The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), founded in 1971 in Montgomery Alabama, has an impressive record of achievement in prosecuting supremacists, Klansmen, and other hate groups. Center co-founder and Chief Trial Counsel Morris Dees continues to work despite death threats, and the Center keeps growing and attracting talented workers. SPLC has prosecuted cases of racial and economic injustice from Kian murder in Alabama and discriminatory coal company practices in Eastern Kentucky, to skinhead murder in Oregon and Klan terror against Vietnamese fishermen in the Texas Gulf. Their cases often take many years to resolve, such as a 16-year case against the State of Alabama that will end discrimination in the hiring of State Troopers and another that will amount to a major redistricting victory making the election of blacks to the Alabama State House of Representatives probable. Morris Dees and his staff conceived of an education program as their research revealed that established hate groups are attracting and training young people. Bias crimes are increasingly being committed by younger perpetrators. Teaching Tolerance is an education program of the SPLC intended to provide educators with a focused set of curriculum materials promoting acceptance of diversity
The Teaching Tolerance program has distributed between 50-70,000 copies of its first resource package, "The American Civil Rights Movement" to schools, churches, and civic organizations that request them. Each package contains a video and supporting materials such as a suggested curriculum, a historical guide, and copies of Teaching Tolerance magazine. Five more packages will be produced and distributed over the next few years. The second package, "The Shadow of Hate," will look at the historic roots of racial and religious persecution and its related violent expressions in the U.S. The last four parts of this series are in the planning stages and will deal with effective strategies for early childhood educators in addressing difference and intolerance, conflict resolution, teamwork, and community involvement.
The curriculum is designed for 6th-12th grade students with well-organized discussion, writing, and research plans for their instructors to use with them. Many of the exercises encourage hypothesizing moral choices: If you had been faced with this situation, how could you have responded? The Teaching Tolerance program is based on the premise that teachers don't need more philosophy and theory. Instead, they need well-researched and organized resources. These materials are easy to adapt for a variety of possible subject areas and teaching environments.
"Free At Last," a 104-page guide by Teaching Tolerance editor Sara Bullard included in package, "The American Civil Rights Movement," sketches the legal history of African American citizens from the beginning of slavery to the late 1980s. It also provides biographies of each of the 40 people whose names are inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin in Montgomery, Alabama. The biographies are arranged chronologically by dates of death, placing the people within their historical context, amid the local and national events of which their deaths were a part.
The biannual Teaching Tolerance magazine serves as a national networking forum for educators who want to examine issues of bigotry and promote understanding difference in the classroom. The magazine features articles by people like educator and Director of the Children's Defense Fund Marian Wright Edelman and poet Luis Rodriguez, as well as articles and letters from teachers. Since the program's inception in 1991 the magazine's circulation has risen to 250,000.
The videos included in the first two resource packages are written and directed by filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, a three-time Academy Award winner for his documentary films including RFK Remembered (1968) and Johnstown Flood (1989). A Time for Justice (n.d.), Guggenheim's contribution to "The American Civil Rights Movement" tolls the story of the 14 years of the Civil Rights Movement during which the federal government was forced to guarantee desegregation of businesses, public facilities, and transportation and to ensure African Americans the right to vote.
The film opens at a grave in the woods, seen at a distance. The grainy black and white still introduces two of the film's themes: that the history of the Civil Rights Movement was not "non-violent," and that there are heroes who were not well-known. To work these themes, Guggenheim uses a few recognizable conventions of historical documentary. The rhythm of cuts and pans, alongside the cadences different narrating voices and the QPF; musical score by Michael Bacon all keep a tight, didactic grip on the story. Still images vary from the crisp, iconic photos by Bruce Davidson and Danny Lyon to more anonymous photojournalistic images. The stills, many of which have become stock representations of the era, are reinvested with meaning by the voice-over recollections of those who were there.
One voice is that of Julian Bond who was a young organizer during the Movement. Other participants in the events depicted are heard, but none are identified until the credits where they are referred to as "witnesses." The distancing of events through the use of black and white film and archival footage is mitigated by the immediacy of a voice saying, "I was there and this is what was going on." This strategy is especially effective for drawing viewers into identification with the vulnerability of the civil rights workers to violence.
A Time for Justice tells a few stories of those who became victims of Klan violence during this period. In 1955, acting familiar with a white store clerk could mean a death sentence, as in the case of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, visiting southern relatives from Chicago (" . . . he didn't know to whisper when addressing a white woman, eyes to the floor"). That his admitted torturers were found not guilty shocked the nation into recognizing some of the horror of the political and social conditions in the South. Meanwhile, ordinary people were more resolved than ever to register to vote--to go out of their homes and about their business in spite of potential humiliation, arrest, or violence.
