The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were key episodes in the struggle to win equal rights for all Americans. It hurts to see them used for purposes that seem antithetical to the civil rights movement.
Last week, the Bloomington Herald-Times reported on one of the many fights that have erupted over whether students should wear face coverings to limit the spread of COVID-19. A father told the reporter that he and his fifth-grade daughter were inspired by Rosa Parks to reject wearing masks.
“On Sunday night, she wanted me to talk to me about Rosa Parks and if that was true that Rosa Parks really just stopped doing something and everyone changed,” he told a reporter. “And I said absolutely it’s true.”
Maybe we should be encouraged that a 10-year-old in a rural school district that’s 95% white would be inspired by the actions of a Black seamstress 65 years ago. The problem is, we’ve learned a mostly false story about Rosa Parks. She wasn’t a simple seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus because she was tired. She was a quiet but committed activist who served as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and traveled to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee for interracial activism training, a radical act at that time.
Letting her arrest be used to challenge segregation was an act of profound courage. “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” her husband told her. He no doubt meant it literally, and with good reason.
It’s great that students are learning about Martin Luther King Jr. in schools across the United States this week. Possibly no American in my lifetime is more worthy of being so honored and memorialized.
But I hope teachers also take advantage of the King holiday to share lessons about the many people who were crucial to the success of the civil rights movement, not just its best-known leader. They could focus on the women who did essential work, often behind the scenes.
Snowed in for a three-day weekend? It’s a good time to re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s unflinching expression of faith in the power of love and nonviolent direct action.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in 1963, in a message that’s as timeless as it is powerful. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
But readings on race, justice and civil rights shouldn’t stop there. Here are a few other suggestions – a list based on books that I’ve had a chance to read:
“Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” by Barbara Ransby. This book belongs at the top of the list. It changed my understanding of the civil rights movement. Yes, King’s leadership was important, but even more essential was the patient, fearless behind-the-scenes work done by Baker and others like her over decades.
“The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. Six million African-Americans left the rural South for the Northeast, Midwest and West in the early 20th century, fundamentally reshaping America. Wilkerson tells the story with grace and intimacy, weaving it around the experiences of three individuals who made the journey to freedom and opportunity.
“The Wall Between,” by Anne Braden. Braden and her husband, Carl, acted as intermediaries in 1954 to help a black couple buy a house in an all-white Louisville suburb. The house was bombed and Carl Braden was imprisoned for sedition. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Louisville couldn’t desegregate its schools, because the school segregation reflected housing segregation that was voluntary. This book shows the court was wrong.
“On the Laps of Gods,” by Robert Whitaker. In 1919, black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas, met at a church to organize a union. White authorities showed up, shots were fired, and white militias and federal troops hunted down and killed over 100 African-Americans, including women and children. Over 200 local blacks were jailed; 12 were sentenced to death but were saved from execution by the heroic work of black attorney Scipio Jones. It’s one of the real tragedies of American history, and a continuing tragedy that so few know about it.
“Stamped from the Beginning,” by Ibram X. Kendi. The American University historian traces attitudes toward race from the first white settlement, framing them as segregationist, assimilationist or antiracist. It’s a wide sweep of American history seen through a critical, unsparing lens.
“The Negro in Indiana before 1900,” by Emma Lou Thornbrough. This 1957 book by the late Butler University historian and activist may seem dated, but it’s eye-opening for folks like me who have lived for decades in Indiana without knowing a lot about the state’s racial past.
This is a good time to remember that, yes, the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it can be excruciatingly long.
That’s a slightly twisted version of an aphorism that’s most strongly associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today. Around the country, many schools are closed for the holiday. Others are in session, but hopefully teachers are teaching about King’s life and legacy.
Library of Congress photo
And hopefully schools everywhere are focusing their history lessons not just on King but on the civil rights struggle, and not only frontline leaders like King and Rep. John Lewis but strategists like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin and fearless combatants like Fannie Lou Hamer and Vernon Dahmer. (Look them up!).
The effort to mark King’s birthday as a national holiday began soon after he was murdered in April 1968. Even that took 15 years to succeed; the arc was long. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that made the third Monday in January a federal holiday memorializing King. Authors of the bill were Republican Jack Kemp of New York state and Democrat Katie Hall of Gary, Ind.
Indiana University professor Bill Wiggins, who died last month, placed the quest for a King holiday in a much longer history of black freedom holidays, including Emancipation Proclamation anniversaries and Juneteenth, which marks when news of the end of the Civil War reached Galveston, Texas.Continue reading →
On this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it’s good to remember that education was at the center of the many key battles of the 20th century civil rights movement. From Little Rock to New Orleans to the campuses of Southern state universities, the brave struggle of African-American students and parents to secure a decent education inspired the nation a half century ago.
John Lewis, later a hero of the movement and now a Georgia congressman, was a high-school freshman in 1954, when the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.
“I remember the feeling of jubilation I had reading the newspaper story – all the newspaper stories – that day,” he wrote in his autobiography. “No longer would I have to ride a broken-down bus almost 40 miles each day to attend classes at a ‘training’ school with hand-me-down books and supplies. Come fall I’d be riding a state-of-the-art bus to a state-of-the-art school, an integrated school.”
We all know what happened. Southern officials resisted – 50 years ago this month George Wallace took office as governor of Georgia declaring “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” White parents moved their students to private “academies.” When the courts ordered busing to desegregate schools, riots ensued in Boston, Louisville and elsewhere.
Arguably, though, blatant resistance did less damage to the promise of the Brown decision than white flight from cities to suburbs and urban middle-class flight from public to private schools, Continue reading →
The high-minded idealism in Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s “state of education” speech was almost enough to make a person shout amen. But you have to wonder what Martin Luther King Jr., whose words Bennett invoked, would have thought of the superintendent’s assertion that school funding doesn’t matter. Or his argument that schools will compete their way to excellence.
Bennett spoke Monday at Creston Middle School on the east side of Indianapolis. The speech will be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday on public TV stations, including WTIU in Bloomington. You can read the text on the Indiana Department of Education website.
Citing Democratic U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s statement that education is “the civil rights issue of our time,” the Republican superintendent went further: “It’s the civil rights issue for every generation.”
Bennett talked about visiting Indiana schools where most kids come from low-income and minority households. “While there are some exceptional educators in these schools, research tells us these students are least likely to have great teachers and leadership,” he said. Continue reading →