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Journal of American History

2002 Syllabi
Teaching outside the Box

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

U.S. Women Activists
Catherine Badura
Syallbus: 1998, 2000 | Article

The Black Athlete
Amy Bass
Syllabus | Article

Recovering Detroit's Past for History & Theater
Charles Bright

American History Since 1865
A. Glenn Crothers
Syllabus | Article

Intro to American History
John J. Grabowski
Syllabus | Article

American History
Cecilia Aros Hunter & Leslie Gene Hunter
Syllabus | Article

In Search of America's Civil Rights Movement
Alyssa Picard & Joseph J. Gonzalez
Syllabus | Article

Out of Many: Histories of the U.S.
David A. Reichard
Syllabus | Article

Women & Social Movements
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Syllabus | Article

Law & Society in American History
John Wertheimer
Syllabus | Article

Colonial & Revolutionary History of the Southern Tidewater
James P. Whittenburg
Syllabus | Article

American National Character
Michael Zuckerman
Syllabus | Article

On the Road and out of the Box: Teaching the Civil Rights Movement from a Chrysler Minivan

Alyssa Picard and Joseph J. Gonzalez

Each trip had its "moments." In March 2000, we heard Mamie Till describe why she had demanded an open casket for her son Emmett, lynched in 1955: "So that everyone could see what they did to my boy." In 2001, Julian Bond read his student poetry, and John Lewis described how he and Bond resurrected their friendship after both ran for the same congressional seat in 1986. In the Mississippi Delta, the lawyer Jaribu Hill explained why she defends the rights of the poor, rejecting a lucrative private practice: "What do I have to worry about? Some of my clients don't have indoor plumbing, or even front doors."

Each trip had its "moments"--but such moments do not come cheap. In order to appreciate them, we had to implement two experiential learning courses on the civil rights movement, connect with an activist community, and balance academic and experiential learning while writing our dissertations. The effort was worth it. Our first trip, during spring break 2000, was a success, and the second, during spring break 2001, was even better. This year, we will be on the road again, eating fast food, evading speeding tickets, and searching for moments of clarity.

Why I "Wasted" My Spring Breaks Teaching

Joseph J. Gonzalez

"Our spring break is almost over . . . and we wasted it learning."

--Jeb Singer, spring break 2000

I "wasted" two spring breaks teaching, and I could not be more satisfied. I had to do it. Years into my doctoral studies, I had taught several writing courses at the University of Michigan. I enjoyed teaching and my students but felt frustrated. Though charming and competent, my students seemed passive, more like guests than participants, learning only enough to write their essays. Their learning--and my teaching--stopped at the classroom door.

Fortunately, I found the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program (LHSP) in 1999. LHSP is a residential learning community at the University of Michigan. Knowing that its director, Professor David Potter, encourages innovative teaching, I proposed to lead a historical tour of the civil rights movement. The request surprised us both. My knowledge of the civil rights movement rested on a few books hurriedly read for preliminary exams. I knew no one in the movement and had never taught an experiential course, though Douglas Brinkley's The Majic Bus provided an inspiring example. But I knew that my students needed to connect their experience with the process of historical change. The civil rights movement, many of its leaders still active and its sites still preserved, seemed ideal for this purpose. In addition, the movement presented a story of heroic struggle and ambiguous results, the legacy of which my students confront every day.1

David agreed, and I began planning a one-credit trip for spring break, aided by my wife, Teresa Buckwalter, a graduate student in landscape architecture and teacher in LHSP, and Alyssa Picard, a fellow doctoral candidate in history and teacher in LHSP whose experiments in democratic pedagogy had inspired me. Wanting to emphasize experience, I assigned no reading and adopted a "run and gun" method of lecturing during the trip: "Here's where we are, and here's what happened." Hoping to encourage participation, I asked the students to decide our itinerary and some of our policies.

On February 26, 2000, we left Ann Arbor with nine students. We visited Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, and Memphis. The trip's high point came at its end, as Mamie Till spoke in front of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Then we sang "We Shall Overcome" arm-in-arm with Coretta Scott King and Rep. John Lewis, former chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who was leading his own civil rights tour that day.2

Members of the 2000 trip meet Coretta Scott King

Members of the 2000 trip meet Coretta Scott King at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Photograph by Michael Simon.

