Less than sixty years ago, our country operated under a system of legalized segregation and oppression. Schools were separate and unequal and according to the members of the Kerner Commission, we were rapidly becoming two nations—one black and one white—separate and unequal. This has resulted in a system that is rapidly becoming very difficult to challenge and even more difficult to try and change. At the same time, for the past three years, there has been a growing collective that is crying out for change and is willing to challenge and confront the system in both the courtroom and in political and social spaces. During the Civil Rights Movement, lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, and Elaine Jones worked within the system to change the laws and Civil Rights leaders like Dorothy I. Height, Bayard Rustin, and Fannie Lou Hamer found ways to use their social power to mobilize people to work within their organizations to bring about change. Today, #BlackLivesMatter protestors—from South Carolina to New York and Texas to Washington— are changing and shifting the national conversation and the ways in which we define leadership. Although there are some similarities (e.g., just as college students during the Civil Rights Movement sat down at lunchtime counters in North Carolina to challenge segregation, college students today are lying down in the streets to challenge police brutality; and just as civil rights protestors attended the historic March on Washington, young protestors today are marching from New York to Washington to rally for change), there are some marked differences. The modern Civil Rights Movement primarily focused on integration, whereas the 21st century Civil Rights Movement (#BlackLivesMatter) focuses on the ways in which black people are criminalized and marginalized in our society.
America, in so many ways, is still separated and deeply divided. From that tumultuous time where black people were fighting to have their civil rights protected to a time when a black man has been elected twice to the highest office in our country, it feels as if America has come full circle and as much as it has changed, for many, it feels like the hearts and minds of the American citizens has stayed the same. The current #BlackLivesMatter Movement, designed and led in large part by young people, is a reminder that the struggle for freedom, for equality, for equal protection under the law continues.
In some ways, the questions are not “How do we teach young people about the modern Civil Rights Movement?” or “How do we tell them about the leaders from this time?” but rather, “What do we teach young people about the modern Civil Rights Movement?” and “How do we let these leaders speak for themselves and tell their own stories?” and “How do we teach young people to claim and give voice to their struggles and their pain?” In order for young people to fully connect with the past they need to be completely engaged and feel connected to the stories. Students must learn that the stories of the past have shaped their present reality and are the tools they can use to create their future. The Black Quilted Narratives Teach-In curriculum package is designed to meet that need and uses oral history interviews with black American elders—our visionaries—to teach young people about the modern Civil Rights Movement and engage them in a broader conversation about social justice, racial healing, and diversity.