Webinar: History Check-In: Civil Rights and Place

Civil Rights and Place: The Importance of Region to Interpreting the Black Freedom Movement of the 1950s-60s

The civil rights movement of the mid-to-late twentieth century remains a focus of popular fascination, yet few audiences are aware of the wide-ranging goals, participations, and gThis presentation argues that the "classic," post-World War II civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s encompassed local communities outside the regional South -- contrary to standard depictions of mid-century black social movements. Further, this presentation discusses how the forms of both white racism and black resistance differed based on the regional battlegrounds of the Midwest, Northeast, West Coast, and Border South. This webinar is part of the History Check-In webinar series, a partnership between the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Each webinar in this series is designed to provide history professionals from throughout the field with an update on the current state of historiography for a particular subject.

Details:

DATE: October 10, 2019

TIME: 3:00 - 4:15 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone)

COST: $20 Members of AASLH and OAH (OAH members should contact OAH for a discount code) / $30 Non-members

REGISTER HERE</a

Speaker:

Clarence Lang is Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, and Professor of African American Studies, at the Pennsylvania State University. A scholar in African American urban and social movement history, he is the author of two books: Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75; and Black America in the Shadow of the Sixties: Notes on the Civil Rights Movement, Neoliberalism, and Politics. In addition, he is the co-editor of two volumes: Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement: “Another Side of the Story” (with Robbie Lieberman); and Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom, and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph (with Andrew Kersten). An Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer, he has published articles and essays in Journal of African American History, Journal of Urban History, Journal of Social History, Journal of Civil and Human Rights, The Black Scholar, American Studies Journal, Critical Sociology, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dean Lang received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Civil Rights Sites Gain National Funding, Status

The Medgar Evers House
The Medgar Evers House

The week leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s national holiday brought good news for civil rights sites awarded major grant funding and higher levels of historic recognition.  It also brought joy to those who worked hard to establish the sites during a time when their future was uncertain.

I documented some of those behind-the-scenes stories in her 2016 book: The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements. Two of the sites included in the book, the Modjeska Simkins House, a restoration effort launched by Fleming Bruce in 1995, and the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, part of the Selma to Montgomery National Trail, were among the 39 sites to share $7.5 million dollars in civil rights grant funding, the National Park Service announced on January 12, 2017.

The Simpkins House before renovation.
The Simpkins House before renovation.

This critical national funding and recognition for the Simkins House will help those charged with the site’s care to ensure that Modjeska will never be one of the many women active in the civil rights struggle who were forgotten over time. Further restoration of the historic site by its caretakers, the Historic Columbia Foundation, helps move not only Modjeska’s story and the story of women in the movement to the national stage, but also further elevates South Carolina’s role in the civil rights movement, after decades of being overlooked. Finally, it increases the number of historic sites that examine the lives and work of women in the United States.

Two other sites featured in my book which achieved an elevated status in recent weeks are the Medgar and Myrlie Evers House and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Both were among 24 sites named National Historic Landmarks by the National Park Service on January 11, 2017.

The Simpkins House
The Simpkins House

The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements,  tells the stories of some of the many individuals who worked to reclaim civil rights sites from demolition, disrepair, and the auction block. Telling these stories is designed not only to generate greater appreciation for the struggle to preserve the sites, but also to encourage local and national communities to make the sites part of the ongoing struggle for justice in America.


Reconsideration of Memorials and Monuments

Photograph by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

This article will be published in the upcoming Fall 2016 issue of History News, the official magazine of AASLH. To receive this issue of the magazine, become a member of AASLH by February 15 (the latest issue of History News is sent with every new member welcome package). Current members will receive this issue in late December/ early January. Members can the 12 most recent issues of History News on our Members Only page and see older issues on JSTOR

Communities throughout the United States are in the midst of a widespread reconsideration of symbols of the Confederacy and white supremacy. The murder of nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 is the most immediate cause of this scrutiny, but the national discussion of race and violence that emerged in response to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown has also led communities to examine monuments.

