Fifty years ago this week, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairperson Stokely Carmichael made the famous call for “Black Power.” Carmichael’s speech came in the midst of the “March Against Fear,” a walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to encourage African Americans to use their newly won right to vote. But while almost every middle and high school student learns about the Civil Rights Movement, they rarely learn about this march—or the related struggles that continued long after the Voting Rights Act.
Most U.S. History textbooks teach a narrative that the Civil Rights Movement began with the Supreme Court Brown v. Board decision in 1954 and abruptly ended in 1965 with the passage of federal legislation. Not only does this narrative tell students that politicians and judges are more important than activists and organizers, it reinforces the myth that structural racism is a relic of the past and the United States is on an unstoppable path of progress. As Black Lives Matter activists once again take up the fight against racial inequity and police brutality, excavating the long, grassroots history for students is crucial if we hope to use the past to inform our struggles today.
What Was the Civil Rights Movement?
With my high school students, I begin teaching the Civil Rights Movement by asking them to name the people and organizations that were involved.
“Martin Luther King!”
Students shout out names like Emmett Till, Malcolm X, the Little Rock Nine.
I divide the whiteboard in half: Any person or group famous for events or actions before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I write on the right side of the board; those famous for events or actions after the Voting Rights Act, I write on the left side of the board. Without fail, the right side of the board is always full and the left side of the board nearly bare
After explaining to students what I had done, I direct their attention to a Civil Rights Timeline poster. We read aloud the first and last entries: “May 17, 1954, Supreme Court outlaws school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education” and “July 9, 1965, Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act.”
I ask: “Why don’t we ever learn about the Civil Rights Movement after 1965?” I don’t expect them to answer this right then, but I tell students that as we learn about the Civil Rights Movement—both before and after 1965—I want them to consider this question.
What the Textbooks Teach
It’s no accident my students learn a narrative that stops in 1965. Most history textbooks end their chapter on the Civil Rights Movement with a short one- or two-page section on “Black Power” that covers Malcolm X and a few post-1965 events. One example is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s United States History. The section titled “Urban Violence Erupts” reads:
. . . five days after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, one of the worst race riots in the nation’s history raged through the streets of Watts, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Los Angeles. Thirty-four people were killed, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed. The next year, 1966, saw even more racial disturbances, and in 1967 alone, riots and violent clashes took place in more than 100 cities.
What is startling about this passage is the omission of the causes of these urban rebellions—from police violence to the assassination of MLK. The violence in Watts, and the riots that followed, didn’t materialize out of thin air. Watts was a neighborhood where residents had long protested poor housing and sanitation, underfunded and segregated schools, and a heavy police presence. Although sparked by an incident of police brutality, the conditions that led to the Watts uprising—like the conditions that have led to today’s Black Lives Matter protests—started long before protestors hit the streets. As Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. explain in Blacks Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party:
Between January 1962 and July 1965, Los Angeles law enforcement officers killed at least 65 people. . . . These included 27 cases in which the victim was shot in the back by law-officers, 25 in which the victim was unarmed, 23 in which the victim was suspected of a nonviolent crime and four in which the victim was not suspected of any crime at the time of the shooting.
Much of the violence during the riot targeted police cars. And in the aftermath, activists in Watts organized Community Alert Patrols to observe how police treated residents. Yet the textbooks ignore this context to deliver a message: the urban rebellions were the end of the Civil Rights Movement worth studying.
Textbooks reinforce the Voting Rights Act-as-the-end-of-the-movement narrative when they draw a line between the Civil Rights Movement and the call for Black Power. One example is Teachers Curriculum Institute’s widely used History Alive! The United States. One page after extolling the virtues of the Voting Rights Act, the authors write in their “Black Power” section:
By the time King died, many African Americans had lost faith in his vision of a society in which the color of a person’s skin didn’t matter. Angry young African Americans looked instead to new leaders who talked about black pride and black power.