Our students returned tired but energized. Having seen the movement, they wanted to make the movement part of their lives. Four of them formed an organization to promote understanding between Jews and African Americans on campus, while others joined established activist groups. Just as gratifying, our students referred to the class as "our trip." Having assumed a voice in the class, they were participants, not guests.

But we made some mistakes. On the trip, we found the "run and gun" method no substitute for reading. During the trip, I also did too much administration and too little teaching. Finally, we had not seen enough people. The power of Mamie Till's story and the eloquence of John Lewis's testimony inspired me to find more people who were there. After some discussion, we decided to require the members of the next trip to take a semester-long course on the history of the movement, which I would teach. I also resolved to hire an administrative assistant and find more contacts within the civil rights community.

On February 25, 2001, we left Ann Arbor with twenty-one students; Alyssa, on a dissertation fellowship, could not join us. Nonetheless, the trip was better. Having already studied the movement in the classroom, the students understood better the people and places they saw. We met more participants, some famous, such as Julian Bond and Taylor Branch, and some not so famous, such as those who marched in Selma's "bloody Sunday" in 1965 or walked during Montgomery's 1955 bus boycott. We also met present-day activists, including lawyers from both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights.

Our second group arrived home as energized as our first. Two students worked for Jaribu Hill the following summer, while others moved into campus activism and internships. For my part, I was no longer the frustrated teacher. After two years of trial and error, I saw students who connected history with their own lives; their learning, and my teaching, only began in the classroom. Perhaps most important, I saw a cohort devoted to living the values of the movement. Students, I now know, are neither naturally passive nor inherently unreceptive to learning; they do, however, need to define their educations and understand historical change inside and outside the classroom. Such an approach may make for better students, but I am not sure. I only know that the civil rights trips made my students better citizens--and me a better teacher.


Democracy Rising: What Our Students Taught Us

Alyssa Picard

The greatest lesson of both the civil rights movement and our civil rights trip is that what young people do (and, therefore, what teachers do with them) really matters. Among the Montgomery bus boycotters, the marchers in Selma, and the freedom riders were college students, high school students, and young teachers and parents who risked their lives because they did not want their children to grow up under Jim Crow. The past happened because its makers, some of whom were just our students' age, sought to affect the future: as history teachers and conscientious historians, we are obligated to bring our knowledge of, and respect for, this fact to bear on our relationships with our students. Even when they are quiescent today, they have the potential to be powerful beyond their--and our--wildest imaginations. For me, as for many political and pedagogical progressives, helping students realize that power is one of the central purposes of teaching itself.

The trip was part of my larger experiment with democratic pedagogy, spurred by my visceral identification with John Dewey's claim that education for democracy demands active participation by students and by my reading of Ira Shor's When Students Have Power. Shor writes that teachers' sharing of power with students in the classroom creates "the desire and imagination of change while also creating the experience and skills for it."3 We hoped that our travels with our students would help them to realize, through study and through experience, that social and political change are not only desirable but possible and that young people can, and have, made change happen. In Shor's and Dewey's views, such a lesson can only be taught when students share responsibility for, and authority over, their educational environments. Learning does not get any more participatory than these travel classes: for a time we resided, quite literally, where the rubber of pedagogy hits the road of social change.

Members of the 2001 trip on the front porch of the Martin Luther King Parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama.

Members of the 2001 trip on the front porch of the Martin Luther King Parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama. King lived there during his time in Montgomery, from 1954 to 1960. Photograph by Brett Mountain.

But in that first year we assumed too much of students' ability to prepare themselves intellectually independent of any guidance from us. Some of our students, particularly the ones who self-identified as political progressives, did advance reading, and I saw several dog-eared copies of the Martin Luther King reader A Testament of Hope circulating around the vans in which we were traveling.4 Yet only the most motivated students had the level of knowledge we would have liked. So when we found ourselves standing across from, say, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young women were killed and twenty others injured in the Ku Klux Klan's 1963 bombing, one of us would have to launch into an explanation of what had happened there, trying--and sometimes failing--to convey both factual knowledge and the emotional responses we felt to the place.

