Episode 16, Season 3
The civil rights movement offers critical context for understanding the systemic police violence, voter suppression efforts, ‘law and order’ rhetoric and criminalization of activism we see today. It also helps us understand the strategies activists use to fight these injustices. Historians Shannon King and Nishani Frazier explain how they use 21st-century Black activism to teach the movement’s history—and how they use the movement to help students better understand the contemporary Black freedom struggle.
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Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights MovementEdited 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!
- Learning for Justice: Article, Why Teaching Black Lives Matters Matters
- Learning for Justice: Article, Teaching About Mass Incarceration: From Conversation to Civic Action
- Learning for Justice: Lesson, The True History of Voting Rights (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice: Student text, I Fit the Description… (grades 9-12)
- Learning for Justice: Student text Iesha Evans (grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Jim Crow 2.0. That's what people are calling Georgia's new voting law, which Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed into law on March 25, 2021. And they're calling it that for good reason. The sweeping new measure makes it more difficult for African Americans and other likely Democratic voters to cast ballots.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The legislation cuts the amount of time voters have to request an absentee ballot in half. It moves the deadline for submitting absentee ballots from a few days before an election to several weeks earlier. It caps the number of ballot drop boxes a county can have, and requires that those boxes can only reside indoors. The new law eliminates mobile polling sites. It makes it a crime for anyone except for poll workers to hand out water to people waiting to vote. It makes it easier for election officials to disregard provisional ballots. And it authorizes the hyper-partisan, Republican-controlled legislature to overturn election results already certified by local officials.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The new law is a direct response to the 2020 election, which saw Georgia flip from Republican red to Democrat blue. Georgians favored the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, by the narrowest margin, and chose Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff for the US Senate. Now the outcome of the election, that was no fluke. It was the result of a highly-effective, grassroots voter education and mobilization campaign that was several years in the making, and has shown no signs of letting up.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So Republican lawmakers did what political conservatives have been doing since President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. To prevent further erosion of their power, they changed the rules for voting in order to suppress Black votes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Georgia's new voting law is not an anomaly. It is a part of a tidal wave of new voting restrictions and requirements designed to make it harder for Black people to vote, which Republican legislators across the country have introduced in the wake of the 2020 election. Not surprisingly, none of these laws mention race specifically because they can't. Because of the 14th Amendment. As written, they seem ostensibly colorblind, but their intent and impact is anything but race neutral.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: To make sense of these laws, you have to understand the form and function of Jim Crow 1.0. And to make sense of the Black response to them, you have to understand Black protest during the civil rights era. The same need for historical context is true for a range of other obstacles that Black people face today—from police violence to segregated education, as well as for the strategies and tactics that Black people are using to challenge them. The direct connection between the civil rights movement and the contemporary moment means that each era can be used as a point of entry for studying the other, providing students with valuable insights into the world they inherited and the one they inhabit. The challenge for teachers is how to teach the past through the present, and how to teach the present through the past. And we have some ideas.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Learning for Justice project—formerly known as Teaching Tolerance. To learn more about Learning for Justice and to meet our new director, visit us at LearningForJustice.org. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the Black freedom struggle, or the US civil rights movement. In each episode, we 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 Shannon King explains how he incorporated civil rights history into a course on the contemporary Black freedom struggle. We are also joined by historian Nishani Frazier, who shares her own classroom experiences connecting today's Black protest with that of the civil rights era. And together, we explore issues of police brutality, voter suppression, political rhetoric and criminalizing activism—offering examples you can use in your own lessons.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm glad you could join us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I am thrilled to welcome back to the podcast, my friend, my colleague, my sister, who helped us lead off this season. Dr. Nishani Frazier. Welcome back.
Nishani Frazier: Thank you so much, I'm glad to be back.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, we talked at the beginning of this season about how we too narrowly confine the Black freedom movement to sort of the '50s and '60s, and that we need to locate it on the continuum of African-American struggle, African-American resistance, and that not only means stretching back in time, but then also moving forward. So one of the things that I want us to talk about today and get your insights on is how do we connect the movement present to the movement past. And to help us figure this out and make sense of this and think about ways to teach it accurately and effectively in the classroom, I've invited our friend, Dr. Shannon King, Harlem world representing.
Nishani Frazier: Shannon!
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: To guide us on this journey. Shannon King, welcome aboard, brother.
Shannon King: Thank you. Thank you. And the Bronx, too, by the way.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs] The Bronx, the Bronx, the BX is in the house! So look, Shannon, man. A few years ago, a few years ago, when I was approached to edit Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, I knew immediately that I wanted to have a chapter that closed out the book about how do you use the civil rights movement to make sense of the present, and how do you use activism of the present to make sense of the civil rights movement? And I remembered that we had a conversation. This is back when you were teaching at the College of Wooster, and you were talking about this course that you taught on the Black Lives Matter movement. And I was like, oh, man, that's perfect. This is exactly who I need to write this chapter. And when you talked about the class, you said something I thought was very interesting. This is the class that you taught on the Black Lives Matter movement, but you spent the first three weeks on civil rights history. Could you tell us why you chose to start a course on the contemporary struggle by spending these first three weeks looking at the traditional era of the civil rights movement?
Shannon King: So first of all, I wanted to thank you for inviting me. This is an important conversation. At the time, we had just gone through a summer of uprisings. There was so much debate and discussion about issues of violence, and whether it was an uprising, and questions around police brutality, that people constantly compared it to the classic phase of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s. So for me, as I was thinking about how to organize the course, it only made sense to start there. And it was important for me to choose readings that provided students, not only with a basic history of the civil rights movement in the classical phase, but also with strategies to think about the kind of histories they received about the civil rights movement. And so one of the things I had to do was to introduce them to the idea of the master narrative. And so we spent, not only the first three weeks, but much of the semester unpacking and deconstructing and making sense of the so-called master narrative, which centers Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What are some of the questions that students have about the classical period of the civil rights era, or even more broadly Black protest?
Shannon King: Students ask the question, "How did we get to these issues of police brutality? Because when I learned about Martin Luther King Jr., he always talked about nonviolence." One of the things that I often do with my students is I have them return to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I usually show them visuals of the march, and one of the placards that they are surprised about is the one that reads, "We demand an end to police brutality," because they tend to not associate it with King or even with the March on Washington. Because oftentimes, although they know about Martin Luther King and nonviolence, they have no sense of the context. And so one of the ways that I help students is to show documentaries. We can look at the documentary, we can look at primary sources such as the Letter from a Birmingham Jail to interrogate these questions around violence and law and order and the like. And so usually when they watch the documentaries they're so surprised because one of the key points of the master narrative is centering Martin Luther King Jr. And by centering Martin Luther King Jr., you center his nonviolence philosophy. So they had no idea that Martin Luther King's rhetoric stemmed from and had engaged in questions around nonviolence as a strategy and as part of a philosophy. For them it was mainly a phrase that was not connected to some kind of historical context.
