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Textbooks and the Civil Rights Movement

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Rev. Ben Chavis, right, raises his fist as fellow protesters are taken to jail at the Warren County PCB landfill near Afton, North Carolina on Thursday, Sept. 16, 1982. Chavis is one of the members of the Wilmington 10. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
Rev. Ben Chavis, right, raises his fist as fellow protesters are taken to jail at the Warren County PCB landfill near Afton, North Carolina on Thursday, Sept. 16, 1982. Chavis is one of the members of the Wilmington 10. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

As I discussed in the Black Power post from a couple of days ago, the civil rights movement has no real start or end. It’s an ongoing series of struggles. The Civil Rights Movement we think of as having primarily existed between 1954 and 1965 is really just a moment where the black freedom struggle coincided with a peak of white liberalism that opened political space to change some of the laws oppressing African-Americans. It’s unfortunate that we so often think of the movement in this way because doing so erases the long-term systemic racism that oppressed black people before, during, and after this period. It’s also unfortunate that this periodization dominates American history textbooks, where other than mentions of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, the civil rights struggle after 1965 is scarcely mentioned, if at all. Adam Sanchez calls for the teaching of the “long civil rights movement,” focusing on the post-1965 struggles, as well as the 1954-65 period.

Far from being the end of the Civil Rights Movement, 1965 marked a legislative milestone and provided activists with another tool. But the new legislation was not a solution to the problems people had been organizing against for many years. In the North and the South, activists continued to confront poverty, unemployment, lack of health care, poor housing, inadequate education, and police and sheriff brutality.

U.S. history textbooks fail to look deeply at the urban rebellions, Martin Luther King’s campaigns against war and poverty, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and the rise of the Black Panther Party. And there are countless other post-1965 events that should be brought into the classroom: the Memphis Sanitation workers’ strike and the subsequent workers’ struggles of the 1970s, the Orangeburg Massacre, the fight for Ethnic Studies programs, the national campaign for welfare rights, the Attica Prison Uprising, the battle over segregated schools in Boston and community control in New York, the fight in the South to ensure the Voting Rights Act was put into practice, and many more.

The shallow understanding of the Civil Rights Movement that my students brought to class goes beyond not knowing post-1965 events. As historian Jeanne Theoharis has noted, before the Watts Rebellion there was more than two decades of nonviolent activism against legalized segregation in Los Angeles. And in 1963, after what is widely taught as a successful nonviolent struggle to desegregate downtown Birmingham, Alabama, 2,000 African Americans, fed up after segregationists bombed hotels that housed movement leaders, turned to violence. They threw rocks and bricks, looted stores, and set fire to a nearby grocery. Despite the fact that this precipitated Kennedy’s endorsement of the Civil Rights Act, this violence is often left out of the story of Birmingham, just as nonviolent activism is left out of the story of Watts.

What this example reveals and what a growing work of scholarship argues, is that we have been sold a narrative of the movement that ignores enormous parts of Civil Rights history. By mythologizing a successful, exclusively nonviolent struggle against racial segregation in the South that becomes a polarizing call for Black Power as it moves North after 1965, we leave out struggles across the country that don’t fit this stereotype.

We should replace this limited narrative, these scholars argue, with one of “The Long Civil Rights Movement,” a national Black freedom struggle rooted in struggles of the 1930s and extended through the 1970s, that used self-defense and nonviolent direct action, that dealt with issues of race and class, that developed international solidarity, and participated in countless local struggles in the North and South.

In classrooms across the country, guided by the official textbooks and curricula, students learn a version of the Civil Rights Movement that leaves its lessons in the past. School districts across the country should provide time for teachers to produce a people’s curriculum of the movement in order to teach the local histories that are left out of the official narrative. This way our students who we hope will join and shape today’s social movements can do so with knowledge and insight about what came before.

That last paragraph is really important because not only did the legal victories of civil rights start disappearing in the racist white backlash that began manifesting itself by 1965, but stopping our teaching of civil rights in that increasingly distant past is an overt political decision to downplay racism today. This is the sort of thing that allows conservatives to claim Martin Luther King as their own because of a couple of lines in one speech completely disconnected from context. Even King’s turn to democratic socialism, his opposition to Vietnam, his Chicago housing campaign, and his move to organizing a poor people’s movement is significantly downplayed in our historical narrative, and King’s the most celebrated figure in American civil rights. Dealing with racism today requires understanding racism of the past. Understanding Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15 today requires placing these movements in context of the black freedom struggles not only of 60 and 50 years ago but of 20, 30, and 40 years ago.

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