As the George Floyd protests continue in cities around the country, debate continues to mount about the future of policing. A wide network of activist groups have been calling for the nation’s police departments to be defunded, insisting that attempts at incremental reform have failed and alternative approaches to public safety must be implemented. Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, a coalition of House Democrats is advocating an alternative approach, asserting that we can reduce wrongful fatalities within existing systems of policing. As debate continues to rage, these efforts are provoking hard questions about the best possible outcomes of police reforms and whether they would be enough to protect black lives, if achieved.
Described as a second independence day, June 19th or Juneteenth marks the day that emancipation reached slaves in the furthest reaches of the South. While the Emancipation Proclamation proclaimed that all slaves held within the rebellious states were freed, plantation life continued as though no change had occurred in many parts of the slaveholding South until this day. Juneteenth is a time to reflect upon this history, including the steps toward freedom that have been achieved and the forces that continue to undermine the freedom of African Americans. Juneteenth entered public consciousness recently when it was announced that the Trump campaign would hold a rally on that date in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of what is considered the worst race massacre in American history—one in which white mobs murdered over 300 African Americans. These plans were amended after provoking a wave of criticism about the insensitivity and even threat contained in such a decision in these times of ongoing unrest. These events provoke a number of questions but one thing is certain: finding the gumption to face our history, connect it to current events, and take action is perhaps more crucial now than ever before.
In two recent interviews, I spoke with high school teacher Dexter Britt and Facing History Program Associate Rose Sadler about the challenges and opportunities inherent in teaching black history in the middle and high school setting. Speaking from black and white racial backgrounds, they discuss some of the complexities inherent in teaching black history and strategies that teachers can use to promote meaningful learning on the subject all year long.
The year is 1987. In Monroeville, Alabama, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian is driving home from work. It had been a day like any other, but as night begins its descent over Monroe County, McMillian’s journey home to his family—and the course of his very life—is forced to a halt. On a quiet Alabama road, McMillian, a black man, is ambushed by an all-white police unit. He is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. So begins Just Mercy, the new film based on Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling memoir of the same title. What follows is the true story of Stevenson, a young public interest lawyer, and his tireless quest to exonerate McMillian and achieve justice.
In addition to using Facing History’s teaching resources on black history, we invite you to deepen your own learning about black history with these 6 brand new titles released this month by scholars of black history and art. These books connect past to present in a number of contexts including #drivingwhileblack, mass incarceration, the racial politics of Chicago, and the way we remember and represent political icons including Julian Bond and the Obamas.
Writer and director Kasi Lemmons’ film Harriet debuted in theaters in November, and is the first feature-length biopic on Harriet Tubman. And in an exciting recent development, lead actress Cynthia Erivo was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her portrayal of the titular character. Yet for all of Erivo’s skill as an actress, the film and its nomination raise messy questions about how black women’s agency and roles in American society are imagined, depicted, and enforced.
February 3, 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When passed in 1870, the 15th Amendment extended voting rights to all American men “regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”—a move that initiated an experiment in interracial democracy that continues into the present. Yet the voting rights that were formally extended to black men were quickly curtailed by interests that opposed black enfranchisement, setting the stage for an ongoing battle to ensure that all Americans can participate in the political process regardless of race, gender, and other dimensions of identity. This 150th anniversary is an occasion to assess the continuing threats to voting rights today, the stakes of those threats, and how we can challenge them.
This February, Facing History and Ourselves is honored to celebrate Black History Month by highlighting resources new and old that capture key moments in black history, contemporary developments that have grown out of this past, and the challenges and opportunities faced by teachers of black history. We know that time is always at a premium this time of year, so we have a wealth of content planned to help you, your colleagues, and students connect past to present, and self to community.
As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the midst of our present climate of hate, we are inevitably asked to consider how far we have come in realizing the visions of justice and equality that King articulated a half century ago. Though King has been memorialized in many places around the country and world, how we represent his legacy remains contested and points to divisions in our thinking about what it actually means to promote racial justice. Cultural artifacts like monuments present rich opportunities to examine the narratives we choose to uphold and sideline in the public sphere, and the forthcoming Boston-based memorial to the Kings is no exception.
The news cycles of the last few years have captured countless instances of racist violence perpetrated by white people against black people—a continuation of a long history of antiblack violence in the United States. And amid this legacy of violence, a number of black figures have done the unimaginable: they have publicly expressed forgiveness to avowedly racist white people who murdered their relatives and community members.