Shannon King: So let me give one of the examples I use in the course with my students. At the time, we were talking about the Ferguson uprising. And one of the questions that was raised by the student had to do with the idea that during the uprising and thereafter, there was a lot of rhetoric on CNN and MSNBC and Fox News, of course, that Black people were damaging their community. And so one of the examples I use with my students was the CNN case. I had them watch a clip from Don Lemon, which was also picked up in the newspapers to make the point that the grand narrative was so pervasive that even individuals who had been purported to be supportive of the movement used it because CNN is viewed as a station that is not anti-Black.
Shannon King: And so in this case it was Don Lemon. And Don Lemon had this conversation with Jesse Jackson about the Ferguson case. And Don Lemon constantly described the uprising as a case of violence. And so he asked Jesse Jackson, he said, "Well, Reverend Jackson, how do you feel about the violence, which seems out of place and in contradiction to the movement in the 1960s and King's ideas of nonviolence?" And so Jesse Jackson said, "Well, there was uprisings and race riots. There was Watts, and King responded to this." He reminded us that King used the language of saying that the riot was the “language of the unheard.” And this was a way to challenge the idea that the issue was really about violence, and to shift the question to the problem of police brutality. And that led us to go deeper into the problem with the master narrative, because by focusing on nonviolence, you excuse the acts of violence that often precipitate the violence.
Shannon King: And so we began to sort of go deeper into the Ferguson case, and that led us to the Justice Department's report on the Ferguson Police Department. And one of the key points was that the city of Ferguson, in cooperation with the police department, would use vehicular cases against Black people as a way to subsidize local government. This was an important lesson for the students to see the relationship between how law enforcement and public officials were using crime as a way to punish Black people while at the same time using it to fund the city. And so this became an important way for them to understand this longer history and this much more complicated picture that becomes an important way to think about the actual case of Michael Brown. So this tells us that the case of Ferguson wasn't just about Officer Darren Wilson shooting Michael Brown, but it was also about the context of police brutality which set the stage, not only for the killing of Michael Brown, but also the broader response that ended with the uprising.
Nishani Frazier: I think what Shannon has pointed out is really important about how do we refocus this notion of violence away from people who are being victimized and to why it is that there is this expression. My approach is to interrogate these ideas of riot, rebellion, community. I ask my students, what's the difference between a riot and a rebellion? And this is important, in part because we're choosing to make decisions about how people should go about obtaining their freedom, and we are applying those to Black people, but we're not quite applying it when it comes to the broader American history.
Nishani Frazier: So when we talk about the Boston Tea Party, it's an act of rebellion. Yeah, but y'all damaged a million of dollars' worth of property by dumping it in the ocean. I'm sure the British didn't think you were engaged in rebellion. I'm pretty sure the British thought you were engaged in a riot. And so reframing these conversations about what constitutes a riot and what constitutes a rebellion and what underlines the motivations really helps students to rethink how we decide to paint some groups as "freedom fighters" and some groups as "criminals."
Nishani Frazier: The other thing that we talk about is what is the nature of community? Because students often refer to, “You're burning down your own community.” And so I ask them what constitutes community? What is it about this space that Black residents can lay claim to that makes it a community? And they'll say a library, churches, and homes. And then I ask them, was any of that burned down? And they're brought up short, because now what we have is a juxtaposition between what constitutes the spaces of home and community for Black residents, versus entities or buildings or sites that might be in the Black community, but not of the Black community. And these distinctions are important for helping students to parse out why violence might express itself in one way or another, and then how we choose to view it.
Shannon King: Right. And to add, certain places are chosen precisely because there is a long history of exploitation, so these actions are often directed towards spaces that have mistreated them. And we saw the same thing this summer in Atlanta and other places, where it wasn't just Black folks, but it was Black and brown and white and often working-class people, right? And so I think these questions often overlap, not only with police brutality, but they often overlap with these economic questions, and how people are treated as customers and consumers, especially within their own communities. Because part of the question becomes, if this is my community then why aren't I treated with respect? And so in some ways, these responses have to do with reclaiming and restating that one of the ways that I will assert my identity as a citizen of this place is reclaiming it as my own and treating it in a way that I feel it needs to be treated.
Shannon King: And so that means if we go a little further back, that might be things like the "Don't buy where you can't work" campaign. That if you look at the uprising or rebellion in 1935 in Harlem, before the rebellion there were protests, there were different kinds of activism that were connected that preceded the rebellion. It was precisely about the idea that I live in this neighborhood, I consume at your department store, but you neither respect me, nor will you hire people who are qualified for the job. And so that creates the context in conjunction with these cases of police brutality that help us get this larger sense of these economic and political and anti-Black violent situations.
Shannon King: And so when we connect it to Ferguson, Ferguson isn't just about police brutality, but it's certainly about a particular moment where a suburb in a city made a decision to build its own economic infrastructure through the policing and incarceration of mostly working-class Black people.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, recipient of the 2020 James Harvey Robinson prize for the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history, from the American Historical Association. And this podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this collection of essays—which I edited. From now until the end of April, they are offering a 30 percent discount to listeners who order this collection. You'll find a link to purchase the book at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Just use the promotional code: CIVILRIGHTS—all one word. Let's return now to my conversation with Shannon King and Nishani Frazier.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: On this question of policing and the problem of policing during the civil rights era, Nishani, I wonder how you go about teaching the ways in which African Americans responded to the problem of police violence and police brutality, not just in the cities of the segregated South, but in the cities of the North and the West.
Nishani Frazier: Well, actually, I'll talk about the South first. That's the one that they know most readily. And it really helps them sort of concretize the ways in which the state and the police participated in the suppression of civil rights activists. They can easily understand the ways in which the police participated in police brutality. But I'll also talk about the different kinds of policing, right? The difference between a Laurie Pritchett and his approach versus a Eugene "Bull" Connor. Laurie Pritchett is the policeman in Albany, and he actually used this tactic where he attempts to overrun the freedom movement by jailing as many people as possible. This is different from, of course, Eugene "Bull" Connor, who's infamous for his use of a tank, dogs and firehoses during the Birmingham Children's March.
Nishani Frazier: When we begin to move it north, that's where it gets to be a little bit uncomfortable for students, because that policing is assumed that it's a function of the people themselves, and how they were seen as out of bounds in terms of the style and type of protest, right? What happens is that the people themselves, the people who are the activists, end up being demonized. So the roles tend to be reversed, right? Policemen are unfortunately having to follow through on doing their jobs because activism in the North is somehow a lot more militant.
Nishani Frazier: I think the problem is that when you're dealing with the master narrative, the shift to the North always takes place somewhere in the mid-1960s, and so it becomes easier to blame activists and the militancy of the movement on how or why the police respond as they do. And so when we go back earlier in terms of the Northern movement, what we find is that this always has been the response of the police, right? Activists have always had to deal with this problem of police violence, even in the most quote "appropriate" period of civil rights nonviolence activism. I show them images of the sort of first forays of civil rights activists, right? There are pictures that I have of CORE activists being actually dragged downstairs during the school bus boycott.
