There has been heated debate about how to teach racism and social justice in schools. Part of this rhetoric centers on whether or not white teachers can effectively teach racism and social justice since they have been the beneficiaries of privilege and members of the dominant American culture for hundreds of years.
I feel that it is the job of a History teacher to inspire curiosity. To do this I pair film and literature in my high school History classes and then let my students create inquiry projects that demonstrate their learning. There are too many facts, figures, events, and readings and too little time to teach civil rights history comprehensively, but good teachers help students make connections between different historical periods and contemplate the type of society they wish to create and participate in.
Following are five resources that I have used to inspire my students to explore the Civil Rights Movement via independent inquiry.
The Best of Enemies directed by Robin Bissell starring Sam Rockwell and Taraji Penda Henson examines a racially-charged charette that takes place in the summer of 1971 in Durham, North Carolina. Without spoiling the ending, there are worthy themes in the treatment of US veterans returning from World War I, World War Two, and Vietnam that deserve student examination through a racial lens. While this movie has been criticized for having a white savior narrative, I found Ms. Henson’s portrayal of the activist Ann Atwater and Babou Ceesay’s performance as Bill Riddick worthy of sharing with my students.
Unexampled Courage by Richard Gergel is a powerful and moving piece of non-fiction that situates the Civil Rights Movement in the Truman administration’s 1948 Executive Order 9981. The blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring is a story that deserves a wider audience. There are strong parallels to the treatment of the Harlem Hellfighters after WWI and the Red Summer of 1919 that students should examine via individual inquiry.
I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck was nominated for an Academy award for Best Documentary Feature. It’s hard to believe this 2016 film lost the Oscar to OJ – Made In America. The words written by James Baldwin are masterfully woven with contemporary footage of racial unrest from Charlottesville with narration from Samuel L. Jackson that presents the Civil Rights movement through the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This film made me want to read more of the great work of James Baldwin.
Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides takes readers on the FBI manhunt for MLK’s assassin. It is a well-researched and detailed look into the life and inner circle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as it pivoted from the Civil Rights movement to the Poor People’s March. One of my students declared this was the best book he’d read in his life. I would have a hard time disagreeing with him. Another student continued researching members of Dr. King’s inner circle and was gratified to find that Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams remained advocates for the poor and protested against the Apollo 11 mission.
Lighting the Fires of Freedom by Janet Dewart Bell looks at the contributions of nine unheralded African American women in the Civil Rights Movement. Each chapter is a detailed oral history featuring the type of historical writing all that teachers should be using as models for their students. I found the chapter featuring Medgar Evers’ widow, Myrlie, particularly heart-breaking when she describes visiting the house where her husband was assassinated.
“Today when I visit my former home, which my children and I deeded to Tougaloo College as a museum, I can still see the blood. We needed to get away from that place. Our oldest son, Darrell Kenyatta, reached a point where he refused to eat, he would not study, he would not talk. He went into this very, very angry withdrawal mode. I knew we needed to be away from the house. My daughter would go to bed with her dad’s picture, holding it every night. The youngest one, Van, who was three, would go to bed with this little rifle. I knew that we could no longer live in that house” (p. 201).
Making historical events personal and relevant is the first job of a History teacher. I aspire to help my students see themselves in shaping the future of America. Redressing grievances is part of our Historical DNA. Presenting these resources to your students will help them develop their own understanding of racism, social justice, and the Civil Rights Movement. I hope you will share your work with a supportive community of teachers and together we can help our students move America closer toward the ideals of all men (and women) being created equal.