Almost ten years after the death of Till and the Supreme Court's Brown vs the Board of Education decision, two events during "Freedom Summer" in 1964 helped galvanize national and world opinion. The murders of three civil rights workers and the march from Selma to Montgomery that culminated in "Bloody Sunday," demonstrated the resolve of Klan-ridden southern institutions to keep things the way they were. On "Bloody Sunday," marchers starting their 54-mile walk to Montgomery were trapped crossing a bridge over the Alabama River. The archival footage used in A Time for Justice shows the marchers, in their Sunday clothes, walking quietly across the bridge on the sidewalk. The Alabama State Police are shown waiting until all are on the bridge to charge them with tear gas and clubs from one direction while the Klan blocks them from behind.
The Selma march had been called to protest the State Trooper beatings of 200 people the week before. The people were trapped by troopers as they emerged from church to begin a peaceful night march into town. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 27-year-old farmer and a deacon of his church was beaten and shot to death by troopers while trying to protect his mother and wounded grandfather. Since these events were never documented for historical purposes only a few stills of the aftermath of violence provide the nightmarish setting for the voice relating the story. An open church door with light streaming out into the dark night and an overturned chair are suddenly ominous portents of the next scene--Jackson's mourners and a film of the funeral procession.
Unlike the Hollywood version of the Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi Burning (1988) by Alan Parker, in which murder and violence are just part of the action, disconnected from history, (in fact, in flagrant disregard for history), A Time for Justice examines the meaning of each life lost within the historical narrative. Where Mississippi Burning is a G-Man, buddy film in which a white woman is the most courageous person in town, the actual story is full of men and women who worked together for voter registration and desegregation although they had no hope of protection from retaliation and arrest.
The final image returns us to the wooded cemetery and the gravestone, which we can now identify as Jimmie Lee Jackson's. The front of the stone is bullet-ridden. The film succeeds, without statistics or academic analysis, in demonstrating that between the legally-sanctioned suppression of African Americans through the Jim Crow laws of the southern states and intimidation through violence, slavery did not really end until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The epilogue, printed over the last frame, states that although passage of the Voting Rights Act was a major victory-prejudice and hatred persist.
This film raises some tough questions about the effectiveness of traditional PBS-style documentary to motivate the "Beavis and Butthead" generation. Their "history" is the formative moral and political experience of the adolescents of the 1960s. If it looks far away and long ago to the children of the 90s how do we know its messages are received by them? A high school senior who viewed the film liked its brevity, pace, and simplicity of message. She also added that it should have been more graphic--that her peers would be unlikely to dwell on the story as they had for days after viewing Schindler's List.
As my high school informant points out, A Time for Justice probably functions well as part of the larger curriculum package, allowing for longer relevance and reflection. it delivers images and information that did not exist in one place before--the poor condition of some of the key footage underscores how badly this story was documented as it happened. If SPLC wants to effect behavioral change, however, their audience must be taken more into account.
Thus far, the program's evaluation has been informal: due to the small staff and limited resources of SPLC there has been no organized effort to train teachers in the use of materials or systematic follow-up on how the materials are used once they leave the Center. Elsie Williams, the Editorial Assistant for the magazine reports that 600 positive reader responses were received in a survey published in the fourth issue of Teaching Tolerance. While this number may not constitute a significant sampling, the program receives thousands of letters from teachers praising the materials and asking for more. SPLC's priority has been to get materials into as many schools and libraries as possible. Facing History, a much older anti-bias program based in Boston, disseminates materials and methods through teacher training workshops. That program uses the Holocaust as a point of departure for similar analyses of bigotry. While Teaching Tolerance has no teacher training in place, according to Williams, Bullard and the Center are aware of this need.
The first concept of the "Free At Last" text to be used in class discussions is "Imagine." Underlying all discussions of education are messages about what sort of adults we want our children to grow into. This is why the conservative Right is spending a lot of time and money on packing school boards around the country and examining textbooks and libraries. The SPLC has a clear vision of the attributes they hope to see more of in the citizens of the future: tolerant of differences, willing to resolve conflicts fairly and peacefully, and courageous enough to insist on justice and fairness for others should these rights be threatened. Imagine.(1)
(1.) Contact Teaching Tolerance at the Southern Poverty and Law Center, 400 Washington…