Nishani Frazier: And so what that does is help them to connect the visuals of the South and the viciousness of the violence of the police there with what happens in the North, and they have a real clear framework for connecting these two incidents and types of behavior together. By the time we get to the mid-1960s, what we then see is a refocus on the police brutality. And we see this coming from CORE chapters, but there are other organizations that are also beginning to feel the pressures of police enforcement. And there, the conversation begins to shift, and you get a more aggressive approach by these organizations to dealing with the problem of police brutality.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about the police during the civil rights era in the context of the master narrative, we often imagine the federal government coming in on the side of the protesters, of the activists. Someone jumping on a phone and calling Bobby Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy sending in the FBI, right? To solve the problems and protect Black folk. We know that it didn't play out like that. And we also know that when we involve J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, that there was intense surveillance and counterintelligence operations going on against civil rights activists that just continues to expand as we move from the civil rights into the Black Power era and beyond. Shannon, I want to get your thoughts on this. How do you talk about the role of the surveillance state during the civil rights era?
Shannon King: Sure. So, you know, COINTELPRO is essential to understanding the Black freedom struggle. And so one of the things that I talk to my students about is that they tend to associate repression with the federal government's response to the Black Power movement. And so I often redirect them to talking about Martin Luther King. And so I raise the question of, well, why would the federal government surveil an individual that we tend to identify with nonviolence? And so many of them are surprised because they tend to associate Martin Luther King as a peaceful person and the Black Panther Party or Malcolm X or Black Power more broadly with the bad people. And so that forces them to think about the conditions under which the FBI and COINTELPRO was deeply committed to not only suppressing Black Power and the Black Panther Party, but the entirety of the civil rights movement.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In what ways, Shannon, has policing of Black protest changed in recent years, versus this classical period of the civil rights movement?
Shannon King: Well, in some ways, you have to think about some of the distinctions between the South and outside of the South. And so one of the huge differences between police brutality outside the South and police brutality in the South, is in the South it's much more clearly connected to questions of desegregation and voting. Outside of the South, it's usually a direct confrontation between the police and Black people. And so when we talk about the question of policing outside of the South, I can go back to cases in New York in terms of 1900 in San Juan Hill in Downtown Manhattan. I could talk about the riot of 1935, 1943, 1964. Students are really surprised about all these different cases of police brutality.
Shannon King: And one of the reasons is because of the ability of white Americans to move to the suburbs, and for residential segregation, and the police become a buffer between white and Black communities. So in many ways, when you think about police brutality, they often operate as an army of occupation. And so that's a key way to think about this history of police brutality.
Shannon King: Now I actually don't believe that there are lots of distinctions outside of the South with police brutality since the '50s, '60s and '70s to the present. What I do believe is that police brutality across the nation looks more like it looked in a New York or a Chicago or Detroit, across the entire country. And so, many of the tactics that the police use outside of the South are now part of the South, because the questions of segregation and Jim Crow are no longer operating in ways that they did before the mid-'60s. That's how I would think about it. I would not say police brutality has changed.
Shannon King: Now I think the resistance against it has changed. And part of that has a lot to do with the discourse around law and order that emerges in the mid-'60s. What law and order does from the '60s through the '70s, through the Black Power movement, what it essentially does is blunt the idea that Black resistance against police brutality is actually about police brutality—it's been reframed as a question of criminality. And so that becomes an important way to stifle efforts against police brutality is to frame it as actions of crime and law and order.
Shannon King: So in the early-'60s, we can see how questions of law and order were used to reframe nonviolence as acts of crime. One of the examples that I use for my students to understand law and order is to connect the rhetoric of Barry Goldwater, the senator of Arizona, who used the language of law and order during the 1964 presidential election to misrepresent civil disobedience and nonviolent struggle. And in the 1960s, these questions were often raised in response to some of the rebellions occurring in places like Harlem in 1964, in Watts in Los Angeles in 1965. These were ways to equate the rebellions and uprisings to civil disobedience. The goal here was to sabotage the questions around civil rights and inequality, and to criminalize these protests as a way to sabotage the entire movement.
Shannon King: And so we see the same actions when we think about Trump and his using the same language, exactly the same language of law and order as a way to question the protests in Washington, DC, this past summer. And so when we think about the language of law and order at this point in the late 20th century and early 21st century, it's now a dog whistle that stems all the way back to the 1960s and Barry Goldwater. But it's also important to mention that this was also a form of politics that the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration used. So that when we think about the 1960s, it's not only important to think about law and order as a racist response to Black protests, but we have to think about how both political parties used law and order to undermine the radicalism of the movement.
Nishani Frazier: I just want to sort of tag onto what Shannon was saying, because I think one of the ways I also try to disabuse students of this notion that it is tied to criminal behavior is to connect the way policing is done with regard to children. And certainly, the children's march demonstrates that. But I found it at Schomburg for example, referencing a young boy, 14-year-old Tyrone Guyton, who is shot by the police, and in the same way that we talk about in current circumstances, Tamir Rice, right? It begs a larger question about what is the police actually doing? They present themselves as in service and in protection, and they do that in part by demonizing the activists, but children are a lot more of a different fear to work around. And so that also, I think, helps students to kind of see that this is not just a function of security or a function of how activists may behave. That there's a longer problem or longer issue here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hey, everybody. We’ve cooked up something new. Educators can now earn a certificate—issued by Learning for Justice—for one hour of professional development just by listening to this episode. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/podcastPD—PD for professional development. That's "podcastpd," all one word. Then enter the special code word for this episode: "justice"—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. Now back to my conversation with Drs. King and Frazier.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What examples, Shannon, do you turn to to highlight the problems of, not just policing today, but the ways in which it connects to the past, and to explain the ways in which African Americans today respond to those incidents of police violence and brutality?
Shannon King: You know, I would identify two cases. There's the George Floyd case and the Breonna Taylor case. And one of the cases that I use for students to understand the George Floyd case is the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma. Most of us, when we think about the Selma campaign in 1965, we think about voting and we think about Bloody Sunday and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But sometimes we forget about the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was a Black man who was murdered by the police while protecting his mom and his grandfather. And so what becomes important in this particular case is that there was no federal response to the violence until Reverend Reeb, a minister from New England who participates in the marches, is also killed, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration responds immediately. There's a huge outcry and response to the death of a white person, but no federal or widespread response to the death of a Black person.
Shannon King: Now the juxtaposition with the George Floyd case was initially there was no response because the police report said that it was a legitimate act of police aggression. And so what we see eventually with the video is of eight minutes and 46 seconds of the police officer's knee on his neck, exposes the blatant forms of not only what one might call racism, but also just disrespect for his life and for his humanity. And so this becomes an important way to think about some of the questions that were raised during the civil rights movement around the loss of Black life.