The debates over Confederate statues and symbols are con­centrated in the South, but are also occurring in places like Harvard Law School, which recently removed a shield hon­oring the slaveholding Royall family. Although some people may regard the vehement arguments over these symbols and the calls for removal of monuments as a new part of twenty-first-century life, protests over the display of Confederate monuments and emblems go back decades.[1]

This issue of History News features three articles, each offering perspectives on the history and present-day legacy of the symbols and history of slavery and the Confederacy. Jill Ogline Titus discusses the history of Confederate memo­rials on the Gettysburg battlefield. F. Sheffield Hale, presi­dent and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, describes the sophisticated, user-friendly toolkit that his staff developed to help organizations and individuals interpret monuments to the Confederacy. Finally, Kelley Fanto Deetz, Bradley Lynn Coleman, Jody Allen, and Thomas E. Camden describe the work of a coalition of colleges and universities recognizing their fundamental connections to slavery and commemo­rating the lives of enslaved people who lived and worked at these institutions.

 

There are Confederate monuments even in states that fought for the North. This 1901 monument in Monroe County, West Virginia, was dedicated to "men who served the lost cause," Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
There are Confederate monuments even in states that fought for the North. This 1901 monument in Monroe County, West Virginia, was dedicated to "men who served the lost cause," Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

These articles provide examples of how museums and cultural institutions are engaging with the history of slavery and monuments to the Confederacy, but they do not provide a one-size-fits-all template for communities grappling with this issue. Such a tool cannot exist, in large part because each community discussing these monuments must engage with both the local historical context and larger historical trends. Because the discussions of Confederate monuments are local and engage with interpretations of the past, institutions concerned with local and state history could be involved in their communities as they contend with these issues. Yet many history organizations appear to be uncertain about what they should do or say about these monuments or have opted to maintain official silence, fearing that any statement could alienate local politicians, donors, friends, and neighbors. Silence, however, often speaks volumes.

This introduction provides a brief overview of how these Confederate monuments came to be placed in the land­scape and then discusses strategies used in the recent past to respond to criticism of these monuments. Ideally, museums and museum workers can use these articles and resources to deepen the discussion of Confederate symbols in their communities.

Memorials honoring Confederate soldiers and generals began appearing in the South during the latter part of the nineteenth century as organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored monuments in towns and cities throughout the region. Scholars Kirk Savage and John Winberry have documented that, over time, the preferred site for these monuments shifted from cemeteries to civic spaces such as parks and courthouse squares. These obelisks, plaques, and statues not only honored individuals or common soldiers, but also asserted that the values for which the Confederacy fought, including white supremacy, had not been defeated. This monument building was part of a social, political, and cultural movement that celebrated the Lost Cause in official and popular culture.[2]

 

White southern women organized many of the efforts to memorialize Confederate soldiers. The Ladies Memorial Association raised funds to create the Monument to Confederate Soldiers and Sailors of Alabama, which stands on the capitol grounds in Montgomery.  Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
White southern women organized many of the efforts to memorialize Confederate soldiers. The Ladies Memorial Association raised funds to create the Monument to Confederate Soldiers and Sailors of Alabama, which stands on the capitol grounds in Montgomery. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, anyone would have understood the connection between a Confederate statue and the ongoing economic, legal, social, and political sub­ordination of African Americans. Racial violence, in the form of lynching, racial cleansing, and everyday harassment, enforced this social order through terror.

In addition to Confederate monuments, southerners created monuments overtly celebrating white supremacy, such as the commemoration of the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, in which the White League led a coup against a New Orleans government made up of white and African American men. A subset of monuments placed before World War II focused on the “faithful slave” or free black individual who presumably allied with aristocratic whites. One of the most notorious of these monuments is the “Good Darky” statue of a deferential black man tipping his hat to passersby, which stood for decades in Natchitoches, Louisiana.[3]

After World War II, protesters challenging Jim Crow confronted segregationists who embraced symbols of the Confederacy, particularly the Confederate battle flag, to signal opposition to African American civil rights. From the 1970s, civil rights activists and supporters began promoting monuments, street names, and plaques to commemorate the struggle, African American history, and sites associated with slavery and lynching.[4]

Architectural historian Dell Upton argues that even as African Americans in the South gained political and eco­nomic strength, powerful whites have retained the ability to force many memorials focusing on African American history to conform to their tastes, often muting the message of these monuments. As monuments commemorating the Civil Rights Movement started changing the landscape, the historical markers, monuments, and other memorials to the Confederacy came under increasing scrutiny. Today’s propos­als to alter Confederate symbols in public spaces draw on strategies that have developed over decades: alteration, rein­terpretation, creating new monuments, removal, and doing nothing. Many communities have used several strategies over the years. These alternatives, it is important to note, are not exhaustive strategies for engaging with Confederate memorials.[5]

