Race in the Classroom: Teaching Civil Rights

About this Episode

Guests
Kevin Boyle, Stephanie Shaw, Hasan Kwame Jeffries

Join hosts Leticia Wiggins and Patrick Potyondy in a conversation with historians—and award-winning teachers—Kevin Boyle, Stephanie Shaw, and Hasan Kwame Jeffries about the importance and difficulties of teaching race and civil rights in the classroom. “Learning about the Civil Rights Movement,” Boyle declares, “really explores the tension between America’s promise and the reality of the United States.” The first part of this conversation, referred to in the current episode, can be found in our previous podcast, “Putting Race on Display: The National Civil Rights Museum.”

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Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "Race in the Classroom: Teaching Civil Rights" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
December, 2014
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/race-classroom-teaching-civil-rights?language_content_entity=en.
December, 2014

Transcript

Leticia Wiggins 

This is your host Leticia Wiggins and welcome to History Talk, the history podcast for everyone produced by Origins.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And I'm Patrick Potyondy, your other host.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

In part two of the show, Dr. Kevin Boyle, author of the National Book Award winning "Arc of Justice" will join us to discuss the importance and pitfalls of teaching history of race and civil rights in the classroom. So stay tuned, and we hope you enjoy this episode of History Talk.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

We'll begin by asking Kevin to introduce himself to join our first two guests Dr. Stephanie Shaw and Hasan Jeffries.

 

Dr. Kevin Boyle 

Sure, my name is Dr. Kevin Boyle, and I teach 20th century American history at Northwestern.

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Hi, I'm Dr. Stephanie Shaw, professor of history here at Ohio State. My research is primarily related to African American women, but I teach courses that sort of cover mostly the 19th century Afro American and also U.S. women's history.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

And I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffrey, from associate professor of history here at The Ohio State University as well. And my areas of research, teaching, specialization include the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power movement, 20th century African American History more generally, but specifically civil rights and Black Power eras.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Great. So getting right into the questions. Black and White Americans do race completely differently. This is proven by polls that are asking opinions about Trayvon Martin or Ferguson, Missouri as the most recent examples of this. So given the stark difference, how can a teacher or a professor approach a classroom, which in all likelihood will hold a diverse array of views?

 

Dr. Kevin Boyle 

One of the, for me anyways, one of the real key principles in going into a classroom is you can't control how students are going to receive information. You can try to provide the best arguments you have, the most sophisticated takes you can offer on any topic, race, class, politics, but you're not going to control how they receive that information. All you can do is try to engage with them in, give them a space, both to hear what you have to say and to express their opinions as honestly as they will. But there's just no controlling reception.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Yeah, no, I would agree. I mean, there's limits to what we would like to be able to control the environment once you come in and you close the doors. But you know, students bring their own cultural baggage with them. Which is not a bad thing. I mean, that that's actually a good thing. I mean, what we want in the classroom is for students to bring their cultural baggage, but then to share it right I mean, to open it up and let the classroom become this constructive space or space for constructive conversation. And I think as scholars of the modern American history, that which happens outside of the classroom, I think ought to be brought into the classroom and discussed in and placed in historical context. I mean, if you just look at, as you mentioned the example of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, and just listening to some of the conversations that went on and took place in the media, they could have benefited from the insights of Dr. Kevin Boyle and Dr. Stephanie Shaw to sort of explain sort of this longer history of, you know, white supremacy, police violence, you know, and, and perceptions of sort of Black males that was just sort of missing, so but we get to do that in the classroom. So hopefully, our students will be a little bit, will benefit from that, you know, from that historical understanding.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so I think we want to throw this next question directly to Stephanie to start us off and so when a current event, like a police involved shooting takes place, either, you know, just before or during a class, is it the case that you see these as teachable moments to bring up directly in the classroom? Do you change your lesson plans, maybe that you had previously planned already? How do you approach that sort of situation?

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Well, I guess, you know, I would want to be flexible all the time. You know, I would want to be prepared to have those kinds of discussions, but I but I don't teach 20th century, Rarely, do I teach 20th century and I think that that might be that that might help to explain why things that happened now rarely come up in the classes that I teach. I mean, they do come up. They do come up. And I do try to do exactly what people have already said. What Hasan and Kevin have said, you know to put them in some context.

 

Dr. Kevin Boyle 

I do agree with Stephanie completely that you really want to be flexible in the classroom. You also want a discussion to be productive, and to build on what the class has been doing. So I, of course, I'm a control freak in the classroom, which probably adds to it. So I'm so to transform a class into, in response to something that's immediately happening, I've done it, but I haven't done it very often. But that's not to say that something like Ferguson isn't lying in the classroom already. And so what came to mind to me is you're asking the question is I taught a course in civil rights, just this past spring, so before Ferguson, and the last day of class, I turned it over to the students, you know, created this long narrative of a movement, and I want to hear what they had to say about how it connects to their, the present day. And the first thing that came up was the question of police stopping young Black men, and the assumptions that lie behind that. So it's not as if those issues weren't already there, and that the students wanted to engage with them. And it turns into a really fascinating discussion, because tying back to your previous point, this was a class with which was overwhelmingly, though not exclusively white, had a block of number of African American students and Asian American students as well. But it was overwhelmingly white. And so the conversation became really very interesting to see as people from students engaged with each other.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Oh and you know, I mean, the question of the point of flexibility has been has been raised by both Stephanie and Kevin, I think that is key, right? I mean, you have to be flexible. And how my flexibility manifests itself is that, you know, if a subject or a topic or a current issue comes up, dependent upon the class, sometimes, you know, I build that in, especially if I'm teaching sort of an African American history class later on, you know, we may spend the first five minutes, we know sort of what's on your mind. You know, so that sort of, you know, planned built in early in, early on usually, in some of my classes, I always try to make an attempt to get to class a little bit early. And so class will begin unofficially, five minutes before-

