Teaching the Movement: '60S-Era Civil Rights Activists Use Classrooms to Educate the Masses

Article excerpt

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Every January, Charles Cobb Jr. makes the L100-mile trek from sunny Jacksonville, Fla., to chilly Providence, R.I.

For the past eight years, Cobb--a veteran of the civil rights movement who in the 1960s served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in Mississippi--becomes a visiting professor of Africana studies at Brown University.

There, he teaches a popular course that he designed called "The Organizing Tradition of the Southern Civil Rights Movement." Students enrolled in the course read a half-dozen books focused on SNCC, and Cobb brings in his life experience and many of his friends--all of whom are prominently referenced in the books that his students read--to provide details of the movement.

"It's fun," says Cobb, who began a career as a journalist in 1974 and has written two books focusing on the civil rights movement. "I make them write a lot because I am a journalist, but in some ways what I do in the classroom is what we tried to do in the South--get people to engage in conversations."

Cobb is one of a handful of civil rights activists from the 1960s who have successfully made the transition to academia, helping students who were born in a different era understand how the freedom struggle transformed America.

In the years after the civil rights movement, a few colleges and universities hired activists. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst hired SNCC member Ekwueme Michael Thelwell in 1970 as founding chairman of its W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. The school recruited John H. Bracey Jr.--active in civil rights, Black liberation and other social justice movements in Chicago--to the department two years later. Dr. Angela Davis, a former Black Panther, recently retired from her teaching post in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Kathleen Cleaver, who also was a member of the Black Panther Party, teaches law at Emory University. Dr. Joyce Ladner, a renowned sociologist and the first woman president of Howard University, was a member of SNCC. She and her sister Dorie organized protests in Mississippi alongside Medgar Evers and were jailed for their activism.

Still, most colleges have been slow in luring veteran activists to their campuses, outside the occasional speaking engagement during Black History Month. Cobb and a handful of his former SNCC comrades want to change that. They argue that as these '60s activists continue to age, the time is ripe for schools--particularly Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs--to move quickly to find a way to introduce them to a younger generation. They have developed a proposal aimed at encouraging schools to hire these veteran activists for short-term teaching gigs.

Filling a void

The proposal comes in the wake of an alarming report released last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center that points out that most graduating high school students know little about the civil rights movement as they enter college.

According to the report, only 2 percent of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

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"Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history. Generally speaking, the farther away from the South--and the smaller the African-American population--the less attention paid to the civil rights movement. Sixteen states do not require any instruction whatsoever about the movement. In another 19, coverage is minimal. In almost all states, there is tremendous room for improvement," the report notes.

Julian Bond, who headed the NAACP board of directors from 1998 to 2010 and is now chairman emeritus, is a distinguished scholar in the School of Government at American University in Washington, D. …