Lessons and what will I do with this experience

So I did write and submit a lesson as part of the workshop.  Being the perfectionist that I can be, I spent a lot of time going in a number of different directions, then settled on a topic and wrote a lesson.  5 minutes before the final session where we had to share our lessons, I had the. most. inspired. idea for a lesson.  Oh well.

So what I ended up setting up was a lesson exploring the various roles that black women took in the civil rights movement.  I found primary sources (except for one, which was secondary but had the brevity and the clarity I wanted) about four women: Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and the mother of Emmett Till, Mamie TIll Bradley.  (As an aside - Emmett Till's 76th birthday should have been a few days ago.  76 - he should still be alive.  He's younger than Elmore Nickleberry, who is still working for the Memphis sanitation department.  He's three years older than my mother, who died young (in 1999) because of lung cancer.  He's 5 years older than Donald Trump.  His murder was an exceedingly long time ago - and there are many people old enough to remember him and be his contemporaries that we can all talk to.)

The point of the lesson, as I wrote it, is to encourage students to realize that, 1. black women had roles in the civil rights movement beyond Rosa Parks, and 2. that those roles were varied, wide ranging, organizational, and sometimes made use of their status as women and mothers as justification.  If you are a Beacon student reading this after September, well, you will probably never do this lesson as I wrote it up.  I found reasonable documents to use, but I do not like the way I designed the lesson experience to accomplish this goal.  But the issue is an important one, and you will address these women in some way!  The conventional story of Rosa Parks makes her brave but somewhat passive - her glory is that she didn't get up from her seat - but the actual activities of women organizers was incredibly crucial to the daily activities of the moment.  But, as women, they didn't get the national glory and heroic treatment that Dr King, Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael did.  Which is a shame.

My inspired idea after I finished this lesson was about the role of the black press in the civil rights movement, particularly Jet Magazine.  Jet Magazine was a fixture of grocery aisle magazine cover reading in my childhood, but not one that we purchased very often.  I've thought of it more an entertainment magazine, but it really is an interesting mix of culture, entertainment and politics.  Because you can't really separate them.  Jet magazine was the magazine that covered Emmett Till's funeral, and published the awful and devastating photos of his mutilated face.  His mother insisted on an open casket, and allowed the magazine to take photos, in order to show the world what was done to her son.  This issue of the magazine has a pretty woman (very conventionally beautiful - light skin, processed hair) in a bathing suit on the cover.  I think the disconnect between these two facts is utterly fascinating and revealing about the black community in the 1950s.  So I may well make something out of this at some point.  Or encourage someone to do a research paper on this.

My other inspired ideas - 

  • something on the roles of women in the movement - white women like Viola Luozzo and Carolyn Schwerner also had significant roles worth discussing in a lesson
  • comparing a white newspaper (or television report) to a black newspaper's coverage of a particular historical event and doing the same for a current event looking at black online media or other ethnic or language based media
  • looking at how historical interpretation changes based on evidence.  A book was released in 2015 or 2016 called The Blood of Emmett Till.  Among other things that the historian was able to uncover, he interviewed the woman whose accusation led to Till's murder.  She finally confessed that there was no actual incident - that she was lying.  This seems worthy of a lesson as well.
  • Housing segregation - a few teachers at the workshop wrote their lessons around this issue.  NYC is an incredibly segregated city, and there are a number of lessons that could be developed around this.  Lessons could focus on the development of Central Park and the destruction of Seneca Village, the building of Lincoln Center, the building of my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, etc.  Or this could turn into a series of research projects for students.
  • Looking at the movement through the lens of the Cold War, and looking at the language and the questions that international newspapers asked about the US, the democratic and capitalist systems, and American Cold War rhetoric when observing the treatment of African Americans and other minorities.
  • Using artifacts.  I was exposed to an extraordinarily creative method of using artifacts to tell historical stories that I may turn into a project.

And there's more, but I'm going to keep things about those.

Will I ever use all of this stuff?  No.  But I will use some of it, and I will use the inspiration from all of the people that I met. 

Meeting history

On Thursday, we went to two churches - one absolutely derelict, and one glossy and gorgeous and central.  The contrast was stark and depressing. 

