Teaching Innovations

Teaching the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement

Peter B. Levy, October 1991

A generation of students born after the civil rights revolution is now at the doorsteps of America's colleges and universities. While most of them have only a peripheral knowledge or understanding of the momentous events of the 1950s and 1960s, they have shown considerable interest in learning more about the era. But how well prepared are we as professionals to meet this challenge? Are history departments offering courses on the civil rights movement and integrating relevant material into their traditional curriculum? Are there certain pitfalls and opportunities that we should be aware of? What teaching strategies and books have our colleagues found fruitful for use in undergraduate and graduate courses? What analytical questions should we be raising and what debates we should be encouraging?

This essay seeks to provide at least partial answers to these questions and others. It is based on two sources: a survey of over 150 colleges and universities and a panel discussion I chaired on "Teaching the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement," held at the 1989 Organization of American Historians' meeting in St. Louis. Participants included Cheryl Greenberg, Trinity College; Martha Prescod Norman, University of Michigan and Wayne State University; and David J. Garrow, City University of New York.

In the fall of 1988 I sent questionnaires to the history departments of 165 educational institutions nationwide, ranging from small four-year private liberal arts colleges to large public universities. To my delight, 97 of them responded, which is a fairly high rate of return. Approximately one-third of the departments polled offer a course on the history of the civil rights movement, or a similar class such as modern race relations, at least on an irregular basis. Other departments, especially sociology, political science, and Afro-American (or black) studies, also offer courses on the civil rights movement. Regionally, southern schools (37 percent) are the most likely to offer such a course, western colleges (6 percent) the least likely, with midwestern (30 percent) and eastern colleges (27 percent) somewhere in between. Neither the size of the school nor its type—public, private, four-year or more—is a significant determinant. (A number of black colleges offer a course on the civil rights movement, but not all of those which were surveyed do so.)

The civil rights movement receives considerable attention in several other history courses that are offered on a regular basis, namely the U.S. history survey, Afro-American history, and recent America courses. In the latter two, my study revealed that teachers spend at least as much time, if not more, on the modern civil rights movement as they do on other major historical themes. On average, in one-semester courses on recent America, teachers spend 3.7 class hours on the civil rights movement, about the same amount of time they spend on the Vietnam War. In comparison, teachers spend less then 2 class hours on McCarthyism. On average, in the second half of a two-semester Afro-American history course, teachers spend 6.5 class hours on the civil rights movement, more than three times as much as they spend on the Harlem Renaissance and 50 percent more than on Reconstruction.

In a two-semester U.S. history survey course, teachers spend approximately 2.4 class hours on the civil rights movement, slightly more than they spend on Reconstruction and slightly less than they spend on the New Deal and the Progressive Era. The civil rights movement does not receive nearly as much treatment in U.S. history textbooks. Based on an examination of ten leading textbooks, the civil rights movement received on average eight pages of treatment, while Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, and the New Deal each received its own chapter, running at least twenty pages and in some cases well over thirty. Nor can the quality of the discussion of the civil rights movement be considered on a par with the discussion of these other themes in the texts, as it tends towards a journalistic account of the "big" events of the era, rather than a more mature discussion based on a body of historical literature (though one is now available).

Clearly there is considerable interest among faculty and students in the civil rights movement. As one history department chair wrote: "The movement was a critical period of social change in U.S. history and as such should receive attention. The current state of race relations in the United States requires that students be familiar with past efforts at social change, their achievements, and their weaknesses in order to understand current conditions in the United States." However, as we are only at the dawn of teaching this subject, there are many pedagogical and analytical issues that need exploration.

At the OAH meeting, Professor Cheryl Greenberg provided a succinct examination of some key concerns that teachers can expect to confront in a course on race relations or, more specifically, on the civil rights movement. She noted that the "typical" Trinity College student whom she teaches is white, middle- and upper-middle class, and has had limited contact with blacks and/or the problems of the urban ghetto. Although these students are well-meaning, they tend to deny the prevalence of racism in present-day American society, acknowledging instead the existence of individual prejudice (which of course they do not believe they share), but not institutionalized and systemic racism. To a large degree, this position grows out of their myopic or presentist view of history, which fails to digest or account for the long-term development of racial inequality in America, and, in its place, sees the present divorced from the past. As a result, Greenberg's white students have difficulty understanding affirmative action, busing, and the like, as anything but racism in reverse. They detest—verbally—Jim Crow, as it existed in the past, but have great difficulty in seeing its connection to contemporary responses to the system that either de jure or de facto segregation spawned.