Missing from this passage is the angry young King, who reminded us after 1965 that his dream had “turned into a nightmare,” who attacked segregation in the North, who opposed the Vietnam War, who advocated for a massive redistribution of wealth, who called for Black pride, and who worked closely with Black Power proponents.
Also missing is the roots of Black Power in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began organizing the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO)—which became known by its symbol, the Black Panther—as an attempt to build an independent political party to challenge Alabama’s ruling Democratic Party. Though LCFO candidates did not win, SNCC registered 2,000 Black voters during the campaign. Lowndes County field organizer Stokely Carmichael was soon elected chairperson of SNCC and became the leading proponent of Black Power.
The passage from History Alive! continues: “Black Power groups formed that embraced militant strategies and the use of violence. Organizations such as the Black Panthers rejected all things white and talked of building a separate black nation.” This is the only mention of the Black Panthers in a 500-plus-page textbook. This passage is a gross mischaracterization of the Panthers’ ideology and it erases their efforts to build multiracial coalitions. The broader curricular crime is that History Alive! teaches students to accept the turn to Black Power as the end of the successful Civil Rights Movement, and therefore not worth spending class time exploring. This narrative prevents us not only from learning the lessons of the organizations and activists that continued the struggle against racism after the Voting Rights Act, but also from drawing out the relevance of the pre-1965 Southern freedom struggle that dealt with much more than the fight for voting rights.
Teaching “The Long Civil Rights Movement”
Far from being the end of the Civil Rights Movement, 1965 marked a legislative milestone and provided activists with another tool. But the new legislation was not a solution to the problems people had been organizing against for many years. In the North and the South, activists continued to confront poverty, unemployment, lack of health care, poor housing, inadequate education, and police and sheriff brutality.
U.S. history textbooks fail to look deeply at the urban rebellions, Martin Luther King’s campaigns against war and poverty, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, and the rise of the Black Panther Party. And there are countless other post-1965 events that should be brought into the classroom: the Memphis Sanitation workers’ strike and the subsequent workers’ struggles of the 1970s, the Orangeburg Massacre, the fight for Ethnic Studies programs, the national campaign for welfare rights, the Attica Prison Uprising, the battle over segregated schools in Boston and community control in New York, the fight in the South to ensure the Voting Rights Act was put into practice, and many more.
The shallow understanding of the Civil Rights Movement that my students brought to class goes beyond not knowing post-1965 events. As historian Jeanne Theoharis has noted, before the Watts Rebellion there was more than two decades of nonviolent activism against legalized segregation in Los Angeles. And in 1963, after what is widely taught as a successful nonviolent struggle to desegregate downtown Birmingham, Alabama, 2,000 African Americans, fed up after segregationists bombed hotels that housed movement leaders, turned to violence. They threw rocks and bricks, looted stores, and set fire to a nearby grocery. Despite the fact that this precipitated Kennedy’s endorsement of the Civil Rights Act, this violence is often left out of the story of Birmingham, just as nonviolent activism is left out of the story of Watts.
What this example reveals and what a growing work of scholarship argues, is that we have been sold a narrative of the movement that ignores enormous parts of Civil Rights history. By mythologizing a successful, exclusively nonviolent struggle against racial segregation in the South that becomes a polarizing call for Black Power as it moves North after 1965, we leave out struggles across the country that don’t fit this stereotype.
We should replace this limited narrative, these scholars argue, with one of “The Long Civil Rights Movement,” a national Black freedom struggle rooted in struggles of the 1930s and extended through the 1970s, that used self-defense and nonviolent direct action, that dealt with issues of race and class, that developed international solidarity, and participated in countless local struggles in the North and South.
In classrooms across the country, guided by the official textbooks and curricula, students learn a version of the Civil Rights Movement that leaves its lessons in the past. School districts across the country should provide time for teachers to produce a people’s curriculum of the movement in order to teach the local histories that are left out of the official narrative. This way our students who we hope will join and shape today’s social movements can do so with knowledge and insight about what came before.