The first was Clayborn Temple, an AME church extremely near Beale Street, the FedEx Forum, and the tourist stuff.  But it is in a run down neighborhood cut off from that business, and is itself in danger of collapse.  The congregation that owned the church had to abandon it, and it was purchased by a nonprofit in the last few years.  It has holes in the ceiling, the original floors were replaced with plywood planking, but its core is still there - much of the stained glass, the paintings on the walls, etc.  This congregation was in support of organizing in the civil rights movement, and was an important organizing space for the 1968 sanitation workers' strike in Memphis.  Support for this strike was the reason that Dr King was in Memphis when he was assassinated in April of 1968.   

From the facebook page of Nikki Gilliam

From the facebook page of Nikki Gilliam

While we visited this historic site, we had the chance to meet three people who were involved in the 1968 strike, and the movement in Memphis.  The ultimate source - people who were there.

The 1968 strike involved about 1300 sanitation workers, who had the lowest paying city jobs with no benefits, pensions, compensations for injury or death (which is much more common than you may realize.  Sanitation jobs are hard and dangerous.), and no ability for advancement for black workers.  This strike was almost 50 years ago, and only 13 of the workers are still alive.  We met with two of them, Elmore Nickleberry and Baxter Leech.  Mr Nickleberry, who is 85 years old, is still working for the city of Memphis in the sanitation department.  (The current debate on this issue is the fact that while the workers won their strike in the aftermath of Dr King's death, one demand that they did not receive immediately was a pension.  The city of Memphis is currently - only now, now that only 13 of these men are left - deciding whether to give each of the surviving workers $50,000 each.  Which is shamefully a small pension, and nothing is being given to the survivors of those that have since died.  Disgusting.  The New York Times did an article about this this week....featuring Mr Nickleberry.)

We heard from both of these elders directly about their experiences and feelings on the job, their reasons for striking, and the pride that they felt in winning better (though not great) working conditions through their efforts and perseverance.  The meeting for us was the first time that both of these men had been in the church since the 1960s.  It was a really powerful experience.

Also on the panel was a late arrival.  He sat down, and when a reasonable part in the conversation came up, he broke in and introduced himself as Dr Coby Smith.  !!!  For those of us in the workshop, he was someone we had read about and learned about, walking out of the page of a textbook.  In 1968, Dr Smith was a college student (who was one of the first black students at Rhodes College - our host college) who helped create a more militant activist group called the Invaders.  They were involved in support of the strike, and were blamed for some of the violence during one of the protest marches.  Dr Smith met with Dr King the day before he died as a part of the negotiations over the future direction of the strike. The Invaders, like many civil rights groups, was infiltrated by the FBI. He continues to live in Memphis and had a long career as a local activist and educator.  

Learning in person from those who were there.  It doesn't get much more powerful than that.

from the facebook page of Tammy Poulton Martin

from the facebook page of Tammy Poulton Martin

Preparation and reflection

I didn't, in the end, post a whole lot during the workshop, which ended Friday evening.  It was in many ways too overwhelming.  The amount of information learned, and the experiences, and sharing ideas from other teachers was constant, and powerful.

My preparation for this workshop was the only thing that saved me.  By completing all of the reading (well, most of it - I didn't actually get totally clear information on what to read), I had a pretty good frame of reference for most of the lectures.  So that was good. 

The most valuable experiences here were the pieces that cannot really be recreated in my classroom - physically being in the historic places, meeting people discussed in the books or analyzed in the lectures was much more valuable than the reading in advance.  I realize that this is the teacher's challenge - bringing that wonder, amazement, and curiosity to the classroom.  I'm not sure I'm up to the challenge on this one, to be honest. 

So now what I do I do?


The purpose of this seminar, among other things, is for the participating teachers to write a lesson making use of some of the information they have learned, or resources they have been exposed.  My feelings on this at the moment can be best expressed by the photo below.


The right side of this path is covered in spider webs with enormous spiders.  The left side, on the other side of the grill, is a highway and railroad crossing.  At the end of this internminable path, is Arkansas. 

I've learned so much this week that I can't figure out how to narrow down exactly what I want to write a single lesson on. I plan to work an entire unit out of this experience.  So at the end of my mental walk today, I should have a lesson.  But I'm still needing to walk a path to figure out how to teach this complex and amazing movement.

I came to the workshop thinking about Ella Baker and Septima Clark, and wanting to know more about them.  Once I got here, I was reminded of the book that came out last year The Blood of Emmett Till, in which the woman that accused Till admitted that she lied. Doing something about how historians' stories need to change as information is revealed would be fascinating.  Then I started thinking about newspapers and how black newspapers and white newspapers would discuss issues differently.  And then I started thinking about Fannie Lou Hamer.