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right, right.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

- you have these really great conversations about those very things that allow me to stay on track with the, you know, the curriculum and the syllabus, but still sort of get in some of the issues so I can figure out what's on the students minds, so that when we get to the subject for the day, if there's a way to draw a connection, or if I can bring connect what they were talking about in this pre class conversation to a topic that we've already discussed or going to discuss later. It allows for a degree of flexibility and, and seizing on these important moments. Because if that's what the students are thinking about, I think it's helpful because I can use that in some way to get them to see the importance of what it is that we're talking about in the class itself.

 

Dr. Kevin Boyle 

Yeah, that's a that's a really great point, those five minutes before a class, sometimes are the most valuable five minutes of the class.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Keeping such a firm ground like almost in the past or like knowing the history of all of these things and still realizing that shootings like Ferguson occur with some sort of regularity. As a more personal question, is this discouraging to you as historians or as teachers of the Civil Rights Movement?

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

This is a Hasan, you know, I don't necessarily think it's discouraging maybe, maybe I'm just a pessimist, right? I mean, in that, you know, I don't I haven't seen, I haven't seen enough in the past and in the immediate past, for me to assume that this is going to stop anytime soon. And so when it occurs, I'm not like, oh my goodness, what has happened, right? It's like, okay, this fits a pattern that I've seen, perhaps maybe with, you know, somewhat decreasing frequency or the nature of the context changes, but you can see the connections over time. I was thinking most recently about, and this is recent, about what happened in Atlanta with this, the basketball owner, Atlanta Hawks owner and, and him talking about, you know, white Southerners not wanting to or being afraid of coming to these Hawks games, professional basketball games, because it's, you know, they don't want to be in these majority Black audiences. And I said, well, you know what, this is actually a sign of progress in that 50 years ago, the solution and he was fumbling for a solution, maybe change the cheerleaders, right? Well, 50 years ago, the solution was quite simple. And that was just ban Black people. Right. I mean, that was, you know, sort of Jim Crow. You just don't let Black people come you just have all white audience. Well, you know what, you can't do that now. Right. You just can't outright ban them. Right. I mean, that's been dealt with. So, you know, things, attitudes may not have fully changed. But as a sign of progress, instead of a back ended way, you see, there are limits to what people can do in terms of over and outright discrimination against the group.

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

I think, you know, for me, I don't think that I'm discouraged by a, maybe I might be depressed by it, maybe I might, you know, maybe I might sink a little bit deeper into you know, whatever the is, um, but, but in any case, when it happens, I don't think about it in history, you know, I don't think about, you know, the fact that we haven't got that we haven't gotten any farther than we've gotten. I'm thinking about it as a member of a 20 21st century society, you know, and how bizarre it is that these kinds of things are still happening in a place that represents itself as, you know, a civilized nation, you know? So I think about it less as a historian and more as just a person who's here and seeing it and feeling it and, and being, you know, outraged and disgusted by it.

 

Dr. Kevin Boyle 

Well, I really like Stephanie's point too. I think it is a really depressing thing to see, I do think that it's important, as Hasan was saying, to see what happened to Ferguson, particularly, in this long history of race in America, and the story can pull this Ferguson incident can kind of pull in two directions. It can turn into the rogue cop story in which one bad apple causes this to happen. And that feeds back into a very long tradition of understanding race and race, racial tensions and racial dilemmas as personal, or it can turn into a discussion about large structures of race in America. And one of the things that's actually been encouraging out of this horrible event has been the degree to which the structures of race have become points of discussion here and there, and particularly inside the legal system, which I guess feeds back to that question of teachable moments. It says, it says something really horrific about the state of American race relations historically and in the present day that a young man has to be, the young man's murder becomes a teachable moment. And I think that really is for me, what makes it one of the many things that makes this such a horrifying incident. But it is interesting to see how the discussion then unfolds into these kind of two tracks, which feed back to very, very different senses of America's racial history.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Just to connect back what Kevin has said to the earlier conversation, as Stephanie and I were having about the National Civil Rights Museum. I mean, one of the things that I think we work hard to make clear was this, was a sense of the broader system and structures at play in the establishment and perpetuation of racial discrimination and white supremacy in the United States. And so when you get to an exhibit like Birmingham, for example, the problem wasn't solely Sheriff Bull Connor, you know a rogue cop, a rogue Sheriff and, and or police commissioner in this sense to lay blame and make it personal because if that's the case, then you just get rid of the person and then everything should be fine. But instead, you see the broader systems and structures in place, the big mule, the industrial chiefs who wanted to maintain segregation and discrimination, a hard and fast color line. And so keeping that in mind, it was something that I think was at the forefront of what we were trying to do.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And with so many important anniversaries of the Civil Rights Movement happening the last few years or in the next few years with the 1960s. What can students and the broader American public as kind of, as one of our wrapping up questions here, learn from the Civil Rights Movement today? And why is it important to learn about them? And if and if Stephanie and Hasan wanted to bring in their work with the Civil Rights Museum and part of the answer, you should feel free to do that. So if Stephanie wanted to start us off?

