[NOTE:Sometimes teaching ideas come from odd sources. In 2007, for example, I asked the principals of our elementary, junior high, and high schools to reflect in the columns of the History Department newsletter on the place of History in their school’s curriculum. One of these responses struck a chord with me, though I could not act on it for a year or so.]
Ever since our junior high school principal, a member of the History Department but not a historian (he taught Economics) wondered, in the September 2007 issue of the department newsletter, what it might be like “to teach U.S. history backwards,” I’d been tempted to try it. Now, messing with chronology in a senior Advanced Placement course would surely be frowned upon, so using my AP U.S. History course to test his idea was out. And doing so in the required freshmen and sophomore History offerings might miss the point altogether, since the importance of chronology was one of the essentials of the study of History that the courses were supposed to inculcate. The solution seemed to lie in an elective course for juniors and seniors, The Modern American Civil Rights Movement, that I taught every other year of so.
I finally got my chance in the Spring semester, 2009. I had taught Civil Rights several times, but I had never been able to move beyond the assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis in 1968, for reasons both personal and related to the fact Civil Rights was a one-semester course. One of the first decisions I made after inheriting the Civil Rights course was that I would spend a lot of time with the “Age of Jim Crow.” I was convinced that, unless modern Americans understood the depth and breadth of the system of racial segregation imposed upon African Americans from the late nineteenth century through the mid-1960s, they could not truly grasp the significance of the accomplishments of King and others in the Movement.
Absent a thorough grasp of the historical context, in other words, King’s career could be–and sometimes has been–reduced to little more than a picture of the man on a postage stamp, one of his slogans on a bumper sticker, or a boiler plate, full-page ad for a retail sale on his national holiday. In the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, however, members of the “Commentariat,” those purveyors of opinion pieces in the local, regional, and national press, had a field day trying to explain how the mixed-raced Senator from Illinois had managed to secure election to the nation’s highest office and what that event meant in the context of the nation’s long struggle to secure civil rights for all its citizens. Moreover, these questions would be even more important in January 2009, when Obama prepared to take the oath to defend the Constitution as President of the United States.
So, I wondered, what if we began our course, in January 2009, not in the post-Civil War South but with a unit on the significance of Obama’s victory in November 2008? We might consider reactions to Obama’s election from several politically-savvy journalists across the ideological spectrum, paying close attention to the historical forces they cited to explain the outcome, as well as how they interpreted the significance of his inauguration. Then–and only then–would we turn to the late nineteenth century, to examine the creation of the Jim Crow system, how it was enforced, and why it lasted so long. Grounding the study of the Modern Civil Rights Movement between the election of Barack Obama and the origins and development of Jim Crow, in other words, might enable my students better to appreciate the achievements of the Movement, its leaders, and its thousands of heroic “foot soldiers.”
The op-eds my students read, while focusing on Obama’s campaign and its triumphant outcome, also discussed the historical context of those events, especially the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement over the last half century, in some detail, but references to the pre-1960s system of segregation tended to be pretty vague. Consequently, although my charges grasped that the new President’s skin color was at the core of the excitement, and that he was in some way an “heir of the Civil Rights Movement,” exactly what that meant was far from clear to them.
Still, we did have stimulating discussions about the op-eds, even–especially–after every student in the class rolled his/her eyes while evaluating one dewey-eyed columnist’s description of Obama’s election as proof that we were living in “a post-racial America.” Call them cynical, but apparently none of my Civil Rights students bought into that particular thesis (and, in view of what has happened since, this restores my faith in the wisdom of at least some of the nation’s future leaders). Well, if Barack Obama’s election did not herald an America in which race made no difference, why were so many people so excited? Rather than provide an answer at the beginning of the course, I was content when my students formulated the question.
