Teaching the Civil Rights movement in Baltimore


Note: I started working on this post back in November but I am just now publishing it in February. I’ll be doing more school tours this spring and wanted to revisit, revise and expand this post into a more detailed set of guidelines—possibly to integrate into the Educational Resources list I put together for Baltimore Heritage.

When planning an in-classroom workshop for a ninth-grade class this fall, I started by coming up with my own outline but quickly sought out resources from the Teaching Tolerance program. I took notes from The March Continues: Five Essential Practices for Teaching the Civil Rights Movement described as “a set of guiding principles for educators who want to improve upon the simplified King-and-Parks-centered narrative many state standards offer.” I also tried to learn more about how Baltimore and Maryland typically teach the Civil Rights movement and what best practices the educators from Teaching Tolerance recommend.

How do Baltimore and Maryland teach the Civil Rights movement?

A March 2014 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Program—“Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States” (PDF)—highlighted a major concern for many historians, activists and educators, writing:

We remain concerned that students are likely to remem-ber only two names and four words about the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and “I have a dream.”

In a national review of “the breadth and depth of state standards and supports” Teaching Tolerance found only three states that earned an “A” grade. In this analysis, “a score of 100 percent would mean that a state’s standards and resources were outstanding in every area; 50 percent means that they are adequate.” Maryland joined seven other states (Alabama, California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Virginia) in recieving a “B” grade between 50 percent and 60 percent.

In a separate list of “Nine Notable State Resource Guides”, a resource created by the Maryland State Department of Education and Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture is called out for praise, noting: “Several are movement-related. The lessons as a whole are excellent—most teachers could immediately use them in their classrooms.”

A few examples from this larger collection include:

What are the essential practices for teaching the movement?

  1. Educate for empowerment.
  2. Know how to talk about race.
  3. Capture the unseen.
  4. Resist telling a simple story.
  5. Connect to the present.

Educate for empowerment

What does empowerment look like? Empowered students can:

  • express empathy when people are excluded or mistreated because of their identities and concern when they themselves experience bias;
  • recognize their own responsibility to stand up to exclusion, prejudice and injustice;
  • speak up with courage and respect when they or someone else has been hurt or wronged by bias;
  • make principled decisions about when and how to take a stand against bias and injustice in their everyday lives and will do so despite negative peer or group pressure; and
  • plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world and will evaluate what strategies are most effective.

Know how to talk about race

  • Acknowledge the importance of race in your students’ lives.
  • Dispel ideas about a biological basis for race.
  • Bone up on the history of race as a social construct and means of control.
  • Create a safe environment with clear communication guidelines.
  • Identify common roadblocks to produc-tive discussion.
  • Recognize that disparities exist but need not persist.
  • Speak from your own experience.
  • Create opportunities for students to speak from their own experience.

Capture the unseen

Capturing the unseen helps teach the civil rights movement because it engages students in the process of discovering knowledge. Students see that the move-ment—and much knowledge—is a “living thing.” It is not only their journey of discovery; scholars, too, continue to map its contours and fissures. When students are producers rather than simply passive receptacles of knowledge, they are more likely to show interest and retain information.

“By confining the civil rights struggle to the South, to bowdlerized heroes, to a single halcyon decade, and to limited, noneconomic objectives, the master narrative simultaneously elevates and diminishes the movement. It ensures the status of the classical phase as a triumphal moment in a larger American progress narrative, yet it undermines its gravitas. It prevents one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history from speaking effectively to the challenges of our time.” —Jacquelyn Dowd Hall

  • Explore hidden dimensions of the well-known by giving students a rich sense of context.

Resist telling a simple story

Too often, students learn that school segregation ended in Little Rock, that the Montgomery Bus Boycott stopped segregated busing, and that passage of the Voting Rights Act eliminated all obstacles to voting. They learn that racial violence ended after Birmingham. Yet those same students may notice that they attend segregated schools, live in segregated neighborhoods, and that poverty and race seem to go together. As educator Terrie Epstein observes, teaching a “disingenuous national history” leaves students without the tools they need to understand present-day inequalities. When teachers reach beyond this commonly accepted narrative, they make the struggle real for students.

Connect to the present

  • Build bridges from the movement to current events. Don’t look only for headlines that refer to African-American civil rights. The news is full of stories—in-cluding those on immigration policy, educational and income disparities and the struggle for gender equality—that have roots in the civil rights movement.
  • Connect to the present means establishing relevance in students’ lives. Strug-gles that students and their communities face can be brought into the classroom as living case studies for the lessons of the civil rights movement.

What are the essential content areas for teaching the movement?

  1. Leaders: Students should learn that the civil rights movement was composed of many individuals and was not the initiative of any single person or small group of people.
  2. Groups: Students should be able to identify major groups involved in the civil rights movement. They should explain the mission and accomplishments of each group, as well as trace the relationships among groups.
  3. Events: Students should be able identify key events in the civil rights movement and place them in correct chronology. They should identify the causes and consequences of these events, linking key figures and organizations to each event.
  4. Historical context: Students should be able to trace the roots of the civil rights movement to slavery and the Jim Crow era.
  5. Opposition: Students should be able to identify opposition to the goals of the civil rights movement. They should examine the persistence of racism and be able to identify key figures and groups opposing the extension of civil rights.
  6. Tactics: Students should be able to explain the advantages and disadvantages of tactics used at different times during the struggle for civil rights. They should identify and compare tactics and ideas such as boycotts, sit-ins, marches, going to jail, voter registration and Black Power.
  7. Connections: Students should be able to make connections between the civil rights movement and other social movements in history, as well as to current events and social concerns. Students should be encouraged to apply the lessons of the civil rights movement when forming their own ideas about effective citizenship.

Baltimore & Maryland Content Suggestions

Come up with a list of “content suggestions” in each of these categories:

  • Leaders
  • Groups
  • Events
  • Historical Context
  • Opposition
  • Tactics
  • Connections