To be honest, I’m a bit torn about the whole idea of Black History Month. The concept started way back in 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” That particular week was chosen because it marked the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
The hope was that the week would eventually be eliminated when black history became fundamental to American history teaching. In 1976, the federal government followed the lead of the Black United Students at Kent State and established the entire month as Black History Month. President Ford urged Americans, and especially teachers and schools, to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
The hope was that essential people, events, and places, routinely ignored, would be incorporated throughout the instructional year as part of social studies instruction.
But I’m torn.
I got the chance to watch the Lincoln movie a week or so ago. Loved it. Who would have thought? A movie about constitutional law? Interesting?
But great casting, great costuming, and great performances, especially by Daniel Day Lewis, create a great movie. My wife was concerned about the length and walked out afterwards praising the movie. Even my daughter, who is not the history geek that her dad is, said:
The movie helped me see that Lincoln is an actual person, not just some historical figure in some textbook. He played with his kids while trying to run the country. I thought that was cool.
And I learned more about the process of how laws are passed and so I plan to go to a great college and become a lawyer, supporting my father in his quest to play every golf course in the state of Hawaii.
Okay. I added that last bit. But she really did enjoy how a very important piece of American history was told in an engaging and interesting way.
But how to use the movie in the classroom?
- A twelve year old girl trying to help by carrying glasses of water to victims of a firebombed bus while a mob of Klu Klux Klan members surged around her.
- Alabama governor, John Patterson, railing against “outside agitators – black men and white women” who were coming to Alabama to rile up the “good people of local communities” by riding a bus together.
- College students signing their last will and testament before stepping onto a bus headed to Alabama and Mississippi, expecting to be beaten and killed.
- Bull Conner, the police commissioner of Birmingham, cutting a deal with the KKK promising 15 minutes to “burn, bomb, kill, maim, I don’t give a god-damn what you do. I will guarantee that not one soul will be arrested in the 15 minutes” after Freedom Riders got off the bus.
- A reporter not wanting to look black Freedom Riders in the eye as they entered a “Whites Only” waiting area, knowing that death for the Riders was very likely just minutes away. And later stepping between the Riders and members of a Birmingham mob in an attempt to keep that from happening.
The Freedom Rides of 1961 happened a long time ago. And for your students, the events of that summer seem absolutely ancient. But the PBS special, Freedom Riders, that aired last year as part of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides is an incredibly powerful tool for helping your kids understand the context of the Civil Rights movement.
PBS does a wonderful job of combining oral interviews from participants, photos, news footage, newspaper coverage, and video clips to create a truly engaging and emotional documentary. The film helps put a human face on both those fighting for civil rights and those fighting to retain the entrenched culture of Jim Crow.
At an hour and 51 minutes, the video is too long for a single classroom period. And, normally, I suggest that very few movies are good enough and powerful enough to show in their entirety. While it would be possible to chunk pieces of this story out, Freedom Riders just may be the exception.
PBS has maintained the Freedom Riders site with its access to teacher materials such as a study guide, instructional materials and links to related resources at EDSITEment. You can find tons of background information on the riders, the context of the period, and a handy timeline. The video is showing on PBS throughout the month of February but you can also stream in directly off the PBS site.
Freedom Riders is a story of amazing courage and bravery. Of racism and extreme bigotry, of cruelty. Simple acts of kindness. Of turning the other cheek and turning a blind eye.
Ultimately, it is a story of America. At its best and its worst. And it’s a story that our kids need to hear.