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Well, one of the things that's important for me, that students understand about the modern Civil Rights Movement is how dangerous it can be to reduce it to a moment, you know, to reduce it to a particular moment in history. And a specific, you know, it's something as narrow as that. So one of the things that I want and one of the things and I think that the museum did effectively, was to show how, during the Jim Crow era, a whole lot of groundwork got laid, that made, that helped to enhance it didn't make the Civil Rights Movement, but it enhanced the possibilities for the Civil Rights Movement. The organizations that Blackfoot created during the, during the Jim Crow era, the beneficial and benevolence societies, the, the various kinds of self-help groups and women's clubs, men's fraternal organizations, church groups, and, and also other organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League, and then in the Negro Business League, and all of those things, you know, these institutions that were created during the Jim Crow era, you know, really were part of the groundwork that was that needed to be there for the Civil Rights Movement to become what it became. So for me, it's for people not to reduce these really important, momentous movements to a moment in time, but to see that the continuity, to see the process of their creation and their relationship to what came before. And I think that the museum does this really effectively and it's one of the things that I tried to do in classes too.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

You know, that's a great point. And I would add, I mean, we actually tried to see that all the way throughout thinking about Mississippi thinking about some, just as an example, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. I mean, just don't get to a moment in 64, Freedom Summer, an anniversary coming up, and think that that just happened on its own. You have, you know, organizers and activists that go back several generations that helped that helped make that moment of a movement possible. So I would absolutely agree with that. And I would add that, you know, so to two takeaways. That I was, I was hoping that two takeaways I think, hope people will take away. One is that sort of American history is in perpetual progress, that there are these moments of opportunity and many times these opportunities are lost. And so that's one. So it's not sort of Disney history. Everything just gets better, that people are struggling to create change. But the second point is that change is possible as a result of the hard work of ordinary, everyday people, and so if people visiting the museum or people in who take our classes, take my classes, come away with that, then that sense of either discouragement or depression, I hope, can be overcome somewhat, or at least it doesn't become paralyzing or immobilizing because if you look back at this experience, that which has been achieved the struggle that has been the struggle that resulted in it really did create change. And I think that is something that ought to be not only recognized, but celebrated, and that to me is encouraging.

 

Dr. Kevin Boyle 

I agree with everything that's been said. I'll just add maybe two points on. One is that one of the reasons why it's so important that Stephanie was saying to see the very deep roots and long tradition of struggle inside the African American community, one of the things that also highlights on the other side of the color line is how deeply entrenched the institutions of white supremacy have been. That if you have kind of those signal moments that become the shorthand for the movement, then the structures that the movement was breaking, seem more fragile than they were. If you see the movement is long, and having these long, deep roots, you realize how hard it was to break through some of those structures of white supremacy in the United States, how powerful they really were. The other side, the other point that I thought they would add is for me, as a, teaching the Civil Rights Movement,  I think what really is so important, from my perspective, to drive home to students is that more than any other aspect of 20th century American history, but the Civil Rights Movement really drives home is the fundamental tension between America's Promise and the reality of the United States, that this is a nation founded on, just explicitly founded on the principle that all people are created equal.

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Um, because what I think what Kevin said is so important, but but what I also think is, you know, one of the values, if you will, of, you know, teaching the earlier history of the U.S. in a certain way, is also to make sure you get to help students to understand what that enlightenment period out of which those words all men are created equal, or from which those words came and what man meant at that time. The struggle that we're, that we're still having, is people it has to do it people accepting and understanding what that means, its really important that people see that context that it really did not, it did not mean to include Black people. It did not mean to include women in it, and probably even most white men were not included in that. So the struggle has been for everybody to be included in that. And it is obviously still the case that, that some people still aren't.

 

Dr. Kevin Boyle 

And the greatest challenge United States has faced in my mind over its long history is living up to that promise. And what the movement does is movement history does is it raises, it puts front and center, the struggle of ordinary people, which again, I think it's a point that Stephanie made so eloquently a little while ago, deciding that that the gap between that promise and reality has to be bridged. And that's what the movement history really tries can really drive home to students as hope in the classroom. You have to take that promise seriously. And that's what the movement did.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Thank you, all of you on, thank you Dr. Stephanie Shaw, Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries and Dr. Kevin Boyle for joining us today for this discussion.

 

Dr. Kevin Boyle 

Thanks for having me on.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Thank you so much.

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Thank you.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley, our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer, our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website origins.osu.edu on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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