Moreover, these sites are living places, not "anachronistic spaces."5 Worshipers still attend services in the Sixteenth Street Church and at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta--and people still drive across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where in 1965 marchers demonstrating for voting rights were attacked by Alabama state troopers wielding clubs and tear gas, every day.6 We did not want the people who lived in the places we visited to feel that we were treating their hometowns like living history museums--especially because our students were mostly white northerners, with all the historical baggage that entails. But in locations designed for commemoration, we felt more comfortable reflecting on local history: on the fly, we downloaded a copy of King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, which he delivered for the last time to Memphis sanitation workers the night before he was assassinated, and read it, round-robin fashion, in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel, where he was killed (and where the National Civil Rights Memorial Museum now stands). The moment underlined the tragedy of King's assassination, the power of his literary and oratorical gift, and the complexity of commemoration all in one fell swoop.7

I was glad when Joe nestled the trip into a semester-long course, and I am looking forward to teaching the class myself in 2002 as a co-requisite for the spring break trip. My version of the class will explore how the writing of history relates to the making of it: students will spend a lot of time learning how to read and evaluate primary source documents, will meet and ask questions of the historians who have documented the movement, and will consider the ways in which civil rights commemorations (monuments, museums, and other cultural productions) construct conflicting narratives of the origins, course, and fate of the movement. I will also focus on the centrality of religion to the civil rights movement. During the 2000 trip, we had some memorable exchanges about faith, one of which took place when a student who professed to admire King and wanted to follow in his footsteps dismissed the contemporary religious faith of one of her born-again classmates as "Bible crap." Then, on our last night in Montgomery, the commemoration of the Selma-Montgomery march coincided with the Southern Cultural Independence Heritage Festival being held by several thousand Confederate-flag-toting Rebels on the lawn of the Alabama state house. At our motel, one of the students reported having seen a man carrying an armful of small Confederate flags on sticks and a set of white satin robes into the room next to his. Some students immediately started strategizing about soaping the man's truck windows, letting the air out of his tires so he could not make it to the rally, and other acts of vandalism they could commit to let him know that his politics were unacceptable to them. It was clear to me that the students had not realized the centrality of Christianity to King's program or of nonviolence and love to his religious teaching.

Conclusion: What the Teachers Learned

Our methods and our pedagogy worked well for our course, but they might be used to study many other geographic, social, and political movements in their geographic contexts--the Great Migration, the Trail of Tears, the twentieth-century labor movement.8 One of the strengths of travel courses is that they preclude the construction of triumphal narratives of days gone by: in every location, and in every application, contemporary travel will reflect the ambiguous legacy of the past. But, perhaps more important, every travel class is indelibly marked with the imprint of the students who take it. We feel privileged to have lived and traveled with some very bright, committed, and reflective young people, and we recommend the experience highly to those who feel, as we do, that the past and the future are profitably brought into contact in the present.

Alyssa Picard and Joseph J. Gonzalez are Ph.D. candidates in history at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. We wish to thank Carol Lasser and Gary J. Kornblith, whose editing improved our piece, and the University of Michi­gan, whose support made these trips affordable for all students. We also thank our students, who made us better teachers. For more information on the civil rights trips, visit our Web site at <>.

Picard can be reached at <>; Gonzalez, at <>.

1 Douglas Brinkley, The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey (New York, 1993).

2 For more on John Lewis, see John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York, 1998).

Ira Shor, When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy (Chicago, 1996), 176.

4 Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco, 1991).

5 Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, 1995), 30.

6 Our students were fortunate enough to have participated in the thirty-fifth anniversary reenactment of the march during the 2000 trip. When the reenactors reached the crest of the bridge that year, they encountered lines of Alabama state troopers saluting them.

7 In Memphis, we confronted the continuing controversy surrounding the building of the National Civil Rights Memorial Museum, which epitomizes the ways in which the urge to commemorate past successes can fos­ter complacency about ongoing problems: in spring 2000, Jacqueline Smith, a homeless black woman, stood out­side the museum protesting Memphis's shortage of low-income housing. She handed out literature arguing that King would have wanted the motel converted into a place in which she and others left behind in the much-vaunted economic growth of the 1990s could have lived affordably--and she was right.

8 At Kenyon College, Peter Rutkoff and Will Scott run a two-semester Great Migration travel course; see <>.