Shannon King: And so this is the sort of issue that the Black Lives Matter movement has always been talking about, how the issue isn't just about the death of Black people and police brutality, but the value of Black life, and how you can clearly see that in the case of George Floyd, that they were able to erase the fact of his humanity until the recording was made public. The other part I think is how we rely on public official records. And if we can only rely on the paper trail, it'll become difficult to really address these cases of police brutality, because this is not unusual for the police to misrepresent their actions as a way to erase their culpability in the violence that they're engaged in. That was the case with Breonna Taylor.
Nishani Frazier: Mm-hmm. Right. In that circumstance, the former relationship of Breonna Taylor with a former boyfriend gave the police license to enter the premises under the notion that this person was an alleged drug dealer. And they used a no-knock warrant as a way to enter the space without notifying the residents. And they do it, of course, at a time where the residents are unprepared and asleep. Breonna Taylor and her current boyfriend are asleep, and so are genuinely and obviously surprised when the police come busting in, even though they know full well that her former boyfriend is no longer there because, in fact, he's been arrested by them. But they choose to enter into this space.
Nishani Frazier: In that moment, Breonna Taylor's boyfriend shoots, thinking that the home is being broken into, and the police respond by shooting back, and in that process, kill Breonna Taylor. Part of the egregiousness of it all, of course, is that only just a couple of days ago that they finally dropped the charges against the boyfriend for shooting at the police, again, attempting to criminalize him, even though people had broken into his home and had been given license to do so under the notion that to be in this space meant you were a criminal. Regardless as to who was in the home, right? Everyone in the home is simply marked as a criminal, and so the police has license to break in and shoot.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Nishani, I wonder what elements of the Breonna Taylor case, would you illuminate for students so that they could understand the complexities of the problems that Black folks face today, and the ways in which Black folk respond to them?
Nishani Frazier: The one that I have talked most often about is this whole conversation over space and the fight for housing. You may recall that the family argued that the reason that the police had been allowed to sort of run amok in the community or to bother residents of the community was that there was a focus on gentrification. And because of gentrification, that was a space that was particularly coveted for development, and the police had been, according to the family, given license to pressure residents through various means in order to remove them. So surprisingly, even these issues of gentrification are intimately tied with policing or over-policing over these issues of home and housing inequality, wealth inequality get connected to over-policing and then, of course, makes worse the circumstances of Black people in their homes and in their communities.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In what ways would you connect what the city is doing to voting rights? In other words, the city is run by elected officials. Elected officials are making this call, telling the police what to do. How does this connect to the question of voting rights today?
Nishani Frazier: This is a great question, because when we talk about voting during the 1960s and why it's so important, part of it is this whole question of power. How does the ability to vote give you license to have a voice in the operation of your local, your state and your federal government, right? With the issue of voting, it's not just why it's important to vote, it's why people would attempt to use violence to stop you from voting. That there's power present.
Nishani Frazier: And when I talk about making the connection between then and now, what I talk about is the absence of a Black voice within the city, Ferguson and other communities. And in part, when you see Black Lives Matter, or in particular BYP100, part of their strategy, similar to what we saw with the 1960s and Black Power, is to assert some political presence, and to push and move the city toward setting policies that are more equitable and, of course, that deal with this whole question of maltreatment by the police. So political power and voting is incredibly key for Black people's access to equity, and it remains so even in the current moment, which is why there's all these issues around voter ID and voter suppression.
Nishani Frazier: When I'm teaching the problem of the voting disenfranchisement in the segregated South, I talk about the multiple methods by which Black people are denied the right to vote. Some of the tests are as ridiculous as counting the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, stars in the sky. One of the more well-known ones is the jellybean test: how many jellybeans are in a jar? All of these are examples of tests that would be utilized. But the best test is the literacy test. This was discussed in the episode where they talk about primary sources. Episode 12 is a great episode to utilize for, in particular, primary sources on literacy tests. They talk about one of the really good sites for getting information, Activists of the Civil Rights Movement. On their website is an actual test from the state of Mississippi, a Mississippi literacy test. There are also other tests that are available online through PBS.
Nishani Frazier: And there is a white version of the literacy test and a Black version of the literacy test. And so I have students go through the two different tests. The Mississippi test is the one I utilize more often because there's a complex excerpt from the Constitution that people have to be able to both read and to interpret. It's a highly complex section about tax and taxing. And then I give the example of the white Mississippi test, which is really simple, about do you have the right to vote? So I take the students through that process of doing a literacy test. And of course, I come up with reasons to stymie their process, right? Even if they do understand it. This speaks to the power of the clerk to simply deny it, regardless as to whether you, quote, "pass the test" or not. Because it's never been about the test. The test is just simply one of many tools to deny you the right to vote.
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 two examples of contemporary protest music, anthems which lift up the movement today, and connect it to a legacy of Black resistance. Here’s Charles.
Charles Hughes: The Movement continues, and so does its music. As younger activists grapple with new challenges and continuing injustice, the soundtrack of the struggle embraces and remixes the music of earlier eras.
Charles Hughes: Artists like Janelle Monáe capture the Movement’s visionary radicalism, in her Afro-futurist concept albums, gender-bending iconography, and celebration of Black history. Her 2020 song, “Turntables” framed that year’s pivotal election within the ongoing fight for voting rights. And back in 2015, she and her collaborators in the Wondaland Arts Society, released an urgent call into the #BlackLivesMatter moment.
Charles Hughes: The title, “Hell You Talmbout” makes it plain. The lyrics are inspired by the #SayHerName campaign, started by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum, which grew into a rallying cry against anti-Black and misogynist violence.
Charles Hughes: The names of the victims of police violence and extra-legal killing, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin to Rekia Boyd, are a demand to respond, react, and—crucially—to listen. That list of dead keeps growing, So over the years. Monáe and other performers adds new names to this infuriating but critical litany, an evolving freedom-song march that propels the fight forward.
Charles Hughes: Another ongoing call-and-response between the music and the activism is Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” also from 2015. This blues-inflected, jazz-influenced account of struggle and survival combines the meditations of the soul era with the reckonings of gangsta rap. It’s a rich, detailed account of contemporary Black life. The chorus feels less like a brag and more like assurance.
Charles Hughes: The video—an impressionistic portrait of urban California—soon had a hundred-million views. And the song was soon heard in the streets, chanted by #BlackLivesMatter protestors. News footage documents its anthemic chorus rising up above the barricades, just as soul and gospel songs fortified earlier civil rights workers during their marches.
Charles Hughes: Janelle Monáe and Kendrick Lamar provide two of the many musical connections between the earlier movement and its contemporary manifestations. The protest-music tradition carries on. Today and back then, popular music engages with politics, responding to the era’s upheavals and uprising. And even the music business can be a source of organizing and activism, as artists and audiences push for change. The Movement continues, and so does its music. All we need to do is keep listening.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Never let it be said that this generation is not interested in change, not interested in fighting for freedom. The hell you talkin' about that they are apathetic, that they're not ready for freedom. Just listen to their music, it's all right there. We are now in their hands, in the hands of this new generation, and the movement continues and we gon’ be alright.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Be sure to check out our latest Spotify playlist. Dr. Hughes has curated dozens of songs that amplify even more of the ideas raised in this episode. Just follow the link in the show notes at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Now let’s return to my conversation with Shannon and Nishani.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One way to divide the African-American freedom struggle, really African-American history is to talk about a pre-Voting Rights Act era and a post-Voting Rights Act era, because there's different things on the table that can be done post-1965 than pre-1965 that leads into the Black Power era. And Shannon, I want to get your thoughts on this. To what extent should we be talking about a post-Shelby v. Holder era when it comes to African-American voting rights over the last seven years, and the struggles around it and the obstacles they've had to face?