It follows from this, Greenberg asserted, that she and other teachers of students with similar backgrounds must overcome the hurdle of developing their students' sense of racism if they are to gain a mature understanding of the modern civil rights movement. Professor Greenberg went on to describe some of the methods she uses to achieve this task. Most notably she challenges students' assumptions, prodding them to see that race and ethnicity are not the same and that the myth of the melting pot does not and has not applied to Afro-Americans. Moreover, Greenberg contends in the classroom that racism is not based on ignorance or irrational personal feelings, but rather has developed historically as a means for maintaining an unequal social and political system.

In addition to overcoming the inadequate understanding of racism on the part of her white students, Greenberg noted that she has encountered a pattern of difficulties faced by many of her black students. She focused on two particular types of behavior. Some black students "clam up" in class because of their embarrassment over not knowing more about "their" history. Rather than taking part in class discussions, they withdraw, feeling that other students expect them to have a nearly innate knowledge of the subject matter, which for various reasons they do not. There are also black students, who out of frustration with the lack of knowledge and level of discussion on the part of other students, find it difficult to participate constructively. They tend to give up rather than press their points and hence do not contribute information and learning they gained prior to the class.

Professor Martha Prescod Norman did not deal directly with the pedagogical concerns raised by Greenberg; rather, she concentrated on the conceptionalization of the civil rights movement itself. Norman, a veteran of the movement, noted that, unlike Greenberg, she has taught primarily at predominantly black urban colleges (Wayne State and the University of Toledo). Many of her students have been older men and women who had direct experiences with or memories of the civil rights movement and know the problems that beset the African-American community firsthand. Hence, the main challenge she faces and believes we all face, is "making it real," that is, reviving a sense of what it was like to have been in the midst of a vital movement for social change.

To emphasize this point, Norman began her presentation in an unorthodox manner (for an OAH conference) by singing, "Can You Hear the Freedom Bells Tolling," a civil rights tune. The song effectively drove home her main theme, that the civil rights movement is something that is only faintly heard in much of the present scholarship on the subject; that its feeling, aura, and sense of brother- and sisterhood, indeed its very meaning have been lost. The struggle has disappeared, and in its place one finds discussions of "great men" and select civil rights organizations. In order to teach the history of the movement properly, Norman contended, she has found it necessary to move beyond the standard treatments, to lend a sense of what it was like to be a participant in a great social movement in which she found tremendous personal and political fulfillment.

Norman offered several particular analytical criticisms of existing canons on the civil rights movement, especially the tendency to discuss the movement in too linear a form, as one big pressure group aimed primarily at achieving reform legislation. Such a view, Norman argued, makes the movement too respectable, leaves out many actors, and divests them of their activism. Related to this, most discussions of the movement do not comment on the long history of struggle for freedom and dignity within the African-American community from which the modern civil rights movement sprung. The civil rights movement drew on the strength of a culture steeped in struggle. Furthermore, she said, scholars need to highlight those goals of the black community that went beyond integration and civil rights.

Among works on the movement that Norman singled out for criticism was Eyes on the Prize. In her mind, this TV documentary exhibits some of the aforementioned problems. One could easily leave Eyes on the Prize with the impression that it was the civil rights leadership and organization which set southern communities in motion and determined the course of their activism. The degree to which these communities' actions determined the course and nature of the movement and, at the same time, set the organizations in action is not so clear. Norman added that the series makes it difficult to see how ordinary people, oppressed people, people not usually included in mainstream political equations balanced and weighed historical options and opportunities and, as a result, came to play pivotal and determinative roles in altering the terms under which they lived their lives. Not highlighting these aspects of the civil rights movement drains it of a significant portion of its militancy and radicalism. For example, Norman, who had been an activist in Selma, Alabama, finds the episode on Selma false to her memory of the dynamics of the struggle there. Professor John Bracey of the University of Massachusetts extended Norman's critique. Like Norman, Bracey, also a civil rights participant, found the movement as seen in the documentary stripped of much of its militancy and meaning. For example, he asked the panel: Where were Malcolm X and Robert Williams in Eyes on the Prize? They were not unknown in the deep South, and their sentiment was shared by many.

