It is hard to imagine any movement more important for understanding the meaning of freedom and equal rights in the U.S. than the civil rights struggle in post-World War II era. Yet, as Julian Bond has succinctly argued, in most textbooks and the media, the popular understanding of that movement is reduced to: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day.”
That interpretation is consistent with the way much of our history is learned: Charismatic presidents and heroic leaders make history happen. Textbooks often illustrate the Civil Rights Movement with a photo of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the March on Washington. Left in the shadows are the decades of organizing by young people, women, and community members that made these milestone events possible.
The last decade has seen the publication of excellent studies of local and grassroots organizing during the Civil Rights Movement, but little of that work has impacted what is taught in middle and high school. This institute will help correct that imbalance by introducing participants to some of the newest scholarship on the movement.
This institute is designed by a collaborative team of scholars, veterans, and educators from Duke University, the SNCC Legacy Project (collaborators on the SNCC Digital Gateway), and Teaching for Change. Participants will learn the bottom-up history of the Civil Rights Movement and receive resources and strategies to bring it home to their students, so that they can see themselves in this history. Teachers will have the unique opportunity to learn from people who were key organizers in the Civil Rights Movement, and from leading scholars of that era.
Three key narratives will serve as the focus of this institute.
1) Local movement activists thrust forward its leaders, not the other way around, Charles Cobb Jr., journalist, author, and SNCC veteran has pointed out. Young people usually think that the civil rights movement started with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington or with Rosa Parks in Montgomery. In reality, black people had dreamed of and fought for their freedom for decades. For example, Parks had been an activist in Montgomery’s NAACP chapter for two decades and the Women’s Political Council had threatened a boycott the year before Parks refused to move. Parks worked closely with E.D. Nixon, who was a member of the union led by A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Montgomery movement existed well before King was selected to become the movement’s symbolic leader. As Cobb has noted, a true understanding of how Montgomery happened is obscured, not illuminated, by focusing only on King. Cobb adds, “The way to understand this moment. . . is by understanding the kind of challenges black people were making to one another across the south. This is what drove struggle and change.”
2) The tradition of protest grew out of the institutions of the black community – church, family, schools and lodges – which provided the framework and support out of which protest emerged. Nowhere was this more the case than in the struggle of young activists in the 1960s, starting with the Greensboro sit-ins on February 1, 1960. At the time, many people thought the sit-ins came out of nowhere; that they were like an “immaculate conception.”
Yet as Duke historian William Chafe explains, “The truth was very different. The students who sat in at the lunch counter that day in Greensboro did not miraculously discover the politics of direct-action protest. Rather, they found a new way to express a commitment to fight Jim Crow that had been part of their entire process of growing up—lessons taught by their parent who were NAACP members, by their teachers at their all-black high school who demanded that they become ‘the best that you can be,’ by their minister who preached the Social Gospel at their church. Their decision to act—and the method they chose—grew directly from the foundation of resistance to racial injustice that was embedded in the black community and reinforced by their participation in the NAACP youth group that Ella Baker had started in Greensboro in 1943.”
Appropriately, what happened next reflected the deep roots of this protest tradition. As the number of people sitting in at the Greensboro store multiplied, so too did the readiness of others to follow in their footsteps. Within 8 weeks, sit-ins spread to more than 60 cities in 9 states. It was also fitting that Ella Baker, the acting executive director of King’s SCLC, was the one to convene a meeting of student protestors at the HBCU Shaw University. Out of that meeting came the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a national organization led by young people that became the cutting edge of the civil rights struggle. The group mobilized protests in Alabama, southwest Georgia, and Mississippi (in partnership with people like WWII veteran Amzie Moore) to carry the movement to new heights. Judy Richardson said, “By focusing only on the greatness of Dr. King, we ignore the amazing courage, strength and brilliant leadership of ‘regular’ people. Many of them had been plowing the ground of political and social change before SNCC, CORE, or SCLC ever got to these communities.”
3) The link between grassroots protest and legislative reforms instituted by state and national governments came when thousands of activists, in the face of brutal repression, mobilized to demand that the government mandate desegregation in public facilities and guarantee the right of black Americans to vote. Neither the Civil Rights Act of 1964 nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would have happened had it not been for the behind the scenes grassroots organizing. White leaders like Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson ultimately responded—but only when they had no choice, and only when pressure from black activists—and some white activists—compelled them to act.
Thus it is impossible to teach the truth about the civil rights struggle in America only by examining the work of leaders. It is critical that our public school curriculum accurately represent the process by which social change occurred. Institute scholar Adriane Lentz-Smith notes, “The flowering of the black freedom struggle into the mid-century civil rights movement is at the heart of 20th-century U.S. history: a story of the making and re-making of American state and nation. Yet it is too often reduced to caricature or conveyed through invocations of a handful of near-mythic heroes. Learning the history in its complexity and in its roots in everyday struggle will help teachers and their students tell a more robust history of American democracy and consider that history’s significance to our vital and unfolding present.”
That is the purpose of this summer institute. Participants will have the opportunity to learn first-hand from veterans of SNCC. They will learn how the 1960s voter registration work in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi was built around canvassing — going door to door, talking to people, urging them to put their lives on the line by going to the registrar’s office — and how that grassroots insistence on the right to vote was what finally forced the government to act. It was the fact that SNCC activists lived with and were guided by local people in the communities where they worked — going to their churches and building relationships — that finally created the pressure the government could not resist.
It is much more complicated to teach this more accurate history than it is to focus on huge demonstrations or a president signing legislation. But it is the only way students will come to understand how the movement started, what transpired in its topsy-turvy struggle to get the nation’s attention, and how social change finally happens. This is critical for informing students’ own role as engaged, active citizens. Institute co-director Wesley Hogan notes, “Classroom teachers, simply enough, make citizens out of our young people. If children and young adults do not learn how to participate in the democratic process in the social studies classroom, then students are left to their own devices.”
Program of Study
The institute will be divided into the following time periods: 1940-1954, 1955-1965, and 1966-1980. The three themes discussed above will be addressed throughout. It will be led by two co-directors, Judy Richardson, who served on staff the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Georgia, Miss. and Lowndes Co., Alabama (1963-66) and ran the office for Julian Bond’s successful first campaign for the Georgia House of Representatives. Her documentary film work includes the award-winning 14-hour PBS series Eyes On The Prize, PBS’ Malcolm X: Make It Plain, and videos for the Little Rock 9 National Park Service site; and visiting professor at Brown University; and Wesley Hogan from Duke University, who has written about youth activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC and the Dream for a New America), and youth activists since 1960 (On the Freedom Side: How Five Decades of Youth Activists Have Remixed American History).
Participants will engage in a rigorous examination of key historical events (such as the uprising of tobacco workers in Winston-Salem, NC, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Greensboro Sit-in, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization) introduced through books, articles, guest presenters, primary documents, and participant research.
During each week of the institute, participants will have time to examine three major questions:
- What happened in previous decades that laid the groundwork for this event?
- How did leaders emerge from the movement?
- What was the role of grassroots organizing?
Participants will interact with peer response groups, scholars, and veterans, who will serve as resources and respondents throughout the three weeks. They will also have full access to the libraries at Duke University.
Teachers will modify or develop lessons and units for teaching about the Civil Rights Movement in ways that challenge the traditional narrative. Teachers will also develop approaches to engaging their peers in teaching the bottom up, inside out history of the Civil Rights Movement.
A key resource will be two documentary websites, SNCCDigital.org and CRMvet.org. They offer profiles of activists and events, along with a rich collection of oral histories, videos, primary documents, and a section on contemporary activists responding to questions relevant to their organizing.