Altering a Confederate monument has the potential to make profound changes in its meaning. In Tennessee, the Maury County African American Heritage Society and the Genealogical Society of Maury County led the effort to add the names of county residents who fought for the Union to the local war memorial. A ceremony in 2013 dedicated a stone slab engraved with the names of fifty-four African American men who served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and four white men who fought for the Union. Many of the men who served in the USCT had been enslaved and were fighting to end slavery and ensure the permanent freedom of their families. Newspaper reports do not reveal the process by which this remarkable project occurred. The simple listing of names may prompt viewers to reconsider their previous ideas about who fought in the Civil War and their motivations.[6]

 

Dorothea Lange’s 1939 photograph captures the color line at work in Pittsboro, North Carolina. During the Jim Crow-era, Confederate monuments in courthouse squares throughout the South symbolized the connection between the Civil War and racial inequality. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Dorothea Lange’s 1939 photograph captures the color line at work in Pittsboro, North Carolina. During the Jim Crow-era, Confederate monuments in courthouse squares throughout the South symbolized the connection between the Civil War and racial inequality. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Reinterpretation of monuments, through reading rails or plaques, allows the original monument to be preserved. Ideally, the viewer is able to develop a complex interpreta­tion of the monument, but also of memorialization more generally. Qualitative evaluation would help historians understand whether or not the plaques are achieving this goal. If the reinterpretation is conducted in collaboration with people who have divergent positions on the monument, the project itself may provide an opportunity for discussion and, potentially, understanding.

Ari Kelman and Kenneth Foote have analyzed what they consider to be the successful reinterpreta­tion of a Union monument that describes the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre—in which Colorado Territory troops attacked a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people and killed more than 150 individuals—as a Civil War battle. (Full disclosure: I had a small part in the process of reinterpreting this monument.) Several factors made this reinterpretation possible: the cultural and moral authority of Cheyenne and Arapaho rep­resentatives, many of whom had relatives killed in the massa­cre; the willingness of these nations to be officially involved in reinterpreting the monument; the widespread consensus among non-indigenous power brokers that the Sand Creek Massacre was indefensible; and the marginal standing of those who sought to minimize the massacre. Comparable factors may not exist in many communities seeking to rein­terpret Confederate monuments.[7]

Installing a new monument to contextualize or counter Confederate monuments is another strategy. Many commemorations of the Civil Rights Movement have been placed near Confederate memorials. Dell Upton calls this practice “dual heritage.” Although such placement means civil rights monuments are in prominent, familiar locations, Upton argues that this strategy conveys the message that the civil rights struggles are equivalent to the Confederacy. Several monuments successfully avoid this form of equivalency, honor people victimized by white supremacy, and convey the power and complexity of the civil rights struggle. A short list of such monuments includes: Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; the commemoration complex in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park; and the Clayton Jackson McGhie memorial in Duluth, Minnesota, that honors three African American men murdered by a lynch mob.[8]

 

Photograph by Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The Jasper, Alabama chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated this monument in 1907. In 2016, Alabama’s legislators considered a bill that would have banned cities from removing historic monuments without state permission. The measure was designed to protect Confederate monuments, but did not become a law. Photo by Jet Lowe, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Demands to remove monuments bring up fundamental questions about the purpose of commemoration. Should monuments in public spaces represent ideal community values? If these values are no longer acceptable, what should happen to the monuments? Many involved in public history or historic preservation recoil from proposals to remove these memorials, concerned about what will be lost if the monuments are moved. Protesters calling for the removal of these memorials emphasize that they take these symbols of white supremacy seriously and highlight the harm they expe­rience when they encounter such monuments in their daily lives. Some protesters suggest memorials be placed in less prominent locations or in museums. Historian Aleia Brown, writing about the Confederate battle flag, raises concerns about the ability of many museums to provide adequate interpretation of this racially charged object. Her concerns also apply to interpretation of these monuments. In his blog, Kirk Savage has suggested that if monuments are removed, an empty column should remain, to remind viewers of what the public had renounced.[9]

