Nearly every child in the United States learns about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The March on Washington, where King delivered this speech, is one of the most iconic moments in civil rights history — covered in every U.S. history textbook. The account published by Prentice Hall in United States History is typical:
To put pressure on Congress to pass a new civil rights bill, supporters made plans for a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. The event brought together the major civil rights groups — including NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC — as well as labor unions and religious groups. . . . The main rally took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where a distinguished roster of speakers addressed the crowd. The highlight of the day came when Martin Luther King, Jr. took the podium. King held the audience spellbound as he described his dream of a colorblind society “when all God’s children” would be free and equal.
Textbook accounts such as this one conceal more than they reveal about the Civil Rights Movement.
The march was not simply put together “to pressure Congress to pass a new civil rights bill.” Indeed the organizing for the march began months before President Kennedy proposed the civil rights bill and many marchers, including many speakers on the stage, thought that Kennedy’s bill didn’t go nearly far enough. Textbooks rarely note that the full title of the protest was “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and included demands for a $2 minimum wage ($17 today) and a “massive” federal jobs program.
The textbook depiction of King and his “dream of a colorblind society” also hides many of the larger demands of the movement that King fought for. We seldom learn about King’s later turn against the Vietnam War, or his fight for economic justice. Even the words textbooks use from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are telling. They often focus on the idea of individuals being judged by “the content of their character” rather than “the color of their skin.” The economic dimensions of the speech, such as King highlighting Black poverty “in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” are almost always absent. Few textbooks quote King’s refrain that “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Ignoring this King, textbooks rob students of a leader who spoke to, and a wider movement that confronted, the racism they experience today.
But the problems of how textbooks depict — and how students learn about — the March on Washington go far beyond the one-dimensional portrayal of King. In fact, the emphasis on King is part of the problem. Writing about the March on Washington, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham explains that “[H]istorians initially studied the freedom movement by looking not at the 250,000 marchers, but at the leaders on the platform high above the crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial.” In the last two decades, this top-down version of the Civil Rights Movement has been challenged by dozens of civil rights historians, but has yet to fundamentally change the K–12 curriculum.
As Higginbotham points out, “rendered invisible were the many delegations from the West Coast, the East Coast, and the Midwest — men and women who converged on Washington with banners and placards that identified issues of their locales.” In fact, the quote above from United States History leaves out the organization based in the North, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), whose activists along with SNCC’s were the main organizers of the march. Some textbooks are even worse on this point; Glencoe’s The American Journey inaccurately states that “Dr. King and SCLC organized a massive march on Washington.” In fact, CORE and SNCC activists had been organizing the march for months before King and SCLC signed on.
Moving from the Stage to the Streets
Given the textbook treatment of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement more generally, it was no surprise that when we asked our students at Harvest Collegiate High School, a public school in New York City, “Where did the Civil Rights Movement take place?” they slowly rattled off Southern states: “Alabama,” “Mississippi,” “North Carolina.” Our students had no sense that the movement also took place in the city in which they had grown up. Without the North as part of their civil rights story, students sympathized with the Southern movement, but found it hard to put themselves in activists’ shoes and struggled to see the relevance of the Civil Rights Movement for fighting the racism they see and live with in New York City today.
As we brainstormed how to broaden our civil rights curriculum, we began reading more about the movement in the North and West. In particular, Jeanne Theoharis’ A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of the Civil Rights Movement had a big impact on our thinking. We became determined to develop lessons that would help students rethink the narratives they had learned and make relevant connections to today. We decided to write a role play about the March on Washington that shifted the gaze from the leaders on the stage to the marchers in the streets. Poring over dozens of books, and venturing to the Schomburg Library to sift through several primary accounts, we found our own knowledge of the march and regional civil rights struggles expanding.
Rather than a singular and celebratory focus on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the rallying cry and outcome of the march, we wanted to focus on the local struggles that made the march possible: the challenges and victories organizers from around the country faced in the years leading up to the march. We wanted students to think deeply and personally about what motivated individuals, old and young alike, to travel, sometimes thousands of miles, to attend.