Shannon King: So in 2013, there was a case called Shelby County v. Holder. And so this was an important case because it weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And so it's important to think about well, what was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and why was it important? So the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was important because historically, although African Americans had the right to vote, states used various strategies to prevent them from voting. And so what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did was it required municipalities and states to seek the approval of the Department of Justice before they changed any kinds of voting laws or procedures.
Shannon King: So in the Shelby v. Holder case, states get the right to change the laws without getting pre-approval from the Department of Justice. Republican-led states are able to change the laws in ways that go against Black and brown and working-class people as well as elderly people. And so by the time we get to 2015, 2016, these create the conditions for Donald Trump to become president. And that also creates the conditions for Donald Trump to transform the court system. So a lot of these questions around voting, operate in ways that impact not only voting laws for individuals that infringe upon their voting rights, but cases in the future. Because many of these judges—in particular in the case of the Supreme Court—will be in the federal and state court for a very, very long time, and will have an impact on these political questions beyond the presidency of a Donald Trump or even a Biden.
Nishani Frazier: And what's also so powerful about your question is that basically what it does is give us a pragmatic, on the ground, realized way in which the master narrative is a problem that has real ramifications, because part of the Shelby decision is based on the notion that there were specific states that had a history of denying Black votes, mostly Southern states, that somehow had been redeemed with the election of Obama somehow race is not, or racism is not a problem. And of course, what it also left off is the ways in which Northern states were also beginning to participate with Republican governments in denying or inhibiting Black access to the vote. So in a way, this is the twisted way in which the master narrative has been playing out. If the problem is only in the South, and that has been resolved by the election of Barack Obama, then we no longer need these protections in place.
Shannon King: Yeah, that's pretty scary, because I think another angle regarding the master narrative is the presumption that once these laws are put in place, once you have the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all the questions of voting have been answered and addressed. And there's the presumption, at least for some of my students, that these were laws that couldn't be changed and transformed. And so for a lot of them, the Shelby v. Holder case, they were surprised because it occurred within their lifetime, and they didn't realize that. And I had to remind them that, since 1965 to 2013, there's always been challenges at multiple levels. And although this was a Supreme Court case, at no point was there a moment when there was not a challenge to the voting rights of African Americans.
Nishani Frazier: And we ought to be really clear about that, because those challenges were always ongoing, right? Well into the 1980s, they had to pass new laws about prohibiting people from carrying weaponry around the polls, voting polls, because, of course, it's used as a way of intimidation. So this was always an ongoing fight, but it was so centered on the South being the problem that the more insidious ways in which they went about denying votes were allowed to move right on through.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So Nishani, how do you plan on talking about and teaching to students the wave of legislative proposals, voting rights restrictions, that we have seen crop up in some 43 states, some 250 laws, new bills designed to restrict the voting rights of African Americans in the wake of the defeat of Donald Trump and the loss of the Senate by the Republican Party?
Nishani Frazier: Well, I think we need to start neutralizing the notion that the difference between 1960s and now is that there were laws that specifically said “You, you Black person, you are denied this, this and this.” Now certainly that actually was the case, but we also had these other laws or protections in place that inhibited the degree to which any state could overtly say, “This is a law that is designed to deny Black people access to whatever.” So when I do, for example, different tests, the literacy tests with the students, one of the things I like to ask them is “Now did I ask you what your race was when I asked you to count the number of red jellybeans in a jar? I did not. Did I ask you what your race was when I asked you to do this literacy test of the Mississippi Constitution, this sort of complicated section? I did not.”
Nishani Frazier: And so we need to understand that a lot of the laws that we see produced now are not necessarily going to be the visible articulation of racism and inequity, but that doesn't mean that that's not what it is. Because the outcome is the outcome, and we need to focus on what is the intent and what is the outcome. And understand even the 1960s in that framework, right? That people can act in multiple ways on multiple levels to deny a group of people access without necessarily pinpointing that particular group to say, "It's you I seek to stop from voting. It's you." So that's one of the things that I think is really important for us to have conversations about. Partly because I have a number of students who don't seem to have a problem with, for example, IDs. They keep saying, "Well, what's the problem with an ID?" And I have to provide a context about the nature of creating a law that's not really about something as simple as the ID, but an underlying intent.
Nishani Frazier: When we talk about the voter ID, students assume that all you have to do is all go to your designated location and get identification, but that's not actually how it plays out. In the state of Alabama, they shut down driver's license offices in multiple counties, so that we're clear, as in the whole county, there's not one office that you could go to get this government ID that then would allow you to vote. So Alabama gets caught. And in the process, what they do is supplement the inability of people to go get identification by setting up a driver's license or DMV mobile that goes from county to county, and you have to figure out when the mobile is going to show up in your area in order to give you a vote.
Nishani Frazier: The same thing takes place in North Carolina, which is where I'm from. Where there is an actual targeted effort to look at voting patterns by Black residents of North Carolina. And then they construct the laws specific to the voting patterns of the Black residents of North Carolina, to inhibit the things that would have allowed them a vote, like voting on Sundays and things like this. And we see this, of course, playing out in the state of Georgia as well.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the critical points that comes out from that, Nishani, is the notion of colorblind legislation.
Nishani Frazier: Yep.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If it doesn't explicitly mention race, then somehow it cannot be discriminatory. That's why the point of the intent becomes so critical. And as you mentioned, North Carolina really laid that out. I mean, they were clear. And in this instance, it was Republicans literally who were getting together and saying, "Okay, how do Black people vote? And then what can we do with creating rules and regulations to reduce the numbers?" In the post-Voting Rights Act era and now in the post-Shelby v. Holder era, it's no longer about mass exclusion, right? I mean, suppression means that you don't need to exclude the entire group, the entire race. You just need to make it difficult.
Nishani Frazier: Mm-hmm. And targeted.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And targeted, for just a couple thousand people, here and there. Apparently in Georgia, it was 11,780, right? Just make it difficult enough. That's the suppression. If we frame it around those terms, then perhaps it's a little bit easier for students to understand that no, this is not intended to keep everybody from voting. You don't have to do that. You just got to make it difficult enough, complicated enough, that just 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 out of two million in a state are unable to vote. And that is the difference in these elections.
