police and local communities of color. And so again, a very long history here that well predates our current Black Lives Matter circumstance, and an ever-present conflict and crisis in American race relations, particularly in urban spaces like this.

Patrick Jones: You know, police often took advantage of their power against communities of color. As I mentioned, I think, earlier, police departments during this time period leading up to the civil rights era are almost exclusively white and working-class. Many of those—most of those people don't live in the communities that they patrol when they're Black and brown. And they bring to the job the racism and the stereotyping that is commonplace throughout the society and throughout the media that they're consuming, right? And then they're empowered with a gun and a billy club and the law—laws that have been overwhelmingly made not by a democratic populist, but by white people, by men, and by more-affluent people. And so the laws that have been made serve largely the interests of those who have made them, and so the job of the police in enforcing those laws is de facto, if not explicitly discriminatory, right? They're in charge of enforcing a set of laws and ground rules that had been created in city councils and legislatures and other places by white, affluent men to largely preserve their interests and those they define as theirs, right? So white families, suburban communities, etc.

Patrick Jones: And so the police are really on the front lines of the racial conflict, and there are plenty of examples. Again, back in Milwaukee in 1958, there's a murder of a young man named Daniel Bell, who's just driving home. It's a winter night and he's pulled over for having a taillight out by two police officers who are looking to get their numbers at the end of the month to meet their quota of tickets. And Daniel Bell, who had come from Mississippi and moved to the North with his brothers and sisters, didn't know how to read. And so he couldn't pass the test in the North. He knew how to drive a car just fine, but there was not just a driving part of the test, there was also a written part of the test. And he couldn't pass that test, and so he—when he drove, he drove without a license. And a number of times before had been stopped and ticketed by police for driving without a license. And the last time he had been stopped, the police had roughed him up. So on this winter evening in 1958 when the police, searching for ways to increase their tickets and purposely going into the Black community to do that, stop a young Daniel Bell for having a taillight out. A scared Daniel Bell gets out and runs.

Patrick Jones: And in the pursuit, one of the police officers who can't catch him—he's right behind him, but he's unable to catch him—instead of continuing to pursue him, he pulls out his gun, points it at Daniel's back and shoots him in the back and kills him. And then the two police officers walk over to his body, they pull out a knife that they had in their possession for just such occasions, and they placed it in his hand. And claimed that Daniel Bell had a knife and had attacked them, and that that was the reason that they shot and killed him. This is one of the earliest moments where a broad array of people in Milwaukee come together and try to use protest politics to demand change there, but it ultimately fails because of class politics in the community. More working-class folks want to put the emphasis on the systemic problems with policing, and more middle-class folks ultimately begin to kind of moralize to young [inaudible] say if you just participated in what we'd now call a politics of respectability, if you would just respect the police, listen, when they told you things, we wouldn't have these incidents.

Patrick Jones: So class politics gets involved with the political campaign that emerges from this, but one of the interesting things about it is that the only reason that we know the truth about the Daniel Bell murder, is that one of the two police officers—not the one who had placed the knife in his hand, but who was kind of forced to go along with the story, he, several decades later in the '80s is wracked by guilt still, and he comes forward and he goes back to Milwaukee and he goes into the office of the D.A. and he admits what they had done. And as a result of that, new charges are filed and the Bell case—the truth about the Bell case comes out, and legal proceedings are able to go forward in that. But we never would have known that truth, despite the family and the community making claims that he couldn't have done it: They put the knife in his right hand, and he was left-handed, etc., unless that white police officer had come forward several decades later.

Patrick Jones: In addition, it was common for urban police forces to take their Red Squad, a special tactical unit that had been created in many Northern cities to go after political radicals and radical immigrant groups and also police red light districts for vice, things like that. Those tactical groups in the 1960s, are often adapted and pointed towards the civil rights movement. And so, like COINTELPRO in the FBI, local and state policing and law enforcement organizations make their own internal units whose goal is to infiltrate, undermine, intimidate and break up activism for racial justice by a variety of means. Many engaged in violence as well. Again in Milwaukee, the Commandos told me a number of stories about getting arrested on petty offenses like throwing a cigarette butt on the street, which nobody gets cited for in the city, but it's technically an offense, or jaywalking or something like that. So stops on an infraction that most people don't get bothered by, and then taken to the police department in Milwaukee where they were taken in the freight elevator up the back way of the station, where the police officers would then stop the freight elevator in between floors and beat them violently, and then take them back down and let them go without any charges, right? So an intimidation factor: arrest them on a petty charge that they normally don't arrest people for, take them to the station, threaten further legal action but instead, beat them physically and tell them don't do it again or it will be worse next time, and then release them back into the community. So a lot of informal forms of violence and things like that as well.

Patrick Jones: And this is happening in the context of a growing politic of reaction, and what will be called law and order politics in 1968 when Richard Nixon runs for the presidency. And as I mentioned before, the spark of many of the urban rebellions throughout the era would be police brutality. Here in Omaha in 1969, it was the senseless murder of a 14-year-old girl, African-American girl named Vivian Strong that sparked three days of civil disorder. So police-community relations, police brutality and the conflict between local communities of color and urban cities and police forces have deep roots and have been going on quite a long time. And again, a really great and important opportunity for teachers to contextualize the Black Lives Matter movement and help their students and broader community members see that there's nothing new about this, that this has been going on a long time. And that much of the frustration and anger and even rage that we're seeing today is rooted in a mindfulness among African Americans and their allies of this much longer history, that there's nothing new about it.

