U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Freedom Movement Course

As you may know, I’ve been on the job market this year. I spent these past two years at the University of Kentucky as a post-doctoral scholar, first in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Dean’s Office and then in the History Department. Well, I have good news! I will be joining the Luther College faculty in the fall as a visiting assistant professor. I’m teaching three courses in the fall–an introductory seminar on Big Questions that all incoming freshmen have to take, African American History since the 17th century, and the Black Freedom Movement.

Today, I’d like to write about some of my ideas for the Black Freedom Movement course, particularly my idea to structure the course according to historiographical debates rather than primarily chronologically. There are so many historiographical choices I need to make, in addition to pedagogical ones. When do I start the course? If it is a Civil Rights Course, then maybe WWII (or if it is the Long Civil Rights Movement, 1930s-1970s). If it is a true Black Freedom Movement course, then I could start way back with abolitionists, slave revolts, the Haitian Revolution, or on-ship rebellions. The newly adopted course description helps me make some of these decisions (This year represents the first year that it will be called the Black Freedom Movement rather than the Civil Rights Movement).

AFRS 235 The Modern Black Freedom Movement in the United States

The debate over the timing, scope, and trajectory of the civil rights and black power movements in the United States has long been a contested subject among historians. Scholars are now challenging the traditional non-violent southern movement narrative by pointing to a broad range of regionally diverse black political struggles across the twentieth century. Researchers are also calling into question the notion that civil rights and black power were two distinct movements. Engaging in these conversations and covering such themes as class, region, gender, community formation, militancy, and grassroots activism, we will cover the mass protests of the thirties and forties, the direct action campaigns of the fifties and sixties, and black liberation struggles that stretched into the seventies. Through analysis of key texts in new civil rights and black power studies, speeches, music, film, television, oral histories, and photography, we will critically examine the movement’s objectives and results, raise questions about the contour of American democracy and racial politics in the late twentieth century, and explore what is distinct about the “post-civil rights era.”

Now the obvious choice for this course would be to go chronologically. However, I have become enamored of a different approach and I wonder what you think. I would like to structure the course around historiographical debates, using the book Debating the Civil Rights Movement. It offers two essays and several primary documents; the essay by Steven Lawson argues that it was the national government’s intervention and the leadership of national figures that had the greatest effect on the Civil Rights Movement, for good and ill, while the essay by Charles Payne argues that it was the grassroots movement that effected change, by organizing rather than mobilizing.

I am thinking of starting with the national view, including the government and prominent individuals, doing an interactive exercise on the 1964 Democratic Convention, and  ending with the grassroots movement (one week of which would be spent in the archives researching the black student takeover of Luther’s Dean’s Office). The interactive exercise would break students up into five groups–media, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Bayard Rustin and the SCLC, the Dixiecrats, and LBJ and the Democratic leadership–and ask them to inhabit the point of view of their group. They would need to do research and then a presentation. I’m thinking that everybody would read a Fannie Lou Hamer biography during the “major individuals” section of the course, with one week for the research and one week for the presentations. That may not be enough time–I may have to give them the materials and then ask them to present on the different groups. I wish there was a “Reacting to the Past” curriculum already created for this. Even though this is not the most important moment in the Black Freedom Movement, I want to highlight it because it is such a dramatic clashing of so many different viewpoints and shows the power of the grassroots, the power of government, and the limits of both group’s power.

I need to figure this all out asap so that I can order books. Do you think this works, or should I arrange it chronologically? This is what I’m thinking right now:

Week 1: Overview, The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History

Weeks 2-7: The View from the Nation
a.       Debating the Civil Rights Movement: The View from the Nation by Steven F. Lawson
b.   Martin Luther King Jr. (Speeches online and 1965 Meet the Press interview) Have students do individual research in The King Center archives
c.      Malcolm X (Speeches online)
d.       Fannie Lou Hamer (Chana Lee Kai biography)
e.      Stokely Carmichael (Black Power speech)
f.    JFK and LBJ

Weeks 8-9

3.       Project: 1964 Democratic Convention (sources online and/or provided)
a.       Fannie Lou Hamer
b.      Media
c.       Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Walter Reuther
d.      Dixiecrats
e.      SCLC, Martin Luther King, and Bayard Rustin
Research Project: Write a paper from the perspective of your individual group in the 1964 Democratic Convention Debate

Weeks 10- 15
4.       Grassroots mass movement
a.       Debating the Civil Rights Movement: The View from the Trenches by Charles Payne
b.      Freedom on My Mind film
c.       Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power
d.     Penial Joseph, Waiting till the Midnight Hour (2 weeks)
e.   Archival research project. 

