Building a Civil Rights Teaching Community in Mississippi
In July 2015, eleven middle and high school teachers from the across the state of Mississippi met to share resources and stories about how to bring a deeper understanding of the rich history of civil rights and labor movements in Mississippi to their students. During the course of the week they created a strong bond based on their shared commitment to introduce students to the bottom-up and often hidden history of the state. As Kosciusko (northeast of Jackson) teacher Jessica Dickens said on the first day, “I’m in heaven to be among so many like-minded educators.”
Modeled on the philosophy of the Mississippi Freedom Schools, the activities throughout the week were participatory with a focus on examining not just history, but also issues of race and equity in schools today. They included writing stories and poetry, role plays, guest speakers, field trips, lesson planning, uncovering local history, and more.
The institute was designed to help participants deepen their understanding of Mississippi civil rights and labor movement history, explore interactive pedagogy, develop a collaborative teacher community, and plan for statewide expansion.
It was part of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Labor History fellowship organized by Teaching for Change with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.
Here are some highlights from the week.
Mississippi Civil Rights Movement History
The exploration of Mississippi history began with local untold stories in the teachers’ home communities. Before coming to the institute, fellows were asked to research an unsung s/hero from their town. They placed the people and stories they found on the online Historypin map page dedicated to uncovering Mississippi’s hidden history.
A few of the teachers had to dig deep to find their unsung hero. When they began, they were told that there was no activism in their community. Motivated by the assignment and the knowledge that people are active everywhere, they went to the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission files. (This is the state agency that spied on and documented the actions of more than 87,000 civil rights volunteers.) Sure enough, names surfaced. Webster County native Glendolyn Crowell recognized one name on the list–her own elementary school principal. With that lead, she reached out to the Mayor and her Facebook friends to learn more. On the final day of the institute, the unsung heroes sprung to life in a lesson prepared with the fellows’ research. Each person was given a bio of one of the Mississippi unsung heroes and invited to interview their peers (all in the role of an unsung hero) with a set of guiding questions. (The format for the lesson was based on Unsung Heroes by Bill Bigelow.)
The fellows engaged in role plays related to some of the stories in Mississippi history that are seldom included in mainstream history textbooks. For example, in a lesson on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the fellows took on the on the role of Mississippians at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. After interviewing each other and listening to the memorable testimony by Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer to the Credentials Committee, they had to decide whether or not to accept the offer by LBJ to have two delegate at large seats. Most soundly rejected it, saying that two seats did not even qualify as a compromise.
One of the special guests for the day, project partner Roy DeBerry, engaged in the role play as himself. At the age of 16, DeBerry was on the boardwalk in Atlantic City with the MFDP.
After the lesson, DeBerry responded to additional questions and shared favorite memories, such as Mrs. Hamer stepping out of the Convention Center to lead the group in song.
The lessons introduced in the institute were selected based on issues surfaced by the fellows. With the Confederate flag in the daily news, one request was for lessons to explore the impact of racism on white allegiances in history—particularly working class whites. The lesson on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was ideal. It introduced a seldom taught story of Black and white sharecroppers uniting during the Great Depression. Role playing conversations between union organizers and sharecroppers, participants could see the benefits and risks of coming together.
As another rich source of history, guest speakers and field trips were featured throughout the week. Judge Carlton Reeves described his own education and political awakening, Dr. Daphne Chamberlain shared stories and photos about the role of youth in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Roy DeBerry introduced classroom friendly resources on the Hill Country Project website, and Albert Sykes provided a detailed overview and analysis of the politics of education in Mississippi today.
During a full day in Jackson, fellows gathered in historic Woodworth Chapel at Tougaloo College to hear from veterans Ineva May-Pittman, Flonzie Brown Wright, Hollis Watkins, and MacArthur Cotton. The moving panel was organized by Cynthia Palmer, director of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Inc. Jackson fellow Lynne Schneider stated,
These are more than just lessons or activities I can pull from at some point in time, but rather living people I can connect with and draw from.
Fellows also visited the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the International Museum of Muslim Cultures, and the Medgar Evers Home Museum. At the Evers home, Ms. Minnie Watson gave an animated and detailed history of Evers’ life and legacy.
Key films were introduced, included Standing on My Sisters Shoulders, Eyes on the Prize, Freedom Song, and Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek. A resource table, full of books and more films on Mississippi history, was available to fellows throughout the week.
A wide range of strategies were used throughout the week so that teachers could “try them on” and determine which ones could be adapted to their own classrooms. These included:
- A gallery walk invited fellows to explore the history of education in Mississippi, leading up to their role today. The text and images of the gallery walk began with pre-Mississippi in the ancient city of Timbuktu, moving through Reconstruction to present day issues such as Initiative 42. Participants wrote their thoughts on chart paper next to an image or text and were encouraged to comment on what others wrote as well.
- To facilitate discussion of articles and primary documents, protocols such as Save the Last Word for ME and Issaquoh were used. The protocols, from the National School Reform Faculty/Harmony Education Center, were effective in allowing everyone a chance to speak and be heard. One of the articles discussed was by SNCC veteran Charles Cobb Jr. on the relationship between nonviolence and self-defense.
