As I reread the March trilogy, I kept thinking about, as I’ve written about recently, the things that March doesn’t cover in regard to the Civil Rights Movement. Like I’ve mentioned before, this is understandable, especially since the trilogy centers on John Lewis and his work. Today, though, I want to talk about ways that educators can use March as a starting point to engage students in a broader conversation surrounding the Civil Rights Movement. This could include expanding their chronological definition of the movement, beyond the 1954-1965 time period. While this is one avenue, when I taught March this semester I thought about another activity that students could do to help them bring the Civil Rights Movement to their own communities, learning about the ways that their communities reacted to what they read about in March and other texts.
I began to think about this as I read the sequence on the murder of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair on September 15, 1963, during the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I began to think back to things I learned about my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, and incidents there following the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the church bombing a month later. My mind, as I read this section in March, immediately went to Shreveport’s Public Safety Commissioner George D’Artois, who went, with Shreveport Police Chief Harvey D. Teasley, to Washington to “observe” the march and “recounted” his thoughts for the local paper.
D’Artois called the March on Washington a “flop” and disparaged those who attended, labeling them as shabbily dressed and from within a 300 mile radius. He chose his rhetoric to denigrate the March and its participants, continuing to deal in stereotypes that would cause the readers of the article to side with white supremacy in dismissing the marchers’ pleas and requests to provide them with their rights as citizens of the United States. Not even a month after his trip to Washington, D’Artois enacted racial violence on the Black community in Shreveport as they met to honor and memorialize the four young girls killed in the Sixteenth Street bombing.
On September 22, 1963, five days after the murder of Collins, Robertson, Wesley, and McNair, the local chapter of the NAACP in Shreveport, along with chapters across the nation, met at Little Union Baptist Church for a memorial service. During the service, D’Artois ordered his riot squad to push back against peaceful demonstrators. As well, he rode his horse into the sanctuary, down the aisle, not just interrupting the service but desecrating the space and the individuals there. He proceeded to drag Reverend Harry Blake, a Civil Rights leader and pastor, out of the church, and D’Artois along with other officers beat him. Blake needed seven stitches. The next day, students protested D’Artois’ actions and Blake’s beating, and D’Artois arrested 18 students.
Shreveport, almost 60 years later, issued an apology for the attacks. The resolution, in part, reads, “When the children refused to turn back, police brutally attacked them with batons and teargas . . . Students frantically ran from officers and returned to the campus of Booker T. Washington, police attempted to enter the school and proceeded to attack Principal R. H. Brown and several teachers as they attempted to protect the students.” One of the students, Rev. H. Calvin Austin, spent 45 days in jail. He was also expelled and banned from attending public school in Caddo Parish. He finished high school in New Orleans.
Councilwoman Tabatha Taylor proposed the resolutions and said, “I wanted to make sure our history was not erased. . . . I want people to understand what that day meant and the day after. If we’re to move forward, it was incumbent to apologize as a city for those inhumane events.” Taylor’s quote is what I think about when I think about March and having students look at the reactions to the Civil Rights stories we read about in March and elsewhere in relation to their own communities. We know about what happened in Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Atlanta, and elsewhere. However, what was the local reaction to these events in places like Shreveport? Minden? Monroe? Clayton? Charlotte? Des Moines? Boise? Elsewhere?
I am still learning about the reactions and Civil Rights activism in Shreveport and the long history of activism against racial violence in the region. Local history is every bit as important as national history. Local history forces us to acknowledge that we are not, and were not, removed from the broader national discussions and movements. It forces to recognize that we have connections and that when we bury those connections we essentially shift the blame to elsewhere, saying, “Nothing like Birmingham happened here, so we’re good.” That type of thinking hinders us from moving forward in any meaningful way because we pass the blame, trying to ease our own consciences.
Students can do this work as well. For my class, I had students look into their local history, specifically looking for newspaper accounts, of reaction to moments that we read about in March, Darkroom, or other texts. Students can find a lot of newspapers and local information online. For this assignment, students had to find an article from their local newspaper and then connect it to the broader discussion of history we read about in various texts. Then, they had to write about those connections and how the article informed their reading of the texts.
Through this type of assignment, students connect their space with the broader discussion of history. As well, as my delving into Shreveport’s history has done for me, it provides them with a way to see their community in relation to history, not just to the present and the rhetoric surrounding the present. They can begin to connect places they drive by everyday and neighborhoods they traverse to the historical events and responses that they read about, notably the accounts and thoughts from those who lived in their own community and thus influenced the shaping of that community.
Have you had students do this before? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.