We selected five case studies — Los Angeles; Birmingham, Alabama; Brooklyn; Detroit; and Cambridge, Maryland — to introduce our students to the diverse struggles across the United States. Aaron Broudo, a teacher at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, crafted an additional case study about McComb, Mississippi. One of the best parts about studying the March on Washington from the perspective of the marchers is it allows teachers and students to investigate their local history, as people came to the March from all over the country. When Adam moved to Philadelphia the summer after we debuted this role play in our classrooms, he created an additional case study for Philadelphia. When selecting the initial roles, we chose locations in both the North and the South, as well as the West, to help students better understand the movement as a nationwide struggle against white supremacy. We also tried to highlight the role of women activists who were often at the center of local organizing, but almost entirely absent from the stage at the march.
We hoped the role play would push students to imagine the collective power and real-world challenges of uniting a disparate array of groups, and push them to see the intricate web of local community organizing that had been occurring for many years, often decades, before the highly visible March on Washington.
Thinking Locally, Building Nationally
For the first part of our role play, which took two block periods, students learned about the racism and anti-racist organizing in the six cities. We put students into six groups and gave each group a different regional history to read. We asked them to pay particular attention to the types of injustices people in their city faced, and actions local activists had taken to try to address those injustices. For example, the Los Angeles role began:
You are a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Los Angeles. LA is often seen as a racial “Promised Land,” but you aren’t sure why. The city has a long history of discrimination — deporting Mexicans and Filipinos in the 1930s and incarcerating Japanese Americans in internment camps in the 1940s. Black people have fared no better. Many hotels, beaches, pools, and restaurants are segregated, or bar Mexicans, Black and Asian people altogether.
CORE has focused its efforts on fighting police brutality, housing discrimination, and school segregation. Black people face constant police abuse in Los Angeles. In 1962, after police shot and beat to death Ronald Stokes, a secretary of the Nation of Islam, CORE organized a march of 3,000 people and collected 10,000 signatures to send to the United Nations.
The role continues by discussing how schools in Los Angeles segregated both Black people and Mexicans, that textbooks often celebrated “happy slave tales,” and that mock lynchings held on high school lawns and at varsity bonfires went unpunished. The role also highlights the interracial organizing of Black, Korean American, and Japanese American neighbors, along with a few white allies, who fought for the right to purchase or rent homes in LA’s “100 percent Caucasian” communities.
Even students assigned to cities with a more widely acknowledged place in civil rights history, such as Birmingham, found themselves immersed in the struggle in a new way. The Birmingham role focuses not on the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and King’s tenure in the city, but on the everyday organizing, fundraising, and campaigning of a small group of young women from a local high school, many of whom had participated in the local “D-Day” walkouts and ended up held in gender-segregated animal pens at the county fairground. Immersing themselves in the tensions between civil rights groups in Birmingham, and at times between Black students and their own parents, students began to discuss the challenges of youth organizing in new ways. “Do you think your parents would let you walk out of school if the risk of arrest was high?” Samantha asked.
After reading their roles, we asked students to write from the perspective of an individual civil rights activist from the city they had just learned about. Although students had a choice of genres, the prompt asked all students to give themselves “a name and a history.” We encouraged students to be vivid and imaginative. “What are you feeling?” we asked. “What life experiences have led you to this moment?” Some students wrote an interior monologue, giving a snapshot of their fears, angers, joys, and thought processes as they participated in a particular action in their home city. Others wrote mini-autobiographies, detailing the events that led them to get involved in the movement, while others still chose to write a letter to a loved one, often a parent, explaining why they were moved to attend the March on Washington.
