When the Unresolved Past and the Unprepared Present Collide:
History Lessons Beyond the Classroom with a Call to Action
~ Brandon Grunden, Upper School Teacher
It really is quite something, as a history teacher, when already planned history lessons for the classroom coincide with events that take place outside of the classroom in the “real world”. It is in these moments that there is the potential for a life lesson. Unless you have been living under a rock over the past 18 months you know that those last 18 months culminated on November 8th with an election outcome that shocked many. Perhaps even more shocking was the day after fallout that took place in schools, college campuses, and communities nationwide perpetrated by folks who feel emboldened by, and fearful of, the divisive rhetoric from this past election cycle.
In my U.S. History II class, the seniors and I have been covering events going all the way back to pre-Civil War America up to the 1990s. We had just finished up our unit on the Civil Rights Movement when we saw in the news what was happening in our nation and in our community after the election. This unit included the reading of an autobiography that takes place from The Great Depression onward, but spends a large amount of time in the South in the 50s and 60s. Going further back in U.S. history (1600s) we began to wrestle with issues of race, gender, and class equality that continue to this day. Students were encouraged by gains made after the Civil War; the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, only to be disappointed by what happened at the conclusion of Reconstruction with federal troops pulling out of the South to fulfill a deal to ensure a presidential outcome. Between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement we saw women fight for and gain their right to vote (19th Amendment) and we saw workers organize to fight for and gain decent working conditions. While these wonderful gains were being made, the South was still entrenched in their Jim Crow/Jane Crow ways and in the North, things were certainly better, but not by much.
As we got into the Civil Rights movement, students were continually perplexed by the fact that there was no justice in the South considering there were Amendments in place “guaranteeing” certain rights. We learned that there are no guaranteed rights when laws aren’t enforced by those in power. From the death of Emmett Till to the fight for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, my students were asking questions like, “wasn’t there already laws protecting these rights?” or “where was the non-partial law enforcement?” leaving some of them rightfully incensed at the lack of protection for a group of people based on their skin color.
(Enter Hope) in the form of Mamie Till, Malcolm X, John Lewis, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., The Greensboro Four, and countless others, who won’t get the recognition they deserve, but were so important in the fight for equal rights. (Enter Hope) in the form of people across all races, religions, classes helping in the cause for equal rights and equal protection. This diverse help and togetherness was profound and instrumental in the successes of the Movement, but there was one thing missing, one thing that could have helped the achievements of this cause come quicker, with more oomph, and be more everlasting: white moderate Christians and church congregations leading in the fight.
While the people out in the street and on the frontlines of the Movement were of diverse backgrounds the people in the lead were mostly people of color. In fact, it is white Christian leaders in the South whom King is addressing in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. King considered white moderates (those that supported his cause and weren’t violent, but didn’t want fast moving change) to be more harmful to the causes of racial unity than those who were wearing the white hoods and claiming membership to the KKK, which was a bold but honest critique.
I bring all of this up in order to provide context in light of the events following this election and to maybe offer a lesson that comes from history. History has shown that there are patterns of response that people tend to follow when they witness various forms of inequality, whether it be based on race, gender, or religions. Some people will choose to speak out against the harsh treatment that they see and some will choose to either ignore it or to claim that what they see “really isn’t a big deal”. The former are usually those represented by the victims of this harsh treatment while the latter are typically those that are not directly affected by such actions. We must consider the historical implications behind the post election incidents and the response of some leaders and lack of a response from others. While the gains made in the last 50 years have been encouraging we have to be honest with ourselves in saying that maybe we haven’t come as far as we thought we have.
There are many reasons to study history, but one of the most basic, tangible reasons is to learn history so that it doesn’t repeat itself. When reading about what was happening in our country last week, after the election, I was reminded that I am only one generation away from the Civil Rights Movement and that our children are only two. And that in just two generations, the progress that was made in terms of legislating race relations seems close to becoming undone. This means that while the gains of the Movement were important and awesome, they did little to change people’s hearts, which brings me to my next reason to learn history, empathy. Learning history builds empathy for those that have experienced some of the most terrible things that human beings can do to one another so that we don’t allow that to happen to anyone regardless of who they are. To learn about Manifest Destiny should make us pause and think about how the U.S. government treated the indigenous people that are native to this continent, almost entirely erasing a culture of people. To learn about slavery in America and the global slave trade should make us pause and think about the experience of Africans in this continent and other continents and should literally break our hearts knowing families were ripped apart and human beings were stripped of their humanity. To learn about immigrants flooding the shores of Ellis Island should remind us that most of us are here because at one point our ancestors were immigrants and that we should be supporting a path to citizenship, not treating certain people like second class citizens with threats of deportation. To learn about the Holocaust should give us a compassion for the Jewish experience, enough so that the thought of a swastika being used as graffiti forces us to remember that six million Jews were victims of genocide. To learn about Islam should give us a respect for the tradition of that religion given that it was born out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but has been hijacked by some fringe members of that community much in the way that Christianity was hijacked by those committing acts of American terrorism in the Jim Crow/Jane Crow South.
At this point you may be thinking that my view on things in the world is a pessimistic view and while there are things out there that I could quantify for my reason to be pessimistic, I am not. I am Hopeful! You may be thinking that the students that come into and out of my classroom leave my classroom with a sense of pessimism and disdain for events in history. While it is true that my students have a critical view of history, it is also true that this critique is balanced with Hopeful tones and an emphasis on progress despite hardship.
At the end of the novel we just finished, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn says this, “to be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” (208)
I am hopeful by what I see in the diverse classrooms of our school and in the diverse ways we are learning to value and respect each other (if only every classroom in the country looked like ours). I am hopeful by the fact that this year’s graduating class from Logos Academy will be armed with the skills of critical thinking, compassion, and empathy and will refuse to buy into anything that contradicts the example set forth by our Lord, Jesus Christ.. I am hopeful by the fact that there are people exposing the hate they are witnessing and rightfully taking a stand about it. I am hopeful by the fact that our school leader and pastor, Aaron Anderson, is one such individual taking a stand by putting something in writing for public consumption in order to move people’s hearts and minds in our local community. This is history in action and this is what we need so urgently.
My one desire, my one Hope, is to see more people take a stand, to see churches and church leaders by the thousands denouncing these acts of hatred, which do not fit with the Christian ethos, in no shape or form. All movements begin small. Which movement do we want to see grow? The movement of hate and a calling for white supremacy that is anti-muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-Semitic? Or, a small movement of love and unity, that pushes back on those views in such a way that might begin to change people’s hearts and minds. History tells us that either path can happen, has happened, and that it is up to us to choose. I am continuing to remain Hopeful though because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once quoted, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”