So yeah.  What is the method to use to figure out what to do? I may or may not figure this out. 

National Civil Rights Museum - the power of place and artifacts

Oh my god, I am beyond blown away.  The first major exploration of this workshop was the visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.   This museum is an amazing example of the power of place and the power of artifacts to tell the story of the past.  This was also an intensely emotional experience, in really unexpected ways.

The museum itself is based in the building, the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King's assassination took place in April of 1968.  Since 1991, the motel building itself has been added to and modified to create an enormous and powerful museum that explains the civil rights movements - its origins in resistance during slavery and in the years after the Civil War, early 20th century activism, and the movement of the 1950s to late 1960s.  There is also a section detailing the questions around the King assassination itself (which I didn't get a chance to see today).

I want to reflect on the place itself now, and then on the power of artifacts. 

The facade of the museum is the motel building itself. 

The signage is original.  The most famous image of this motel is below - this is moments after the shot was fired, that mortally wounded King.  People who were with him are pointing to where they think the shot came from, which turned out to be a boarding house across the street.  (This boardinghouse is also part of the museum, but I did not get to go there today.  That houses the exhibition and discussion of the assassination itself.)  The majority of this museum is about the movement - about activism by everyday people and the most famous leaders of the movement - King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, James Lewis, etc.  But parts of it are also dedicated to this one, awful moment.  This tragedy.   

The signage is original.  The most famous image of this motel is below - this is moments after the shot was fired, that mortally wounded King.  People who were with him are pointing to where they think the shot came from, which turned out to be a boarding house across the street.  (This boardinghouse is also part of the museum, but I did not get to go there today.  That houses the exhibition and discussion of the assassination itself.)

The majority of this museum is about the movement - about activism by everyday people and the most famous leaders of the movement - King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, James Lewis, etc.  But parts of it are also dedicated to this one, awful moment.  This tragedy.   


How many tragic places have I visited like this?  I visited the Ile de Goree, a slave fortress in Senegal that was the departure point for thousands of enslaved Africans, perhaps including my distant ancestors.  I've been to Auschwitz, which shook me to my core.  I've been to many battlefield sites - the beaches of Normandy in northern France, Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia, Revolutionary War battle sites in my own city of New York.  I've walked streets on a regular basis where more 'everyday' tragedies have taken place - murders both infamous and unknown, car accidents too numerous to mention.  But this shook me.

The ending of the movement section of the museum takes you to two hotel rooms - room 308, which was set up to show you what rooms in this motel looked like in 1968, and room 306, which was the room that King stayed in.  No one stayed in room 306 after his assassination, while the building remained a functioning motel (and then became a SRO later).  Before you can see into room 306, you can see out of a window, from the vantage point of what used to be room 307, this:


This is the spot in the famous photograph.  Just a soul crushing moment, in many ways.  Perhaps because this was one man, and it is easier to contemplate the tragedy of a single loss, but this is the spot where a man died on a spring day.  And a place where the trajectory of US history changed in ways that are much harder to grasp.  You cannot convey the feeling of the place somewhere else.   A replica of this could be built in many places, but the feeling I don't think can really be conveyed.  This is such a human thing, to imbue a particular spot with such meaning.  I'm changed by seeing this, and I don't even know why.  Room 306 is below, preserved behind glass (in which many other visitors are reflected.) I'm going to need to come back to this - to this day, to what I saw - to figure out how to think about this historically and analytically.


This visit through the public exhibits was actually the second part of our visit today.  The first part was discussion with the musuem's director of interpretation and a behind the scenes visit to the vault that houses artifacts not on display in the museum.  This portion of the visit nearly made me cry, and left me emotionally on edge and vulnerable for the rest of my visit.  And all of this emotion revolved around two fairly simple (at least physically), objects.

We were not allowed to take pictures of these objects, and I wish I were a better writer to describe what I saw. 

We were shown a number of objects that demonstrate physical aspects of how segregation and discrimination were experienced.  

