Recently, I’ve been thinking about different courses that I would want to teach in the future. In the last post, I discussed a course entitled “Literature of White Estrangement.” Today, I want to think about a course entitled “Civil Rights Memoirs.” I’ve been thinking about this course for a few weeks, and I started thinking about it because, after teaching John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March trilogy last spring I began to think about the countless individuals and events that the trilogy, due to various reasons, doesn’t cover. Specifically, I thought about Pauli Murray’s contributions to the movement. With that thought in mind, I started to consider a course that uses March as central memoir and expand out to look at memoirs by others about the movement.

Course Overview:

John Lewis’ graphic memoir March (co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell) addresses what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls the “nine word problem” that we encounter when thinking about the Civil Rights Movement. According to the SPLC, the “nine word problem” arises from the ways that we teach the Civil Rights Movement, specifically in the P-12 setting. The nine words that “U.S. high school graduates” learn are “Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, ‘I Have a Dream.’” Thus, individuals view the movement in a myopic manner, bookending it with 1955 and 1963. We cannot bookend the movement and limit it to these nine words.

For this course, we will use March as a jumping off point to expand our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and to examine the ways that the genre of memoir helps present a more accurate picture of the movement. As such, we will read various texts, spanning from the mid-twentieth century to the end of the twentieth century by individuals involved directly in what we will term the Long Civil Rights Movement. We will look at the Civil Rights Movement between 1954–1968, but we will also examine the years before and after those dates, not limiting ourselves to a simple teleological framework.

Over the course of the semester, we will read texts by African American and White activists who confronted white supremacy and fought for equality. While each individual did not necessarily agree on everything, the all fought for civil rights and social justice. During this course, think about these questions. What can the Civil Rights Movement teach us about today? How does memoir function as part of the Civil Rights Movement? What stories, that we do not know, should we know? How would an expanded, fuller understanding of the Civil Rights Movement impact us?

Primary Texts:

  • Anderson, Marian. My Lord, What a Morning: An Autobiography.
  • Hamer, Fannie Lou. The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is.
  • Hunter-Gault, Charlayne. In My Place.
  • King, Coretta Scott. Coretta: My Life, My Love, My Legacy.
  • King, Matin Luther, Jr. Selections from A Testament of Hope.
  • Lewis, John, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. March trilogy.
  • Lewis, John, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, and L. Fury. Run.
  • Murray, Pauli. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage.
  • Peck, James. Freedom Ride.
  • Robeson, Eslanda. African Journey.
  • Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand.
  • Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt.
  • Smith, Lillian. Killers of the Dream.
  • Walker, David and Marcus Kwame Anderson. The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History.
  • Weaver, Lila Quintero. Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White.
  • Young, Andrew. An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America.

Secondary Sources:

  • Baldwin, James. Selections from Collected Essays.
  • Bell-Scott, Patricia. The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice.
  • Blain, Keisha. Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America.
  • Selections from The Civil Rights Reader: American Literature from Jim Crow to Reconciliation, edited by Amy Schmidt.
  • Davis, Angela. Selections from The Angela Davis Reader.
  • Kendrick, Paul and Stephen Kendrick. Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life and Win the 1960 Election.
  • Ture, Kwame and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America.


Local Reaction to Civil Rights Movement Reflection:

We must remember that the Civil Rights Movement did not occur in isolation or in isolated cities or spaces. It was a national and international movement. Recently, I started looking at my own hometown, Shreveport, LA, and the responses from the local white community to the movement. I found out, through the local newspaper, about racial violence when the Black community held a memorial service for the victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. For this assignment, you will research your local/regional newspaper and examine your community’s response to events during the movement. You will write a reflection on the community’s reaction and how it helps you to further understand the movement.

Expanding the Civil Rights Movement Narrative:

For this assignment, you will choose an event or individual that we have/will discuss over the course of the semester. You will use resources such as the Civil Rights Movement Archive, the Lillian E. Smith Papers, or another source to find more information. Once you acquire the information, you will write out a five-ten page comic script, reminiscent of MarchDarkroom, or The Black Panther Party, placing the event or individual within a larger context. You will also write a short reflection narrative (750–1000 words) discussing the individual or event you chose and the choices you made in writing the comic script.

Conference Proposal:

As an emerging scholar, you will present your research at conferences. For this assignment, you will find an upcoming conference and write a conference proposal. Along with writing the proposal, you will write a brief statement discussing why you chose the organization and conference for your paper.

Conference Paper:

Once you write and submit the conference proposal, you will write the conference paper. This paper will be 10–12 pages in length so you can read it in the allotted time at the conference. It must focus on one of the texts we have read during the course, unless otherwise approved, and it must focus on the themes of the literature of white estrangement that we examined over the course of the semester.

What memoirs would you include in this course? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.

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