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Teaching the History of Civil Rights in the US

Updated: May 17, 2022

This was my first semester teaching a course that was wholly focused on the history of civil rights in the US. I walked into a curriculum that was for the most part defined by the following objectives:

Rosa Parks practicing yoga at an event, n.d. Photograph. Mrs. Parks was an activist before her involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and for decades afterwards. She has been memorialized for her bus boycott work in Montgomery, but her life's work was about so much more. Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (056.00.00)

"Upon course completion, a student will be able to:

  • Identify the key leaders, events, and main strategies and tactics in black Americans’ struggle for civil rights.

  • Explain American women’s efforts to obtain equal rights, identifying the key leaders, issues, and tactics.

  • Describe the issues, tactics, and outcomes in other group’s struggle for civil rights, including Native Americans; immigrant groups from Europe, Mexico, and Asia; and gay Americans.

  • Explicate the various rationales for the denial of civil rights and the tactics deployed to deny those rights." -- Montgomery College Catalog

I curated the flow for the first half of the semester to feel like a US History Survey Course. We began with the Civil War and Reconstruction period, and gave great attention to the Fourteenth Amendment. This framework was useful as it allowed me to have an opening of the semester where 4 of my 5 classes covered the same periods, but addressed different themes.

In addition to this civil rights course, I was teaching two US History surveys that began with the Civil War and Reconstruction; one African American History survey that began with the Civil War and Reconstruction; and, one African American History survey that began with pre-history of US slavery. My US History surveys as well as this civil rights history course both extensively utilized materials from American Yawp, an open educational resource.

My intervention in the way this course has been traditionally taught, was the selection of a book to supplement that latter half of the semester. I chose Jeanne Theoharis' A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Theoharis aptly states in the books' preface:

"The modern black freedom struggle remains one of the most important examples of the power of ordinary people to change the course of the nation. But the popular stories we get impoverish our ability to see how change happens. A more expansive history transforms how we imagine what a movement looks like, sounds like, and pushes for, and understand how it is received and often reviled.. It shows us that leadership, vision, steadfastness, and courage came in many forms, as did the opposition to it. Giving us necessary tools for understanding the past, it suggests lessons for long-distances runners in the struggle for racial and social justice today."

With just a couple weeks left in the semester, It feels good to say this text has provided the class with some really remarkable opportunities to face the history-making process. Near the beginning of our discussion of the text, I decided that the best way to work through this text was the read it in class.

I used the book as an opportunity to teach students how to read academic texts. We would use class time to deconstruct the various chapters and foreground the mechanics of Theoharis' writing. For example, what is her thesis? What kind of supporting evidence does she use in each chapter to support her thesis? What is her archive? What is her methodology? Before reading various chapters, what questions do you have, based on the chapter title? As we would read the chapters, I would ask students to say "STOP," when various questions we had were answered. They also would have me pause if they heard something they did not understand or, if they thought a particular section deserved additional discussion. Looking ahead, if given the opportunity to teach this course again, I absolutely would .

For more information about the overall flow of the course, download my syllabus.

Syllabus HIST 240 in_person 401 Spring22
Download PDF • 398KB

Click below to read a reflective essay from a student in the course.

HIST+240+Reflective+Paper name redacted
Download PDF • 95KB

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