Confronting Confederate symbols and memorials is a com­plex task in part because an honest discussion requires grap­pling with important issues that cannot be easily articulated, let alone resolved. How are race, identity, and history inter­twined? What does the symbolic and historic Confederacy mean, both in the South and in the nation? What roles should museums and cultural organizations play in determining what communities should preserve and how the past should be interpreted? Some people worry that discussing these issues causes racial dissent. However, it is important to recognize that these conversations are already occurring in private or semiprivate spaces, from living rooms to Facebook, and are already affecting people’s public actions and statements. Museums can choose whether or not to engage in the com­munity discussion, but they should begin these discussions within their own walls. The ability of museums to preserve, care for, and interpret the contentious past is dependent upon these discussions. Many museum workers have complicated relationships to the history of slavery and the Confederacy, which they are reluctant to discuss with their coworkers, or anyone outside of their families. Yet, without honest engage­ment with the difficult past represented by Confederate symbols, the ability of history museums to engage in their core mission—interpreting the past—will be compromised.

This article will be published in the upcoming Fall 2016 issue of History News, the official magazine of AASLH. To receive this issue of the magazine, become a member of AASLH by February 15 (the latest issue of History News is sent with every new member welcome package). Current members will receive this issue in late December/ early January. Members can the 12 most recent issues of History News on our Members Only page and see older issues on JSTOR

For resources and citations, download the PDF of the full article here or view it below. 

[gview file="https://cdn.aaslh.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/23/2016/11/labode.pdf"]

 

 


Sharing Nashville’s Civil Rights Past with the Police

Supervisors to first-responders attend training offered by staff of the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library.
Supervisors to first-responders attend training offered by staff of the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of History News magazine, the official publication of AASLH. You can read the full article in PDF format here. You can read recent History News articles by becoming a member or find issues older than three years on JSTOR.

In October 2015, the Nashville Public Library hosted Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) recruits, active officers, and their supervi­sors to the library’s award-winning Civil Rights Room for a history lesson. The purpose of the program was to provide law enforcement officers with infor­mation about local events of the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, the program aimed to guide officers and trainees in consideration of contempo­rary social justice issues related to law enforcement and the public, particularly for communities of color. Because Civil Rights and a Civil Society represents not only good practice, but, in the words of one reviewer, “Possibly live-saving work in training law enforcement officers.” [1] The program earned the library one of three 2016 HIP (History in Progress) Awards from AASLH.

Partners

Beginning in 2014, the Nashville Public Library partnered with MNPD to develop a diversity education curriculum rooted in lessons about the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville. Responding to increased media coverage of interactions between white law enforcement officers and African American citizens nationally, developers of Nashville’s diversity training for law enforcement wished to encour­age new recruits, seasoned officers, and agency leaders to examine ways Metro Nashville’s past likely influences its cur­rent social climate.

More Than a Tour

According to Andrea Blackman, who heads the Special Collections Division and its Civil Rights Room at the library, the Civil Rights and a Civil Society program is an extension of tours of its Civil Rights Room. Yet the law enforcement training program goes well beyond a normal tour. It puts Civil Rights Room resources— including photographs, oral history interviews, and ephemera collected during demonstrations and sit-ins—into participants’ hands. Staff follows this with a facilitated discussion. “By bringing his­tory into diversity training, we are able to discuss complex community dynamics in a way that encourages open discussion and greater understanding through a his­torical framework,” explains Blackman. “Our goal is to educate [law enforcement professionals] about the past to inform their present and future interactions with civilians in our community.”[2]

Participants in Civil Rights and a Civil Society start their program with a visit to the Civil Rights Room, where they gather around a mock lunch counter surrounded by photographs from the Nashville Movement. A staff member welcomes participants and gives them a brief overview of the Nashville Sit-Ins of 1960. Participants then move into a classroom-style space in which they view together a documentary about school desegregation in Nashville. During the second half of the program, law enforcement officers and trainees analyze photographs of events in the Nashville Movement. Working in groups, they locate the stories depicted in the pho­tographs. In this atmosphere, and with encouragement from library staff, dia­logue takes place. Topics discussed in small groups include the role of media in movements for social change, the role of law enforcement in such movements, and, sometimes, participants’ personal experiences. In a town that is rapidly diversifying and with a police force that is predominately white, these are import­ant conversations to have. The program opens a dialogue among the participants that continues throughout their training and, hopefully, their careers.