Final exam question: Which of the three groups (major figures, the government, or the grassroots) influenced the course of the Civil Rights Movement the most? Why?  Give concrete examples. 

Ironically, considering it’s the period I study, this syllabus gives short shrift to the Depression era. I’d also like to stretch the other side of the time frame by including Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Perhaps what I need to do is start working on the topics and assignments for individual days and see if I can trim here or there to add more. I’m also not sure there is enough focus on the new historiography discussing the northern aspects of the movement.

I also think that Fannie Lou Hamer and Stokely Carmichael may not belong in the “View from the Nation,” but I want to have the students read the Hamer biography before the 1964 Democratic Convention Project. Perhaps I should move the project to the end of the course and give them a heads up about it several weeks prior so they have time to do the research.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As you know from my past comments on the blog, I’m a big fan of chronology. However, it seems that what you’re doing here is focusing on one “moment” (broadly construed), so it could make sense to contextualize that moment by approaching it from different vantage points.

    My bigger quibble here would be with the exam question — picking what was “most influential” is like picking the “main cause” of a historical event. I am not sure what the pedagogical rewards are for asking students to approach the problem in that way, but the risks are that the study of history becomes a search for causality rather than a search for meaning.

    • Interesting points! I guess the point of the exam question and the Debating the Civil Rights book is that there is a meaningful difference between the two understandings of the Black Freedom Movement. Charles Payne argues that ‘Far from being the solution, American institutions have always played important roles in the creation and maintenance of racism. What happened in the movement was that civil rights activists were able to maneuver around those institutions to alleviate some of the worst features of the system.’ Steven Lawson argues that ‘The federal government played an indispensable role in shaping the fortunes of the civil rights revolution. It is impossible to understand how blacks achieved first-class citizenship rights in the South without concentrating on what national leaders in Washington, D.C. did to influence the course of events leading to the extension of racial equality. Powerful presidents, congressional lawmakers, and members of the Supreme Court provided the legal instruments to challenge racial segregation and disfranchisement. Without their crucial support, the struggle against white supremacy in the South still would have taken place but would have lacked the power and authority to defeat state governments intent on keeping blacks in subservient positions.’

      It seems like that understanding this difference and choosing which you think is most convincing is both a search for causality and a search for meaning.

  2. If you are not already aware of it, you need to check out this new article on the civil rights movement published in National Review. It is one of the most ridiculous attempts at revisionism I have seen in a long time. Presenting the Republican Party as the party of civil rights ranks up there with Goldberg’s attempt to switch fascism from a right wing to a left wing ideology. Here is the link: http://www.nationalreview.com/blogs/print/300432

  3. your idea about stretching things closer to the present by making connections to present-day incarceration seems to me like a really good one. also, filtering larger themes through local/school history is great.

    So: not to quibble, and without having read the work of the two scholars in question, but aren’t Payne’s and Lawson’s points entirely compatible, at least from a certain point of view? The federal government played a crucial role in that only its power allowed the movement to circumvent and alleviate the worst elements of the traditional institutions of american government–the states and local authorities? or, put differently, ‘the government’ isn’t really a single thing. arguably the local governments, in their intransigence, were of great importance…

    i would have said that this syllabus isn’t asking students to search for causality rather than meaning (nicely put, though, LD), but rather is trying to get the students to generate meaning by asking after causality. surely no meaning without at least a little causality? which could fold nicely into (maybe difficult) conversation about the causality and meaning of massive incarceration in the present.

    • Hmmmmm, This is very perceptive. Sometimes I think that Payne and Lawson’s viewpoints are diametrically opposed and other times I don’t think that they are actually talking to each other. Lawson admits that grassroots folks were important and heroic, but says that alone they could not have made change. He also acknowledges the good and bad aspects of the government–his argument is not what I first thought (that the government caused the Civil Rights Movement) but that government actions shaped the CRM for good and bad. And Payne is addressing the classic bugaboos of CRM historiography–those people (usually non-historians) who think that the movement was entirely caused and perpetrated by King and Parks and that the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act make up the major accomplishments of the movement.

