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Approaches to Teaching U.S. Civil Rights History . Dr. Suzanne Smith Dept. of History and Art History George Mason University. Part I: Civil Rights and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Major Themes. What are a citizen’s rights and obligations?

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Approaches to teaching u s civil rights history l.jpg

Approaches to Teaching U.S. Civil Rights History

Dr. Suzanne Smith

Dept. of History and Art History

George Mason University


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Part I:Civil Rights and Citizenship inTwentieth-Century America


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Major Themes

  • What are a citizen’s rights and obligations?

  • In the United States, who is granted citizenship and why?

  • Historically, who gets excluded from full citizenship and why?

  • If “majority rules” in a democratic society, what recourse does the minority have? How do minority groups get heard?

  • How does discrimination manifest itself? (E.g. the right to drink from a fountain, to vote, to handicapped access to a building)


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Civil Rights Constituencies

  • African American

  • Arab American

  • Asian American

  • Disabled American

  • Gays and Lesbians

  • Hispanic/Latino

  • Native American

  • Prison Rights

  • Women’s Rights


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Rights vs. Obligations

  • Have students explore what it means to be a full citizen of the United States.

  • What are some of our rights? To free speech, to bear arms, to vote

  • What are the obligations of citizenship? To serve in the military, to serve on a jury

  • Can some aspects of citizenship be both a right and an obligation?


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Civic Nationalism

  • Civic Nationalism: a belief in the fundamental equality of human beings, in every individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.


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Racial Nationalism

  • Racial Nationalism: a belief that conceives of America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government. From the perspective of this racialized ideal, Africans, Asians, nonwhite Latin Americans, and, in the 1920s, southern and eastern Europeans did not belong to the republic and could never be accepted as full-fledged members.


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Civic vs. Racial Nationalism

  • In his book, American Crucible:Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, historian Gary Gerstle argues “that the pursuit of these two contradictory ideals--the civic and the racial--has decisively shaped the history of the American nation in the twentieth century.”

  • Moreover, Gerstle argues that at times of war, racial nationalism often takes precedence over civic nationalism.


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Part II: Civil Rights and Collective Memory


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African-American Civil Rights History: Moving Beyond the Myths

  • How do we teach students about the complexities of civil rights history in light of the powerful collective memories about it?

  • How can we teach students to see themselves in the history of the civil rights struggle? In other words, as a movement that succeeded as the result of courageous, ordinary Americans who worked at the grassroots level--rather than just the efforts of mythic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.


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“A Marble House Divided”: Myths Understanding the Power of Collective Memory

  • What is the central argument of Scott Sandage’s article, “A Marble House Divided”?

  • How could his main points be used to help students think about the importance of symbolism in political and social movements?


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Forms of Myths Civil Rights Activism

  • Direct Action: sit-ins, boycotts, and picket lines

  • Legal Action: discrimination lawsuits, Supreme Court rulings (Brown decision)

  • Legislative/Political Action: voting, running for office, legislative rulings (e.g. Civil Rights Act of 1964)

  • Cultural Expression: freedom songs, plays, poetry, film, and visual arts


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Major Strategies of Myths African American Movement

  • Social Justice: Non-violent struggle for desegregation of public facilities and schools. (1955-1964)

  • Voting Rights--Political Empowerment (1963-1965)

  • Economic Justice: Shift to Militancy and Racial Separatism (1965-1970 to Present)


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Social Justice: 1954-1963 Myths

  • 1954: Brown v. Board of Education

  • 1955: Montgomery Bus Boycott

  • 1957: Little Rock High School Case

  • 1960-1963: Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides

  • 1963: The March on Washington

  • Biggest Victory: Civil Rights Act of 1964


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Voting Rights: 1964-1965 Myths

  • 1964: Freedom Summer and founding of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

  • 1965: The Selma Campaign

  • Biggest Victory: The Voting Rights Act of 1965


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Economic Justice: Myths 1965-early 1970s

  • 1966: Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Chicago Campaign

  • 1968: The Poor People’s Campaign

  • Late 1960s: The Rise of the Black Panther Party

  • Biggest victory: Affirmative Action policies