Thalia, one of our 11th graders at Harvest Collegiate, wrote an interior monologue from the standpoint of a mother in Detroit, highlighting both the role of women in the movement for school desegregation and how gender dynamics may have played out within organizers’ families:
As me and the other six mothers sat in that courtroom in front of the white judge, I just kept saying to myself, “This is for my kids, this is for their future. One setback won’t make me quit.” Over and over I kept mumbling this to myself as I got more scared. . . .
Two weeks before, [my husband] Joe screamed, “Look Martha, I can’t let you put yourself and the kids at risk for this.” “Joe,” I started in my stern voice, “if we don’t do this for our family, who will?” I understood why Joe was scared for me to start taking action. He’s scared that I will get hurt, or even worse, that my actions will cause our two kids to be hurt. But he needs to understand that I’m fighting for a better future for them . . . [and] that me and six other mothers are planning to start a boycott.
After sharing out their personal narratives in small groups, we read out loud a worksheet that gives context for the March on Washington and introduces students to key organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. The worksheet then explained, “You’ve been invited to a meeting a week before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with anti-racist organizers from across the country. The goal is to develop a set of demands to present to Congress and the president, as well as share insights from your struggle and learn about others.” Students answered three questions to prepare to share information about their struggle with others:
1. What are the injustices in your community that have brought you to the March on Washington? What are you fighting against?
2. What are some of the actions you’ve taken to remedy injustice in your community? What should others know about your struggle?
3. What are the top two demands you want to bring to Washington?
Then using a graphic organizer to help students compare and contrast the injustices and organizing in different cities, we asked each group to select a few students as “traveling delegates” who would visit other cities and report back. The remaining students from the group would remain at home to “rep” their city. Travelers rotated three times learning about struggles around the country, noting key information as they went.
Regrouping in their home cities, students then shared what they had learned. At this point, we had reached the end of our first day of the role play and we asked students to step out of their role and answer a few debrief questions for homework. Before jumping into day two of the role play, we discussed how learning about march participants from across the nation challenged or complicated students’ previous knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement, using the debrief questions as a guide.
Tenzin, with a passion bordering on outrage, declared, “The North was just as active as the South” in the movement. Morganne nodded, expanding on Tenzin’s analysis: “You don’t hear about [the North] in the traditional narrative because it’s seen as a Southern story . . . but the underlying things that happened in the North — like redlining in Brooklyn, that’s racist. Or the infrequent garbage collection in Bed-Stuy — you’re treating Blacks like dirt. The South was more outwardly ‘we’re going to kill you, because we don’t like you.’ In the North they were trying to sneak their way around it. They didn’t want to seem racist, but they still were just as racist.”
When pushed to consider why struggles outside of the South are regularly left out of the popular narrative in textbooks and commemorations, students had a lot of theories. Thalia, for instance, argued: “It’s better to put the blame on one place, the South, than to show the problem is on everyone.” Nica agreed: “Yeah, that way it seems like a smaller issue if it’s not nationwide. Making the South look more like a villain makes the North look more like a hero. If we learn that racism is mainly in the South, it becomes easier for the government to ignore that racism to this day is still happening.”
Discussion at this point was rich, with students analyzing the political uses of historical narratives and making connections between past injustices and their lives today. The role play could have easily ended with this conversation; alternatively, modern primary sources that help students evaluate continuity and change between the march and today would be a fitting extension. We continued instead with our historical focus, looking at the challenges of organizing a public event at the national level, and indeed the second part of the role play was the highlight for many of our students.
The Nuts and Bolts of Organizing
After our debrief discussion we asked students to step back into their roles and work together as a class to come up with a set of demands for the march, discussing, debating, and synthesizing the wide variety of overlapping regional demands they had come up with the previous day in their small groups. After students had collectively decided on their list of demands, we asked students to design posters that they would bring to the march. We encouraged students to make posters that connected their own demands to those in other cities. While we showed students examples of political posters and discussed the role that posters and visuals can play at a demonstration, we avoided showing them posters from the actual march.