Members of the audience and panelist David Garrow defended Eyes, with Garrow stating that the second part of the film series would air in 1990 and that Malcolm X would play a prominent role in it. He also noted that the filmmakers were limited by the visual material that was available, and in part this accounted for the lack of attention to Robert Williams. Bracey and several others countered that Eyes on the Prize replicated the problems that Norman emphasized. By placing Malcolm after the Selma episode, the series perpetuated the conceptualization of the civil rights movement as a linear pressure group that sought integration. Some in the audience seemed to agree that the producers of the series should have included Malcolm X and black nationalism earlier on, however they disagreed with the statement that the film divested the movement of its militancy and sense of struggle. On the contrary, several participants suggested that the visual images presented in the series left quite an impression on students as well as on instructors who had lived through the period but had forgotten how violent it was.

Most of Professor Garrow's comments examined ways to structure a civil rights course. Due to the general lack of familiarity with the civil rights movement among most undergraduates, Garrow has found it fruitful to present his courses chronologically. However, the lack of a good single volume narrative hampers such an approach. Garrow noted several books, however, with which he has had favorable experiences: Howell Raines' My Soul Is Rested, Clayborne Carson's In Struggle, his own Bearing the Cross, and the companion academic reader to Eyes on the Prize of the same title. Garrow stated, in contrast to Norman, that he had a very good experience with the "Eyes on the Prize" film series, emphasizing that he did not find the program a watered-down version of the movement.

Garrow then turned to ways to structure a graduate (or perhaps senior undergraduate-level) course. He challenged teachers to consider adopting an analytical or thematic rather than a chronological approach. He suggested a number of themes worthy of investigation, which in turn allow one to overcome some of the limitations mentioned in Norman: 1) the centrality of local activism, with Robert Norell's Reaping the Whirlwind as an effective source; 2) gender, with The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Woman Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson as a good reading along with Sara Evans' Personal Politics; 3) age; 4) class; 5) tension between local and national organizations; 6) competition between national organizations; 7) the importance of the media; 8) the interaction between the federal government and the movement; 9) the dynamics among local movements and opposition from the white community; and 10) resource mobilization theory. Garrow added that to date historians have been weak in producing adequate theoretical works on the movement. They can, however, draw on a growing body of literature produced by sociologists and political scientists, and he named works by Aldon Morris, Craig Jenkins, Doug McAdam, Adolph Reed, William J. Wilson, and Herbert Haines as examples of such. These studies, Garrow stated, allow one to discuss the importance of the indigenous strength of the local black community and to get away from the emphasis on national organizations and a national conceptualization of the movement. Garrow also stressed that by examining the links between the civil rights movement and other movements, teachers and students can move beyond 1968, a problem that many have noted in the existing literature.

Both my survey and the panel discussion revealed the vitality and dynamism of this new field of history. More universities offer a course on the civil rights movement than expected; attendance at the panel discussion was much better than normal (especially for a lunch-time session). In a short period of time historians have identified key pedagogical and analytical concerns that undoubtedly deserve and will receive greater attention in the future. This said, we need to guard against an overly optimistic assessment of the teaching of the history of the civil rights movement. We cannot let this crucial period in United States history pass like the latest fad or allow the teaching of it to be ghettoized, offered at only certain schools and to a limited audience of students. If as a profession we really seek to integrate race, class, and gender into the mainstream curriculum, this is a good place to start. More schools need to regularly offer courses on the civil rights movement (just as they do on the Civil War and the American Revolution). Our textbooks need to be rewritten so as to grant the movement treatment on par with the New Deal and Progressivism. And teachers need to continue to examine the movement in their survey and upper-division courses, fully aware of the criticisms of the existing literature and ready to grapple with the historical mindset of their students.

Professor Peter Levy teaches American history at York College of Pennsylvania, including courses on recent America and race relations.