- Participants stepped into history with role plays, such as the lesson on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Each role play had dozens of characters, immediately shattering the narrative of a handful of heroes making history. The role plays also show history as a set of choices or dilemmas, rather than an inevitable sequence of events.
- Community building activities were used every day so that the fellows could get to know each other. These included people bingo, concentric circles, and writing about “in whose shoes I’m walking.”
Since many teacher will engage students in uncovering and documenting their local history, Sarah Blanc and Diana Dombrowski of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program provided a workshop on oral history collection. The session included oral history process, technology, and techniques and the offer for follow-up guidance. Each fellow received a packet of oral history resources, including a copy of the publication, “I Never Will Forget”: Memories from Mississippi Freedom Summer.
Fellows learned about National History Day as an opportunity for students to document and share local history. They saw a film created by students in McComb with local history interviews for National History Day. Their instructor, Oral History Association award winner, Falana McDaniel talked about the process and benefits of engaging middle and high schools students in local history research, including oral history collection.
Finally, fellows took time to design their own lessons or map out their semester based on the institute ideas generated during the institute.
Fellow Lynne Schneider commented,
What I am most pleased with is so many ways to create a student-centered classroom and a new focus on youth activism. I can’t wait to work with students on movements they are hungry to be a part of.
When teachers signed up for the fellowship, many spoke of the isolation they felt in their respective school districts and the desire to be part of a learning community. Therefore, a focus for the week was finding ways to deepen and sustain a nurturing, collaborative community among the participants.
It began with activities to help the fellows get to know each other, including People Bingo and Big Shoes to Fill. Fellows wrote a story about a time that they stood up against injustice or a person in whose shoes they are walking. As each person read their story, the life stories began to walk a path together. Here is the “big shoes to fill” story from Hattiesburg fellow Raymond Brookter:
Although these are big shoes to fill, I am following in the footsteps of giants. I am following in the footsteps of my mother, Mary Lee whose early recitation about how her father was returned to their home split down the face and neck for what was supposed to be an accident at the woodmill, affected me greatly. I follow in the steady but sure footsteps of Abraham, my father who had to lift a Model A Ford from his brother’s chest after three jealous white men pushed it upon him while he repaired a tire. I follow in the footsteps of these dead “too young” and “too soon” as the scourge of drug addiction and alcoholism tore about families, communities, and futures. It is upon Ricky, Bean, Dot, Karl, Monk, Dennis, Mark, Joe and Mike that every step I take to tutor one more student or write one more recommendation letter is not in vain. It is the footsteps of Aunt Genie, Aunt Mamie, and Aunt Ida that hold my pace as I walk through my teaching of youth, and it is the small footprints of a little boy that didn’t talk like a Negro child to walk like a Black man.
In preparation for the final day of the institute, fellows wrote poems using a mirror or “write that I” refrain about the unsung hero from their community. Fellows were moved to tears as the tributes to the unsung Mississippi heroes filled the room. Gulfport fellow Cristina Tosto wrote about Dr. Gilbert Mason:
Write that I,
Born in the slums of Jackson
I too, had a dream.
Write that I,
Experienced the degradation of Jim Crow
And was strengthened by
My Black community.
Write that I,
Doctor and activist,
Led my people to the beach.
Not once but four times.
I cared for my people
As blood dripped from my own head.
I saw the bloodshed
And felt the cold metal on my wrists.
Write that I,
Together with Medgar Evers, Dr. Felix Dunn,
And hundreds of other Mississippians,
Desegregated the beaches and the schools
And registered voters
Write that I,
Longed for equality and respect,
Wanted to heal
Not just my people
But the hate.
Write that I
Am Dr. Gilbert Mason.
By the end of the week, teachers testified to the strength of the collaboration. Tosto said,
The fact that I know that my fellows are all over Mississippi teaching civil rights and labor history through higher-level, interactive lessons is a great comfort to me. To know that I won’t be alone in attempting to change the state of education in Mississippi and that I have a group to lean on and help me I think is the most valuable thing I have received from the institute.
On the last day, the fellows affirmed that not only do they want to deepen the work in their own classrooms, but they also want the effort to expand. They set to work brainstorming outreach strategies, key allies, and a name for the initiative. Some drafted designs for posters and t-shirts. The group will reconvene in October to finalize those plans. In the meantime, the fellows are coordinating professional development in their respective school districts with the project director Julian Hipkins III.
Throughout the week, project partners visited the institute, creating one to one connections with fellows and their respective institutions—and contributing to ideas about statewide growth. Partners visitors included Jackie Byrd Martin (William Winter Institute), Cynthia Palmer (Veterans of Mississippi), Okolo Rashid (International Museum of Muslim Cultures), Von Gordon (William Winter Institute), and Roy DeBerry (Hill Country Project).
A powerful teacher community was launched which can directly impact classrooms and engage more educators statewide. Here are some closing reflections:
The impact of the institute was tremendous for me. I was left with an excited feeling in which I could not wait to return to the classroom. — Marsha McNail
I was struck by the emphasis on untold or “undertold” stories of civil rights activism. At the end of the Summer Institute, I was able to see how closely Mississippi’s local resources (people, events, landmarks, stories) could be used to engender new activism among young people today. Even more than the AP Institute and my Master’s degree courses, this was the best (most effective, efficient, and inspiring) professional development opportunity that I have had in five years of teaching. — Philip Mohr