While making their posters, students began to reflect on the fact that civil rights groups attending the march were, as Ijatou put it, “fighting against more than just Jim Crow laws.” Activists were challenging “high unemployment, low pay, police brutality, discrimination in the workplace,” she continued, and fighting for “housing rights, equality in garbage collection, and the right to vote.” With markers and posterboard spread throughout the room, students eagerly engaged in this synthesis activity, having to distill the array of things they learned about regions nationwide into a few short words. Our students’ posters reflected the diverse demands and national solidarity of the actual march. “We demand equal employment” one poster read; “We demand integrated schools and housing from Brooklyn to Birmingham” another proclaimed. A few posters, borrowing terminology from social movements today, illustrated the historical connections students were beginning to make: “End police brutality/Black Lives Matter” read one poster; “Stop Killer Cops” read another in stark red print.
After students completed their posters, we came back as a full group and distributed the original “What We Demand” list from the march. Students read the text, excited to see how their lists “measured up” to the original and hypothesizing what might account for any possible differences. During our discussion, Ethan noted that the “Civil Rights Movement was not only a fight for civil rights but for economic rights as well.” Students were quick to note that while the first three demands from the march focused on civil rights legislation and desegregation, topics they had previously studied, the last four demands were perhaps the most radical and robust. These demands, which called for an expansive federal job training program — for Black and white people — and a national minimum wage act, for instance, resonated with many of the demands students had come up with in order to address the narrow job opportunities, low wages, and harsh employment practices in nearly all of their cities nationwide.
While many students made posters about police brutality, we discussed as a class why the official demands did not address the issue. Studying images of actual posters from the march, students felt validated that there were indeed many mass-produced signs stating “We Demand an End to Police Brutality Now!” Why, then, had such a demand been left off the publicized list? While we didn’t have an answer to this question, students’ answers led us to an exploration of the complexity of how organizing decisions are made. We pointed students to the footnote at the bottom of the “What We Demand” document: “Support of the march does not necessarily indicate endorsement of every demand listed.” We encouraged students to think about the footnote by asking them “What challenges do you think march leaders faced when organizing a national rather than a local event?” Chatting in pairs, students began to think about barriers to organizing a nationwide event with a diverse array of sponsors; some even made connections to tensions that had arisen between civil rights groups within their own cities. As one student, Grace, noted, “You can’t clump all Black people into one group all trying to accomplish one thing. The march shows the complexity of the movement.”
With demands articulated and posters drawn, we transitioned students into the final part of the role play, which focused on dilemmas organizers faced before the march. Pairing individual city groups with a partner city, students met in slightly larger groups to decide how to respond to three urgent and real-life historical situations that were preventing the march from proceeding smoothly.
For instance, the two groups representing SNCC — Cambridge, Maryland, and McComb, Mississippi — “met up” at one table to discuss the pressure SNCC was facing from more conservative civil rights organizations to edit and tone down the speech that SNCC chairman John Lewis was set to deliver at the march. Students read a one-page overview of the dilemma, learning about SNCC’s initial vision for the march — lie-ins on airport runways, invasions of senators’ offices, sit-ins citywide, and a campout on the White House lawn — and the frustration they felt in co-planning with more conservative organizations they felt had watered down the event. This context is important for fully understanding SNCC’s new dilemma:
It’s the night before the march and you’ve gotten some more bad news. SNCC chairperson John Lewis was supposed to deliver a speech at the march that many SNCC members helped write. A copy of the speech was leaked and some of the less radical organizers of the march are demanding it be changed. The speech makes several references to “revolution” and calls Kennedy’s civil rights bill “too little and too late.” . . . Washington’s Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, who is scheduled to give the march’s invocation, has threatened to pull out of the march if the speech isn’t edited. Some of the more conservative march organizers are demanding you tone down the speech in order to not antagonize liberal allies and the Kennedy administration.
The reading ends with a question for the SNCC members to discuss: “Will you agree to edit the speech?”