Nishani Frazier: And that's really important in Southern states, especially. Because what we're seeing is the reverse migration of Black folks out of urban areas of the North and the West Coast into the South in these major spaces like Houston, Atlanta, where those increased numbers are making a huge difference in terms of the voting patterns in those states. This is also why you see them play these games with polls, right? And I should say this also applies to the Latinx community because there is a Brown Power 1960s movement as well, where they remove the polls, right? Or they reduce the hours of the polls so that you're waiting hours and hours and hours in order to vote. They want to make the process so onerous as to make people give up.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I would add, you know, we think about the 14th Amendment saying a state cannot discriminate on the basis of race, and so as a result of that, when we get that wave of new state constitutions throughout the former states of the Confederacy, 1890, starting with Mississippi to 1910, you know, we have colorblind legislation, right? So literacy tests aren't saying exclude African Americans in particular. So then we wind up perfecting that.
Nishani Frazier: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But that's also not anything new. We've been playing around with colorblind legislation since the Constitution, right? Where the framers are like, "Ah, we ain't gonna mention slavery by name," right? "We're just gonna talk about 'other persons'" I mean, we've had 250 years of perfecting this. This ain't nothing, there's nothing new about this at all, except the applicability today.
Nishani Frazier: No.
Shannon King: Right. Yeah, I mean, I think part of the issue, though, is about helping students get around the rhetoric around the idea that it's really about stopping voter corruption. There are clear voting patterns that show that these voters who happen to be people of color, whether they're African American or Latinx, clearly vote for Democrats. And clearly, this is a direct response to the expansion of Black and brown voters. And I think that's key to help students to understand that they have to get around the redirect and misrepresentation. And then once they do that then it becomes clear, because they can juxtapose these different examples of how in one place folks were able to vote easily and other places they can't vote easily. That becomes a bit more crystal clear for them because they can see the unfairness between these lines that are blocks long versus another neighborhood in the same city where people can walk in casually and come out quickly and go about their business.
Nishani Frazier: And, you know, I think to Shannon's point about the whole question about parties, because one of the things I've heard students say is, "Well, you know, they're political parties. Both sides are doing their best to enhance their numbers or diminish the other group's numbers in order to win." But I think it's really important to talk about the ways in which it's not just the parties attempting to win, it's what these parties mean for different communities, right? And what it can mean for your power, for the kinds of legislation that might be pushed through and how that might be stymied or stopped, and the ways in which you utilize taxpayer dollars, and whether you're using it on behalf of my community or not. And so I think it's also important to lift it beyond these two entities going at it for dominance or competition, and to this larger conversation about what does it mean to have power as a citizen?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think too, that as teachers, we can't fall into the trap of both sides-ism, if you will, right?
Nishani Frazier: Mm-hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Because right now, we're talking about—and this isn't being partisan, this is just stating a fact, we have one national party, the Republican Party, that is committed to perpetuating a lie.
Nishani Frazier: Mm-hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That there is massive voter fraud that then requires new bills and laws that will restrict the voting rights of people of color and those who tend not to vote their way. Teachers got to be clear about that. That is literally just what is happening. And on top of that, it's all predicated on this big lie that it's the participation of African Americans in particular that is making elections illegitimate. That when Donald Trump is talking about this election was stolen after the November 2020 election results come in, literally the night of, he's talking about Atlanta and Philadelphia and Milwaukee and Minneapolis. He's not talking about the suburbs. He's talking about Black folk and brown folk voting. And he's saying that makes these elections illegitimate. And because of the deeply-rooted belief in white supremacy that still exists in the society, and connected to that, the belief that Black folk do not have a legitimate right to be the deciding voice and vote in an election. This is Justice Roger Taney stuff, right? Black people have no rights which the white man is bound to respect. Saying that the election was fraudulent based upon the participation of Black folk is believable in the eyes of millions of white folk, so much so that you will have tens of thousands descending on the nation's capital on January 6 to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
Shannon King: Wow.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's white supremacy at work within the Republican Party.
Shannon King: Let me add to that, because I think an important link to this is the power of colorblind racism. Donald Trump does not or did not, or the Republican Party did not have to mention race, and we were clear that when he was targeting particular states and targeting particular cities within those states, that he was referring to Black people.
Nishani Frazier: Mm-hmm.
Shannon King: What that means is that, in some ways, if there's a post Shelby v. Holder situation, we're in a sort of post-dog whistle politics moment. Because things are crystal clear. At this point, one does not have to use a colorblind rhetoric. One can just attack Black and brown people the way the Republican Party did.
Nishani Frazier: Get right to it.
Shannon King: Right. Get right to it. But also frame it in language that is clearly aggressive and anti-Black. I'm thinking of Ron Johnson, the senator of Wisconsin, and his attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement by using the idea that he felt safe on January 6 because he knew that the quote unquote, "patriots" loved America. And so I think on the one hand, he's not mentioning race, but everyone knows exactly what he's talking about. It's no longer a dog whistle. It's crystal clear. And it completely masks the fact that months before, you know, Black and brown and white and Indigenous people were in Washington, DC, and they were marching and they were attacked by the police. But in the case of January 6, the police were attacked by the so-called patriots, right? And so I think, you know, we're in this very interesting, surreal moment where the kind of logic that we could often fall to no longer works, because in some ways, we're—I mean, I don't want to say that we're back to direct, explicit racist rhetoric, but we're there.
Nishani Frazier: And, you know, I think what's also interesting is that, if we bring it back to the master narrative, part of the underlying element of the master narrative and why it's so important to situate the civil rights movement as the, quote, "good movement," is that we can make the argument that this is part of the continuation of the push for freedom and democracy in America, and that the spirit of this activism was, you know, a kind of patriotism, right? This is why you have Republicans pulling on Dr. King, right? To make his words or cobble his words into something that is more in line with how they insist on framing the history of the United States, right? This notion of democracy and freedom, and Dr. King believes in these concepts.
Nishani Frazier: And in the process, what we do is kill off or disappear the more searing critiques of Dr. King, right? The searing critiques of capitalism, militarism. And certainly when you get into groups that follow Dr. King, or contemporaries like Malcolm X, but certainly the Black Panther Party moves from armed self-defense to a kind of broad analysis of the oppressed, right? And that the oppressed are connected regardless of color, and a critique of capitalism. This is antithetical to how we want to present American history and freedom. And so part of the role of the master narrative is to cut off those kinds of critiques so that we can continue to narrate these notions that these criticisms are out of step with America.
Nishani Frazier: When we get to Black Lives Matter, that's why they get to be a source of agitation. Their criticisms are out of line with the civil rights movement. They're out of line with a focus on democracy and freedom. They're anarchists, they just want to destroy America. Never mind that these are the same criticisms that were leveled at Dr. King, right? [laughs] We've cleaned that up. And so part of the claim of fear has to do with the way in which there's a warping of Black calls for freedom, and distinguishing civil rights movement and those calls from the current calls.