Patrick Jones: And we can see this in other aspects of the movement. For instance, I really like to go and get images from the March on Washington movement in 1963, where we think about it as being about desegregation and voting rights, largely. But if you get the right pictures, and you see these pictures where there are a lot of signs in the crowd, what you realize is that a lot of those signs say to stop police brutality, right? A lot of them are about housing discrimination in the urban North, right? The March on Washington itself was organized mainly by union members. Those unions rooted in cities in the urban North. You can see union members in those pictures wearing their little paper hats, their union local hats there too. So you can use something like the March on Washington, and the images from the March on Washington as the teacher to kind of challenge the standard narrative about the March on Washington, and that it was merely about the South by looking at those signs and thinking about those union members and where they were from as well. In the urban North too, we see a lot of interesting debate and discussion and use of, not only nonviolence, but also armed self-defense. Both in the way we see with the Commandos, but also in an organization like the Black Panther Party, who will draw on its constitutional rights and Second Amendment to protect itself and community members from police brutality, and what they view as the police as an occupying force that uses violence regularly to pacify Black communities.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I’m your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. We’re hoping you’ll learn from the podcast and apply it 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, along with other tools for teaching about Jim Crow and the Black Freedom Movement outside of the southern United States. You can find these detailed show notes at Let’s return now to Dr. Jones.

Patrick Jones: And it's also important for us to keep in mind that, while we've been talking about the distinctiveness of the Northern movement that, in fact, the Northern movement is happening alongside, in conjunction with, in communication with, sometimes in tension with, the Southern movement. The NAACP, for instance, while it has chapters throughout the South and is active in the South, its headquarters is in New York City. The media images of Northern and Southern movements are being exchanged around the country. The propaganda and the political manifestos and fliers that movement organizations are making are being circulated. People are getting together and having conferences and gatherings on campuses and elsewhere, and exchanging their stories and talking about tactics and strategies in different places, and what they've learned. Many Northerners have come South and heeded King's call during Selma. And one thing that we don't emphasize enough about Selma is that Southern movement leaders, they were excited to have Northerners down in the South helping the Selma voting rights campaign, but one of the things they kept pressing those Northern folks—most of whom were white, and many of whom were clergy was to say, you know, “Why here?” Right? “And not back in your community? So you were mobilized to come here, but look at your community in Milwaukee, in Cleveland, in Denver, in Omaha, in Boston, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, and you will find racial Injustice. So why are you willing to be active here but not there? And what will you do when you go back?”

Patrick Jones: And it mobilizes hundreds and hundreds of people that go back to their communities, and get more deeply involved in civil rights activism. It's also true that in the urban North, that is where we see most clearly what we'd now call the intersections of various movements. The intersections of the Black freedom movement and the campus free speech movement or the anti-war movement or the Chicano movement or Puerto Rican independence movement or Asian-American activism or women's liberation etc. In these large urban centers that are often extremely diverse, this new kind of consciousness that emerges with Black power is taken up by many other groups, and by women and by LGBTQ activists as well. And one of the questions in the late '60s, early '70s becomes, you know, how do we make a big T big M “The Movement?” You know? Right? That encapsulates all of these individual struggles within a larger struggle as well, that resonate I think with our diversity and activism today in contemporary America.

Patrick Jones: And one great resource for that is an archival resource I put together called the Roz Payne Sixties Archive, that has hundreds of archives from these various movements, and many of which show the kind of interconnectivity and intersectionality of struggles for racial justice with these other movements that are happening as well.

Patrick Jones: And so the last thing I just want to talk a little bit about is why then the stories of the urban North matter today. It's not just a question of getting the history right. The stories that we tell about the past matter. We've told the Southern movement story as a mythic story about American democracy. It's a redemptive story about a nation that was doing wrong in terms of race. And it might have taken too long, but ultimately it recognized the injustice of the Jim Crow South system, and its institutions responded and quote-unquote “overcame” that system of white supremacy and racial inequality. Now that's a mythic story that oversimplifies the Southern movement, and appeals to a lot of white liberal-minded folks who want to feel like we've done that, you know, we—our nation is still good. I'm still cool as a white person. The aspiration of interracialism and nonviolence remains the ideal and achievable, etc. So that's a problematic narrative in and of itself, but it's the narrative that most people get taught. Whereas these Northern movement stories do something different, because there's no escaping the reality that the urban crisis in the North continues, and is ongoing.

Patrick Jones: And so when we tell these Northern movement stories, they compel a confrontation with ongoing racial inequalities in the world we're living in today that are inescapable. They become politically activated and animated in ways that that mythic Southern story that's kind of safely behind us 50 years now doesn't. And to hear the stories of a Milwaukee or a Cleveland or a Baltimore or a New York or a Boston or a Philadelphia or a Chicago or a Detroit or a St. Louis, is to not only recognize and see all the ways people have been for a long time, Black people and their allies, struggling for racial justice in the urban North, but the ways that, despite those struggles and even the achievements of the Civil Rights era in the Urban north that larger-scale forces, demographic changes like suburbanization, deindustrialization and globalization, etc. have severely blunted the impact and the achievements that they were able to bring. And they place us then, face to face with the ongoing chasm of caste and class in the urban North today. The very issues that have emerged so strongly over the past five years during the Black Lives Matter movement, first in 2014 and 2015, and now over the past several months as well. So I think that's why these stories are really important, is because they really give us tools to make sense of where we're at today in the urban North, and how we might think in important and complex new ways about how to move forward from here.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Patrick D. Jones is an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and the author of The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee, an award-winning book from Harvard University Press. He is also the creator of the Roz Payne Sixties Archives, a one-of-a-kind digital archive of historical artifacts from a wide array of social movements. We put a link in the show notes.

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. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts. You can find these online at

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: 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.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Jones for sharing his insights with us. This podcast is produced by Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Mary Quintas is our technical producer. And “Movement Music” is produced by Barrett Golding. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. And our interns are Miranda LaFond and Amelia Gragg. Kate Shuster is our executive producer.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University—and your host for Teaching Hard History.



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