Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching

By Leonard, David J. | Radical Teacher, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching


Leonard, David J., Radical Teacher


PUTTING THE MOVEMENT BACK INTO CIVIL RIGHTS TEACHING Edited by Deborah Menkart, Alana Murray, and Jenice View. (Teaching for Change, 2004).

Amid a conservative backlash that has taken hold of a number of institutionalized spaces, transformative movements have remained stagnant and fragmented. Hoping to bridge past and future, and the classroom and the streets, Deborah Menkart, Alana Murray, and Jenice View challenge teachers and students to put the movement back into the movement with Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching. Moving beyond abstract celebrations and nostalgic memorializing, this collection provides politicized and practical history in the name of critical pedagogy and a continued movement of social change. More than this, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching brings together historic knowledge and pedagogical plans of action, primary and secondary documents, and history in all its forms to provide a map toward holding back the conservative grips in, around, and outside our schools.

A bulk of contemporary historiography and course syllabi focus our attention on the activism and spectacles of the Civil Rights movement. This focus leaves students with the movement of a tired Rosa Parks, a charismatic Martin Luther King, a crazy Malcolm X, and a courageous Cesar Chavez. It not only misappropriates history, but in erasing everyday organizers, women, and coalitions, detaches students from the possibility of their own movement. In denying everyday activities of ordinary citizens, the dominant literature and modes of teaching not only contribute to the mythology surrounding the movement, but also stifle the dreaming of contemporary anti-racist practitioners. Following in the footsteps of Charles Payne, with I've Got the Light of Freedom: The organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995), and Barbara Ransby, with Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (2003), the authors of Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching bring the history of organizers into focus. In providing historical documents and offering curricular lessons, this collection uses the past as the foundation for future organizers. For example, the book provides wonderful exercises to explore the organizing strategies and challenges of the Montgomery bus boycott. This exercise not only asks students to think about the factors that contributed to the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, but also to work toward understanding the principles of organizing and the required steps in a transformative organizing campaign. Most importantly, the activities and focus of this exercise provide a space for students to "gain practice in group decision-making, and an accurate understanding of the role of 'ordinary' people in sustaining democracy" (96). Specifically, this lesson suggests role-playing with a simulated discussion of the Women's Political Council as to whether or not the boycott should mobilize around Claudette Colvin or Rosa Parks. Historical role-playing is also used in a lesson that asks students to map out strategies and activities following the arrest of Parks, as if students were members of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Using historical documents, films, and poems, the proposed lesson offers a powerful path to engage the complexities of Montgomery as well as an interactive plan to examine the fundamental issues of race, gender, and age as they relate to organizing and activism then and now.

The power of this collection rests not purely with its breadth of coverage, its orientation toward teaching (as organizing), and its focus on using the classroom as the basis of persistent struggle, but also with its structure and politics. The text is organized into six thematic categories--reflections on teaching about the movement; citizenship and self-determination; education; economic justice; culture; and looking forward--which allow for discussions across communities, eras, and ideologies. …

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