The object that just destroyed me was in a long, flat grey archival box.  Before she opened the box, the archivist mentioned that this object was brand new to the museum - it arrived last Thursday.  It had been offered to another Memphis museum, which turned it down.  When she opened the box, she pulled out a pile of white fabric, which turned out to be a KKK robe with the full regalia attached - a red cape that looks like a Catholic mozzetta, a braided rope belt, and the hood.  The whole outfit was handmade.

I just couldn't;t handle it.  This was apparently found by someone clearing their father's home after his death, in a trunk with a false bottom.  Clearly a shameful family history at this point.

But I could barely process that - just being in the presence of a physical representation of the forces that wanted (and still want) me gone, dead, or subservient.  Part of me didn't want to be in the room; part of me wanted to burn the fucking thing, and part of me wanted to show it to anyone and everyone to show that hate can be made of fabric.

After this, the archivist took us into a back room, which held all of the documentation that the museum owns about King's assassination.  They have the complete written files of the investigation, but not many physical artifacts.  Except the one that they showed us - the gurney where King died at the hospital.  A hospital gurney is a simple object - I've been on one a number of times, as have many other people I know.  Why was this specific one was practically too painful to lay eyes on?  

Objects and artifacts have enormous power.  We know this, we live it on a daily basis.  But today was so incredibly emotional.  There's no real way to convey this by analyzing the gurney as a historical source through an analytical structure like evaluating origin, purpose, content, value and limitations.  That just doesn't cut it.  At least not today. 

What does it mean to analyze a movement?

I have no idea how to answer this question.  Which is interesting, because I have in theory taught it.  But the reading that I've done so far for this workshop has reiterated the problem of just how complex all movements are.  In analyzing the civil rights movement in one city, in Memphis, you need to engage in understanding the role of and connections between - 

  • various levels of government and various political parties and factors
  • local organizations focused on specific issues - neighborhood associations, women's groups and clubs, etc
  • labor organizations and/or unions
  • college and university groups
  • various church groups and religious denominations
  • businesses and business communities
  • cultural institutions  
  • national or regional organizations focused on specific issues  

All of these types of organizations divided and multiplied by race and ideology - it gets incredibly complex.  And I know I've left stuff out.

 I understand why, in teaching children who are presumed to need a simple story, the focus becomes a single person or moment in explaining the changes wrought by these more complex networks. I don't think that kids need the simpler story - we do as adults as well.  By making these multidimensional and contested changes into a simple story, we create a narrative that makes the world make sense for our adult needs.  And pass that narrative on to the young.

If historical instruction is supposed to give kids the tools to create their own understandings of these kinds of complex movements, how do you provide the tools when the movement is in and of itself too complex for you to understand?  And you know it?

Reading and thinking

The workshop is fast approaching, and I'm feeling less than prepared.  The civil rights movement is such a large and all encompassing type of topic - I feel like I know more than average, but just enough to know how little I actually know about this sweeping social movement.

The reading I'm doing at the moment is reminding me of how little I know.  But it is also reminding me of how much I enjoy learning - making connections in my head between the ideas I have read, feeling that openness in my brain as I begin to see some issue...

It's awesome.

I have been thinking more about how I am processing this information as well, and being more deliberate about taking notes.  Not quite to the level that I'm doing for the Oxford class, since I won't be asked to write a paper, but enough to encourage more careful reading.

I read Laurie Beth Green's Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle as my first reading on Memphis itself.  I'm glad I read this before the selections in the course reader, because I could use her work as a cross reference.  In the past, I would not have been as careful to make direct cross references in my notes.  I was often content to not understand references, not remember where I had read something before, or put ideas together in my head and hope I remembered them.  As I've learned over the years, the act of writing helps cement things in my memory.  And having written notes means I only need to have an idea once.  These seem like basic points, and simplistic annotating, but I can see in my own brain at this point how these basic strategies have helped so far.







Post #1: Books!

Memphis.  In July.  But there will be air conditioning, right?

I just got the books for this workshop, and there are only two so that's quite manageable.

Laurie Beth Green's Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle, which looks really fascinating.  It's a very local study of a place I know nothing about.  I assume that parts of the workshop will takes us to or have us meet with people involved in the struggle.

The other book is an overview meant more for students by Yohuru Williams, called Rethinking the Black Freedom Movement.  This is part of a series on American social movements that I wish I had been familiar with earlier - would have been quite helpful for both student researchers I have supervised and for myself in developing courses.  Oh well - that's the point of the workshop.  To learn more and then be able to use that knowledge in the future.