Meanwhile, at another table, the two CORE chapters congregated to discuss whether to bail out CORE co-founder and Freedom Rider James Farmer so that he could speak at the march, or whether it would send a stronger message to leave him in jail with the hundreds of other protestors who had been arrested with him in Louisiana. The groups representing the Detroit and Birmingham local movements, led overwhelmingly by women, talked about how to respond to the fact that there were no women slated to speak at the march.
The group representing Birmingham and Detroit were particularly incensed. “The ‘tribute to women’ thing,” Ethan noted of the brief non-speaking role some women leaders would play as they were honored on stage at the march, “is like winning a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars but never actually getting a speaking part in a movie.” Ethan’s group members were similarly frustrated.
“I don’t get it,” Eric noted. “Young leaders, more importantly young Black women leaders, played a pivotal role in direct actions, such as boycotts and sit-ins . . . but they can’t play a role now?”
Grace, nodding, suggested a solution: “I think we should contact all the women organizers throughout the country and have the women organize themselves to confront the issue . . . and if they don’t fix it then we should tell women to boycott the march.”
Sydney, wondering how such divisiveness might impact the march before it had even begun, advocated a different strategy: “Maybe when they are honoring the women, the women should just take the mic and speak.” The group concurred, deciding they would notify the women being honored and encourage them to do so. Our students thought it was unlikely organizers would publicly silence women on stage, as they would want to maintain a visually united front.
Once each group decided on a solution to their dilemma, a representative shared out their respective issues and what they had decided to the whole class. Many students felt strongly one way or the other, and debate flourished with little to no prompting. Next, students read short blurbs about what really happened regarding the three scenarios — SNCC, under pressure from the NAACP, SCLC, and representatives of the Catholic Church, edited Lewis’ speech; Farmer decided to remain in jail; and march leaders prevented women activists from holding formal speaker or march leader positions. While some students agreed with how organizers responded to these dilemmas, debating them before learning what really happened empowered some to disagree. Tenzin, for instance, believed that “by not bailing [James Farmer] out [so he could speak at the march], CORE lost a great opportunity to reach a larger audience.” Evaluating historical hypotheticals encouraged our students to not see historical decisions as inevitable.
On “Misusing” Civil Rights History
A deeper dive into the complexities, tensions, and impressive scope of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom invites students to think critically not just about social movements but also about historical narrative, memory, and their own education.
We wanted students to see themselves as potential organizers, and to see organizers as everyday people. In order to see social movements as possible, students need to know about the nuts and bolts of organizing locally, and some of the challenges of building solidarity nationally. Students also need to think of themselves as possible leaders and change-makers and not only learn about impossibly large, and largely mythologized, leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
By localizing the struggle across the nation, including in our students’ hometown of New York City, and by deepening our exploration of the movement’s many demands beyond desegregation, our students found new meaning and personal relevance in a movement some had initially professed reluctance to study “yet again.” By exploring inequitable trash pickup in Brooklyn, for instance, and segregation in New York City schools, issues still ever-present in the lives of many of our students, we invited students to think of their own neighborhoods as part of a movement they saw as belonging only to the South. Furthermore, we invited them to ask hard questions about just how much has — or hasn’t — changed since the 1960s, and what makes change possible.
To draw from the title of the Jeanne Theoharis book that inspired us, the history of the March on Washington is indeed “more beautiful and terrible” than the one most of us learn about, and “misusing” this history can have serious consequences. As our student Junaid reflected in our final debrief discussion:
In the traditional narrative, it starts and ends with the law. They don’t add New York in the traditional narrative because it was mostly against the law to be racist here, but people are still racist. People don’t want to admit that there is still racism going on. They want to make it seem like the law can change racism. They don’t want to make it look like the law failed to do that.
Gabriela agreed, arguing that learning a celebratory and leader-driven narrative that ends in legislative change “keeps people from fighting for issues that are still here today.”
“Maybe,” Nicholas added, “the government doesn’t want us to fully realize that we are still segregated, that the Civil Rights Movement isn’t over. Maybe they don’t want another 1963.”
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