With the op-ed exercise as background, the focus of the course shifted to the Jim Crow era, in order to establish the post-Civil War context of the race issue. To begin, we looked at what, in my opinion, is one of the best efforts by Hollywood so far to examine the burden of race from the Civil War through the early 1960s, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974), based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. In doing this, I hoped both to provide an engaging, if “Hollywood-ish,” overview of what the rest of the course would cover and encourage the students to consider how white and black characters were portrayed in the movie, with an eye towards examining stereotypes. These goals were encapsulated in an essay that served as the “test” for that unit.
After finishing “Miss Jane Pittman,” we settled down for several weeks in the Jim Crow South, using the first chapter in our primary text, Harvard Sitkoff’s The Struggle for Black Equality, and episodes from several video series, including “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” “Promised Land,” and “Eyes on the Prize,” further to help establish the historical context of the “Age of Jim Crow.” We also read and discussed two memoirs, Melton McLaurin’s Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South, and Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, to see how Jim Crow operated at ground level, from both white and black perspectives. Finally, as part of this unit, I introduced my students to the Blues, a genre of African American music that illuminates, sometimes in garish ways, the social and economic situations of those who did the “heavy lifting” in the late-nineteenth century South.
Thereafter, I tried to work my way as far forward as I could, to show my students just how powerful a factor race has been in American history. By the time we reached the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision (1954) and the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott, the class seemed to understand more clearly the obstacles faced by African Americans before the Civil Rights Movement. Given that background, they found it almost incredible that Barack Obama could have been elected President only a half century later.
We next examined events from the Montgomery bus boycott through the assassination of Dr. King, using the Sitkoff text, Moody’s memoir, and “Eyes on the Prize.” My students were impressed by King’s powerful rhetoric; stunned by the courage of Anne Moody and other Movement activists; and, by turns, speechless and infuriated by the violence routinely meted out to demonstrators by southern whites and the pronouncements by local officials attempting to justify it. Some of this anger was reflected in my students’ desire to learn more about Malcolm X, whose fiery rhetoric seemed to touch something deep within them; I was able to oblige, using another fine PBS documentary, “Malcolm X: Make it Plain,” thus digging still another “post-hole” in our quest to come to terms with the burden of race in American history.
The climax of this attempt to teach the history of the Civil Rights Movement “backwards” came with the term project (the substitute for the final exam). First, I had each student interview an older family member about his or her memories of the Civil Rights Movement and views on the importance of the issue of race in modern times. One thing that became obvious as we discussed these interviews was the difference between the perceptions of grandparents and parents about the Civil Rights Movement. Most of my students’ parents were born in the early 1960s, which meant that their memories of the Movement ranged from vague to non-existent. On the other hand, their parents, my students’ grandparents, had lived through those stormy times; had much more vivid memories and impressions of the Movement and its struggles; and passed those on to their children, who, in turn, conveyed them to their children, my students.
Building on this “oral history research project,” I then had the students incorporate what they had learned during the semester, asking them to comment critically on their sources’ reflections on the significance of race in modern America, as part of their own, separate analysis. The most interesting outcome of this segment of the term project was how students were able to understand the responses of those they’d interviewed in the context of the long struggle for African American civil rights. The issue was no longer dry and abstract; instead, it had become immediate and personal.
The results suggested that, despite my decision to entitle the initial unit, on the election of Barack Obama, as “The End, for Now,” interest in the Civil Rights Movement, and the issue of race, was going to be with us for a while. And I have seen nothing since I retired to make me change my mind. In fact, with the outrage of the “birthers,” the rise of the so-called “Tea Party,” and all those not so subtle slurs about President Obama being some sort of wild-eyed Kenyan Socialist, I am even more convinced that understanding the burden of race is essential if one hopes to come to terms with American history over the last century and a half.
Branch, Taylor. America in the King Years (3 vols.). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988-2006.
Chafe, William, et al. Remembering Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2001.
Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
McLaurin, Melton A. Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (2nd ed.) Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Dell Publishing, 1968.
Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Random House, 2010.