      I guess part of the advantage of organizing the course along the “debate” is that it shows students how history is constructed and how much historical truth relies upon historians’ interpretations. I like to ask students to make judgment calls based on their own analysis, rather than having them (only) repeat what they’ve learned.

  4. If this is any help at all, I’ve had success working through the 1964 Convention very much like this in the past (I’ve done it about a half-dozen times), and so I like this approach. “Micro” sorts of approaches work well in that sense because it complicates the movement and it gets students away from grand narratives, which the movement can easily slip into with the use of Biblical metaphors and the like.

    I’m suspicious of many “Long Civil Rights Movement” interpretations. It’s the old “Rosenthal Effect” problem: if you’re looking for something, chances are you’ll find it. That is, scholars look for people resisting oppression and then, surprise! They find it and call all of that the “civil rights movement.” Why do we have to call most every instance of black people resisting oppression the civil rights movement? I went to a conference once where a panelist insisted that the movement started in 1619. There’s something profoundly ahistorical about that, no?

    The other problem with the long CRM, then, is that it reifies the memorialization of the movement by insisting that inclusion is the most important thing about it: who gets in and who doesn’t. This seems to shut down avenues of interpretation because we don’t then view the movement in sufficiently critical ways. We’re simply celebrating it by telling more stories about it, not interrogating its meaning critically.

    So, do the protesters against school busing in Charlotte get in because they sang “We Shall Overcome” in response to federal mandates that they desegregate? Presumably not, if we follow the “political uses” model. Isn’t it more interesting though, to try to understand why these people thought they were working in the rhetorical tradition of the movement? That tells us something about what the movement meant to people, about how it has worked in American political discourse. The Long CRM model primarily includes people without interrogating closely enough what the movement meant in the first place, that is, without doing intellectual history.

    At the time anyway, many people saw what was happening in the South after 1954 as new and unique. Why should we deny how these people imagined the movement in favor of “political uses” and acts of claiming?

    For reasons like these, I like to address the memory problem with students. I’ve shown that infamous scene from the not very good movie Barbershop where the Cedric the Entertainer character has a few things to say about Rosa Parks. Renee Romano and Leigh Raiford edited a pretty interesting volume on The Memory of the Civil Rights Movement. Any of those essays would do. I would also suggest Ted Ownby’s edited collection called _The Role of Ideas in the Civil Rights South_.

    The best book on the movement, in my opinion anyway, is Richard H. King’s _Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom_ because it makes a real attempt to define what the term “freedom” meant for activists and in Western thought more generally. It doesn’t work all that well for students, but it’s good to plan things with I think.

    Anyhow, I would make sure they know the standard narrative before confusing them with memory or with historiography so that they can see what people are working against. There’s a companion to “Eyes on the Prize” that could work for giving them the narrative. It would be sort of like having students read Frederick Lewis Allen’s _Only Yesterday_ in a 1920s course for the purposes of unpacking and challenging its assumptions throughout the course.

    • Yes! I entirely agree with you about the LCRM. Deriding it as a “Vampire” is in fact a central argument of my dissertation (the vampire metaphor comes from this article: http://works.bepress.com/sundiata_chajua/5/). So I am trying to figure out how to incorporate my arguments about the LCRM with my new institutions’ new course description that clearly adheres to a LCRM ideology.

      Thank you for the text suggestions! I think your emphasis on the nuanced and contextualized idea of freedom is important.

      Thanks, too, for your encouragement about the 1964 Democratic Convention. I have to say I am excited to try it, even though I do feel the burden that it is not the most important moment of the CRM.

      In terms of people feeling like they were doing something new in 1955–the same initial feeling happened in the 1920s. I wonder if it is a new generation feeling the conservatism of its elders. But the difference is what happened next–the expansion of the movement in the 1950s and the relatively small scale (in terms of national attention) of the movement in the 1920s and 1930s.