Shannon King: Right. The Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense during the Cold War era, labeling them communists, right? These were all different ways to misrepresent them. And so what happens is, once they're viewed as anti-American, whether it's the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, or whether it's the Young Lords, or whether it's King and his anti-Vietnam speech, those are all ways to mask the critique, as you laid out of, as you said, militarism, white supremacy, and the need for economic redistribution of resources. I mean, that's exactly what his critique was, MLK's critique was of the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration, in the context of the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty. It was clearly a connection between the Black freedom struggle and anti-colonial struggles. And you miss all of that when you use these different ways of labeling the activism, which, as you said, reinforces this master narrative, which is built upon these ideas of patriotism, and in this case, in the case of Ron Johnson on patriots, right?
Nishani Frazier: Yes, because Black Lives Matter, they're not like Dr. King, right? They're disruptive. They're to be feared.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. To continue making this podcast a valuable resource, we need your input. You can help us by taking a few minutes to complete our brief listener survey. Just click on the link in the show notes, or visit LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. It's only 10 questions, and your feedback will help us make each episode even more impactful for educators just like you. Now, let's learn more about using current events to teach the history of the Black freedom struggle with Nishani Frazier and Shannon King.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the things, Shannon, that we have to help our students make sense of in the present is mass incarceration.
Shannon King: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And you and I are both from New York. Know what I'm saying, son? From New York, New York City. Shooting Skelley. Skelley on the blacktop. Shooting hoops in the playground. Both from New York. And we were both—we were both in high school in the late '80s, transitioning into the early '90s. I graduated in the spring of 1990. And if you were our age in the late '80s, in 1989, 1990, you were well aware of what was happening to a small group of Black young males up in Harlem that would be known as the Central Park Five. And I have—I've often used the story of the Central Park Five, now the Exonerated Five to teach the problems of the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. And to me, it was always personal because the lives run parallel with our lives. I mean, it’s just a couple of miles away from where I was hanging out with my boys in Brooklyn. But your connection is even closer.
Shannon King: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But I wonder if you could share a little bit about that, but then also a little bit about how their story might be a good entry point for talking about, and the resources that are available for talking about this problem of mass incarceration and criminalizing Black youth.
Shannon King: Right. So as Hasan knows, I went to school with Yusef Salaam, who is one of the initially the Central Park Five and now the Exonerated Five. And we—you know, we're both from Harlem. We went to the middle school Manhattan East. So we met there. And then we also went to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School. We were both art majors. And, you know, for me, as a young teenager who knew not only Yusef but his younger brother and his older sister, you know, he was a full human being. A young person, both brilliant and shy. And he was an artist. And I think anyone who listens to him speak now, they can see that brilliance. And so when I realized that this was the same Yusef who I knew personally, you know, I was frightened. I didn't understand how this could be the person that The New York Times and The New York Post and The Daily News were describing as young thugs. And at the time, they used the language of "wilding."
Shannon King: And, you know, as a kid from Harlem, a lot of us went to Central Park, and a lot of us were there when we shouldn't have been. Part of that had to do with the fact that our parents were working and we had no other place to go. I was aware of the presence of the police. And what I didn't understand at the time was that the police weren't there to protect me. Now certainly, I was aware of police brutality, but at the time, I didn't have the analysis that I had now. And what I often witnessed was not only individual cases of police brutality, but what we would now identify as stop-and-frisk, right?
Shannon King: And so a lot of this is connected to—I mean, we can go all the way back to the '60s with the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration. But in the case of New York, you have to talk about the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 1973. And then you can go to the '80s with Ronald Reagan, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1988. And actually, I think it's '86 and '88. And then, of course, a bit later, after the moment that we're referring to, which was '89, '90, you would have the Bill Clinton Violent Crime Control Act. And so what this does is that it connects law enforcement with corrections and the courts, right? Those are the three systems that constitute our criminal justice system.
Shannon King: And what it means is that you have these younger people like myself, and clearly in the case of Yusef, who can be caught into the system and misrepresented and interrogated without an adult present, and funneled into the system, and incredibly vulnerable in ways that now they have to engage in this incredibly violent and complicated system that was built since the mid '60s with the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration. And so for younger folks like myself, we had no idea that our everyday interactions with the police, with individual police officers was actually a response to the Black freedom struggle.
Shannon King: It was actually a response to the uprisings in the '60s and '70s. And we had no idea that this was also, you know, this huge institution that was built in response to the crack era, and how—especially in the case of the West Coast, how a lot of the policing was framed around connecting the relationship between juvenile crime with gangs and drugs. And so there's lots of scholars who have written about this, such as Donna Murch and Max Felker-Kantor, who have identified the fact that there was a clear distinction between drugs and gangs, but by framing policing around anti-gang warfare, you're able to snatch up all these young people. You're able to create databases. We're able to surveil them for just walking around with a hoodie, right?
Shannon King: And so, you know, again, as a younger person, you have no idea that all of this is happening. But by, you know, literally reading the papers—you know, in some ways that's when I started reading the papers, beyond just looking at it and flipping to the back to look at the sports section. But by reading the papers and learning and paying attention to the case over time, I mean, that's when I realized that all these complicated things were happening, and how in some ways I was implicated in it, although, you know, I was not connected to that particular case. But that, as younger people, that we were being surveilled, that our communities were occupied, and that we could easily end up in jail even if we're innocent.
Shannon King: It's such a complicated story that doesn't even end once they're exonerated, because, of course, as you know, during the late '80s and early '90s, I mean, Donald Trump put an ad I think—I can't recall if it's The New York Times or not, but a full page, attacking the Central Park Five. And even thereafter, he continued to state that he wasn't wrong and that they’re guilty.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And not just attacking them, but calling for bringing—calling for the execution by bringing back—as children, these were children, by bringing back the death penalty in the state of New York. There is, of course, the documentary film, The Central Park Five that's available for people to watch. And then more recently, the amazing dramatization in four parts on Netflix that Ava DuVernay did called When They See Us, which I think can be shown in parts and in clips in classes. But certainly as educators, I would recommend taking the time to watch it for those who haven't. It's one of those films that you don't watch to enjoy, but you watch to endure. But you get a whole lot out of it. And I think a deeper and better understanding of, as Shannon, as you pointed out, the humanity of Black folk and young people who are so often depicted as criminals that get caught up in this system and they just become names, they become statistics. But we see the people here, and we also see—and I think dramatically shown in what Korey Wise had to go through, the loss of human potential just because you get trapped in this system based upon a lie.
Shannon King: He was the one who was the oldest. He went to the adult prison. And he was the one who was in prison the longest.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I tell you, Shannon, man, what's so crazy about the Central Park Five is—and it didn't really sink in until I was watching When They See Us, as Korey Wise is constantly getting transferred from these prisons, right? I mean, he's in Rikers, and at one point he's at Attica, right? I mean, he's in all these different prisons. Every couple of years, he's being transferred. And in the doc, they're showing—like, they'll be like, 1994, right? Then 1997, then 2001, right? And as I was watching that, I was like, they get sent away in 1990, I graduate from high school. 1994, he's moved to another prison. I graduate from college, right? 2001, they're showing him watching the World Trade. He's still in prison, I'm getting my PhD from Duke, right? And I'm like, all this—everything that I was able to do because I wasn't where he was.
