<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching


The Courier Journal

Black History Month Needs Constant Renewal to Remain Relevant
Baye Betty Winston
February 10, 2005

We're about a third of the way through Black History Month, and no doubt more than a few teachers and parents are feeling burned out by the incessant repetition.

Maybe, some are thinking, I'll scream if I have to tell that Rosa Parks story one more time.

I'm not a teacher, but I feel their pain. How does one tell or teach a story that's been told so many times, and more often in the same simplistic way - that Rosa Parks was just a tired old black lady who one day decided, with no forethought, not to stand up on a crowded bus so that a white person could sit down?

Children can easily conclude that Parks acted on the spur of the moment, and purely out of emotion. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Earlier this week, as I've done for years, I participated in the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority's Eta Omega Chapter's annual black history read-in for Jefferson County Public Schools students.

Looking at those middle-school students assembled in the basement of the Louisville Free Public Library's Western Branch, I wondered what might resonate for them instead of put them to sleep.

I chose Sena Jeter Naslund's novel, Four Spirits. The spirits are those of the four black girls who died on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, when Ku Klux Klansmen bombed their church in Birmingham, Ala. Naslund, a Birmingham native of the right age, has the authority to imagine what went on in the minds of the city's black and white citizens in those ugly times.

The passage I read was about Naslund's character TJ, a black World War II veteran who came home from the war to find that nothing had changed in Birmingham; he was still treated as second class.

And so, there's TJ in 1963 watching little black boys and girls, some as young as 6, fighting back. "Why had the children flowed into the jails, filling them up, when the adults were too afraid to demonstrate?" he wondered. And whence cometh those children's courage to face snarling German shepherds and grown men mowing them down with blasts of water as if they were enemies on some foreign battlefield?

"TJ marveled at how the flat fire hose went plump, how water leapt powerfully from the hose. Took two firemen to hold the brass nozzle between them. In a flash of sunlit water, a little girl in her Sunday best - pale blue - was drenched and smacked to the ground."

I knew that my young audience had hear d many times about Martin Luther King Jr. But had anyone told them about the courageous boys and girls of Birmingham? Did they know that kids their age and younger went to jail, too?

I wanted those students to understand, if they didn't already, that freedom isn't free. That even children have roles to play in helping to create the world they wish to grow up in. I wanted them to know that sometimes it's the children who must liberate grown-ups from fears and prejudices.

I can't claim that I succeeded since I spent only a few moments with the students. But I hope I planted a seed and that the teachers and parents who accompanied the students would pick up my thread and teach the story of Birmingham more often from the perspectives of the unsung and the young.

I'm sympathetic to the view that teaching African-American history in February has become an exercise in celebrating a few and ignoring the many.

Now, to the rescue of parents and teachers who are similarly concerned about how poorly and simplistically black history is taught comes a book, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching: A Resource Guide for K-12 Classrooms.

The editors - Deborah Menkart, Alan D. Murray and Jenice L. View - collectively have dozens of years of classroom experience, and together with an impressive panel of advisers, including many civil rights veterans, they've produced a guide that encourages critical teaching as well as critical thinking. Their lesson plans have been classroom-tested, and are organized by grade level. What I really like about the guide is that it ends by looking forward, including an essay by Grace Lee Boggs that emphasizes the wonderful insight that "each generation must discover its own mission." What happened yesterday may not be what's needed today, but ultimately, there's always a necessity to struggle.

Betty Winston Baye's columns appear Thursdays. Read them online at www.courier-journal.com.


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Putting the Movement into Civil Rights Teaching is in schools in 44 states and the momentum is growing.


Published by Teaching for Change and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council (PRRAC).
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