  5. in my opinion, chronology is a safe way to structure the story for an introductory course. however if, as AFRS 235 implies, this is an upper level course meant for history majors, then the historiographical approach seems like a good one. i personally would foreground the grassroots on the ground historiography as these are the folks who made everything happen. i also can’t stress enough how wonderful i think ransby’s ‘ella baker and the black freedom movement’ is. it shows the grassroots movement so well (as opposed to joseph’s ‘waiting til the midnight hour’ which focuses on leaders and big events ad nauseum) and demonstrates baker’s wonderful politics i.e. ‘strong people don’t need strong leaders.’ lastly, loury’s ‘race, incarceration, and american values’ is a great alternative to michelle alexander if you want something quicker, you could just focus on loury’s introductory essay and wacquant’s response (which is brilliant). we really can’t talk about civil rights without acknowledging the reality of post-industrial mass incarceration. otherwise we’re just peddling fairy tales. best of luck!

    • I agree with your suggestion of foregrounding the grassroots. Although it is more of an upper level course in theory, I think mostly freshmen will be enrolled. That certainly suggests that I should restructure the course along chronology lines.

  6. I’m reworking my syllabi to be chronological. I think that will work so much better for a class of mainly freshmen. Will post when I’m done. Am also running to the library to get some of the suggestions you list here.

    Thanks so much!

    • In my trip to the library, I stumbled across a book called _Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom’s Bittersweet Song_. Reading it over coffee this morning.

  7. I am a Movement scholar and appreciate your willingness to experiment with different approaches. On an unrelated note, my wife’s cousin will be starting at Luther in the Fall, too!

    I often use the mythic popular narrative of the movement era as my starting point and then proceed to add to it, complicate it, challenge it and, ultimately, demolish it over the course of the semester. Students see not only that there are different interpretations of the past, but also the way the narratives we tell ourselves about the past are politicized and have significant contemporary implications. I have also organized the class by place/geography and that has worked well.

    A few random thoughts:

    A) I think the Payne/Lawson debate is a bit outdated. Perhaps use The LCRM essay and the Vampire response instead?

    B) I’d like to suggest including something on the Movement outside of the South. This is a critical and growing area in the scholarship, so you have a few different choices (Sugrue, Jones, Countryman, Lange, Levenstein, Biondi, Williams, Woodard/Theoharis, etc.). Without this dynamic, you run the risk of reinforcing the erroneous idea that the black freedom movement was a regional phenomenon, or that it only “came North” with Black Power. I’ll toot my own horn here and suggest that my own work on Milwaukee might be useful to you here. My 2009 book, The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee (Harvard University Press), is available in paperback and I think pretty accessible for undergrads. The Milwaukee open housing campaign played a catalytic role in the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act (Fair Housing Act) similar to the role Birmingham and Selma played in passage of the CRA of ’64 and VRA of ’65. I also recently edited an issue of The Mag. of History on the black freedom movement “beyond Dixie,” which includes several excellent articles you could use with your students, or draw on for lectures and teaching ideas. Here is the link: http://magazine.oah.org/issues/261/ Email me directly for info on how to get the issue ([email protected]) In lieu of a book, you could have students purchase this special issue or copy and use individual pieces for free.

    – It would also be great to get in something on the international dynamics of the Movement. Lots of primary source material available.

    – I embed music in every class. It provides a rich transcript of this history and opens it up in new and different ways for students. There are also lots of great visual arts, poetry and short stories you can use.

    – Finally, I’d strongly encourage you to have your students do an assignment on the black freedom movement in your state/area: collect oral histories; do an assignment around newspapers; invite a local movement activist into your classroom; or look at other primary sources from the era in your neck of the woods. Many students in places like Iowa (or outside of the South, in general) have no clue that this history took place where they are from. Such an assignment connects a history that can seem remote with the world they inhabit.

    In my experience, this class can be utterly transformative for your students, so enjoy!

    Hope some of this this is helpful. I have a zillion ideas for assignments and class resources that I am happy to share with anyone interested. Holler at me.

    Patrick Jones

    PS: I am also happy to share my most recent syllabus for this class, as well.

    • PPS: FYI… I am an Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies (African and African American Studies Program) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, so not too far away from your new spot!

    • Wow! Thank you for so much excellent feedback. I’m working on a new syllabus that is chronological. I will definitely take your suggestions into account as I prepare it.

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