Shannon King: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right? The same people, just happened to be in a different place, as you said, going down. And that to me, is one of the things we don't focus enough on when we talk about mass incarceration. That, yeah, it is tragic and it can be devastating for the individual, but part of what is lost is the human potential. What that person who gets caught up in this system is able to deliver and able to provide to society if given the opportunities to tap into their full potential. So what was that trajectory that then gets derailed when now we're talking about millions of people who have been caught up in this system? Nishani, I wonder how you might teach the Central Park Five, or more broadly, mass incarceration to your students today?
Nishani Frazier: I think it's important to talk about—and this is in part connected to what Shannon has already pointed out, is that a lot of the mass incarceration that we see is a direct outgrowth of the civil rights movement and the response of the federal government to the civil rights movement. We see this in 1968 with the death of King. There are massive rebellions in the street, and LBJ decides to push for this idea of a safe streets act, linking and providing support to local police and the federal government giving assistance to local police about how to respond—for responding to civil rights activists. But we directly see this more transparently in the Nixon campaign. He runs on a law and order platform. But I think it's important that we understand that the law and order platform is directly connected to the response of the federal government to Black activists and Black Power Movement.
Nishani Frazier: And we know this because John Ehrlichman, who is an aide for Nixon, directly says so. And I think it's useful to actually do the quote. He says, "You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did." And that's such an in-your-face kind of a statement, and normally brings students up short, right, to realize the degree to which the federal government had engaged in these nefarious actions in order to undermine the Black Freedom Movement.
Nishani Frazier: So, you know, one of the ways to deal with this whole problem of mass incarceration as an offshoot of the Black Freedom Movement, is to have the representatives of the government tell the truth on themselves, right? I think that's particularly powerful. But what's also powerful, and also Shannon has demonstrated it through his powerful story about his relationship to the Central Park Five, is to personalize the way in which policing does damage to the psyche and spirit of Black people.
Nishani Frazier: And to that end, I have utilized The Kalief Browder Story, as a way to talk about how the criminal justice system acts as a kind of hole that Black kids can be dropped into, never to be seen again. Kalief Browder is an African-American youth who is arrested and sent to Rikers Island. He's sent to jail without any trial, and he's there for a couple of years and exits. And he is incredibly damaged, spiritually damaged, mentally damaged, and ultimately the sort of psychic violence and perhaps even the physical violence of jail leads him to kill himself. So this is a documentary that would not be utilized for students younger than 11th grade, right? It'd be 11th and 12th grade. But it's powerful storytelling to see this young man talk about what the criminal justice system did to him, and then contextualize it within this larger framework of, how do you deal with Black youth who are the core of the Black Freedom Movement, right? You deal with them through finding ways to block off any expression of resistance. And you see that effort with the Kalief Browder story.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Nishani Frazier, Shannon King, thank you so much for joining Teaching Hard History. Nishani, thanks for coming back. We appreciate you so much. And Shannon, thanks for coming on board.
Nishani Frazier: Thank you, thank you.
Shannon King: Thank you.
Nishani Frazier: This has been so fantastic.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm glad.
Nishani Frazier: Thanks.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Shannon King is an Associate Professor of History and Black Studies at Fairfield University. He is the author of Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism During the New Negro Era from NYU Press, which won the National Council for Black Studies Anna Julia Cooper/CLR James Award for outstanding book in Africana Studies. Dr. King is currently working on a new manuscript called Policing the Crisis: Black Protest in Gotham City During the La Guardia Era.
Nishani Frazer is an Associate Professor of History and American Studies 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 from the University of Arkansas Press. She also created the Harambee City website, with lesson plans and other tools for teachers, which you can find in the show notes. Dr. Frazier is currently working on a tasty new book called Cooking with Black Nationalism." And we can’t wait.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice 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 LearningForJustice.org.
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. King and Dr. Frazier for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. “Movement Music” is produced by Barrett Golding. And Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. And 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.
- Nishani Frazier, American Studies, Kansas University
- NishaniFrazier.com, About
- Teaching Hard History Podcast, Reframing the Movement
- Black Lives Matter, Toolkits and Reports
- New York University, Black Lives Matter Syllabus
- Shannon King, History, Fairfield University
- U.S. National Park Service, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
- PBS, Eyes on the Prize
- Washington Post, Martin Luther King Jr.’s scorn for ‘white moderates’ in his Birmingham jail letter
- The New York Times, What Happened in Ferguson?
- CNN, Don Lemon interviews Jesse Jackson about Ferguson Riots and Jobs
- Learning for Justice, On this Day (Watts and Ferguson)
- USHistory.org, The Tea Act and Tea Parties
- Encyclopedia.com, Don't Buy Where You Can't Work Movement
- King Institute, Laurie Pritchett
- King Institute, Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor
- Zinn Education Project, Mighty Times: The Children's March
- Congress of Racial Equality, The History of CORE
- Zinn Education Project, FBI's COINTELPRO Exposed
- National Museum of African American History and Culture, The Black Panther Party: Challenging Police and Promoting Social Change
- BlackPast, San Juan Hill, New York City (ca. 1895-1940)
- Brookings, The Great Real Estate Reset
- King Institute, Barry M. Goldwater
- The New York Times, How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody
- The New York Times, What to Know About Breonna Taylor’s Death
- Learning for Justice, Jimmie Lee Jackson
- Learning for Justice, James Reeb
- Courier Journal, “Breonna Taylor warrant connected to Louisville gentrification plan,lawyers say.”
- BYP100, Mission and History
- Teaching Hard History Podcast, Listen, Look and Learn: Using Primary Sources to Teach the Freedom Struggle
- PBS, Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement
- PBS NewsHour Extra, Lesson Plan: Voter suppression then and now
- PBS, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. Tools and Activities
- Oyez, Shelby County v. Holder
- Department of Justice, History Of Federal Voting Rights Laws
- Brennan Center for Justice, State Voting Bills Tracker 2021
- Civil Rights Movement Archive, Literacy Tests and Voter Applications
- National Constitution Center, 14th Amendment: Citizenship Rights, Equal Protection, Apportionmentå
- PolitiFact, Johnson errs claiming Senate had no violence Jan.6
- Teaching Hard History Podcast, Teaching the Movement’s Most Iconic Figure
- Teaching Hard History Podcast, Malcolm X Beyond the Mythology
- Teaching Hard History Podcast, The Black Panther Party and the Transition to Black Power
- University of Virginia, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. on 7 July 1965
- The New York Times, We Are the ‘Exonerated 5.’ What Happened to Us Isn’t Past, It’s Present
- Donna Murch, History, Rutgers University
- Max Felker-Kantor, Ph.D., Publications
- PBS: Ken Burns, The Central Park Five
- Ava DuVernay, When They See Us
- Shannon King, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism During the New Negro Era
- Nishani Frazer, Harambee City: The Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland and the Rise of Black Power Populism
- Nishani Frazer, Harambee City website