 

Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights and a Civil Society program encourages law enforcement personnel to use lessons from history to imagine solutions to contemporary challenges related to policing and community relations.
Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights and a Civil Society program encourages law enforcement personnel to use lessons from history to imagine solutions to contemporary challenges related to policing and community relations.

National Issue, Local Conversation

In a May 2016 speech delivered in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, FBI Director James Comey said to officials from every level of law enforcement that local, state, and federal officers, “All need to understand and stare at…hard truths.” Explaining why he, like his predecessor Louis Freeh, has analysts and agents-in-training study in a course dedicated to the FBI’s interactions with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Comey said that he and others in law enforcement at every level, “have to see ourselves clearly. We need to understand our history, much of which is not pretty. The truth is that the history of law enforcement in the United States was that we were often the enforcers of the status quo, which was mighty rough on a whole lot of folks especially minority communities, immi­grant communities, communities without power. We have to remember that history because the people we serve and protect cannot forget it.”[2]

Creating Community

Civil Rights and a Civil Society program participant and MNPD police officer trainee Nakia Reid told a local news sta­tion that she decided to become a police officer after she recognized police officers helping others. Still, she said that the history-based training at the library was unexpected and that it sparked conversa­tion among trainees even after they left the library. “Once we left [the training], I came out more knowledgeable of how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s affected Nashville, how the community handled it. We were all on the bus together and kept talking about it.” Media coverage of the program is also part of what makes it a model for other history museums and institutions. MNPD volunteer chaplain Michael Joyner observed that participation in the program would not only benefit the offi­cers, but would also “give the community more confidence in knowing that our police department has gotten aggressive enough” to engage in diversity training based on an understanding of history.[3]

Citing the Nashville Public Library program’s importance in the midst of a wave of police killings, U.S. News and World Report ran an article focused on the role educator and peace activist Bernard Lafayette played in the program. A vet­eran of the Nashville Movement of the early 1960s, Lafayette speaks internation­ally about his own training in nonviolent direct action protest, which happened when he was a student in Nashville. Following that experience, Lafayette went on to leadership positions in both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, among others. His involvement in the Civil Rights and a Civil Society program, then, adds to its credibility. Lafayette expressed his hopes that programs like the one at the library will help new recruits better understand their role as protectors. He later noted, “There is no separation between police and community.” The veteran activist is glad to be associated with training that encourages law enforcement officers to do more than simply stop shootings, but to create a sense of community in the car­rying out of their work.[4]

 

Iconic photographs from the Civil Rights Movement serve as backdrop to training provided to MNPD officers by staff of the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room.
Iconic photographs from the Civil Rights Movement serve as backdrop to training provided to MNPD officers by staff of the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room.

Nashville Public Library’s Special Collections Division intends its Civil Rights Room to be a safe space for difficult conversations about race and injustice, particularly for officials charged with the safety and welfare of the public. Participants in the Civil Rights and a Civil Society program overwhelmingly agreed the program was pertinent to their jobs and would help them build relationships with the community. In fulfilling their aim to offer space and programs to the general public or special groups, however, the program does more than educate. Civil Rights and a Civil Society also sup­ports the “telling and appreciation of… stories of marginalized people whose experiences challenge the racial privilege of the majority and strengthen the power of minority communities.”5

In so doing, the program makes a novel contribution to the history field and serves as a model. Its creation and success results not from the space in which the training happens, but from the power of stories brought forward for mutual con­sideration by the participants.

About the AASLH Leadership in History Awards

AASLH bestows Leadership in History Awards to establish and encourage standards of excellence in the collection, preservation, and interpretation of state and local history in order to make the past more meaningful to all Americans. By publicly recognizing superior and innovative achievements, the Leadership in History Awards serve as an inspiration to others in the field. Learn more, browse past winners, and submit a nomination here.

 

[1] Phyllis D. K. Hildreth to AASLH Leadership in History Awards Committee, 24 February 2016.

[2] Nashville Public Library, Leadership in History Award Nomination, 2016.

[3] Hayley Mason, “Metro Police Take Part in Civil Rights Training,” WSMV.com, 21 April 2015.

[4] Lucas L. Johnson II, “Nashville Program Teaches Law Enforcement about Civil Rights Amid Wave of Police Killings,” U.S. News & World Report, 18 November 2015.

[5] Jennifer B. Kahn to AASLH Leadership