Archives For Civil Rights

My school district recently purchased a class set of the March Trilogy, the graphic novel memoir that recounts the experiences of Congressman John Lewis (5th District, Georgia) in America’s struggle for civil rights including the marches from Selma to Montgomery. The comic book-style illustrations are engaging and some may mistake the memoir as something for children. Lewis’s experiences in the 1950-60s, however, were marked by violence, so the memoir is recommended for more mature audiences (grades 8-12).

The publisher, Top Shelf Productions, prepares audiences about the violence and language in the memoir by stating:

“…in its accurate depiction of racism in the 1950s and 1960s, March contains several instances of racist language and other potentially offensive epithets. As with any text used in schools that may contain sensitivities, Top Shelf urges you to preview the text carefully and, as needed, to alert parents and guardians in advance as to the type of language as well as the authentic learning objectives that it supports.”

The March Trilogy is the collaboration between Congressman Lewis, his Congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and the comic book artist, Nate Powell. Their collaboration project began in 2008 after Congressman Lewis described the powerful impact a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story had on people like himself who were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. The comic book has been reissued by the original publisher, Fellowship of Reconciliation with a new editorIsrael Escamilla.

Cover of the comic book that inspired John Lewis’s “March”

The 1957 comic book is also available as a PDF by clicking on a link available on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans (CRMV) website. The About page on this site has the following purpose statement in bold:

 This website is created by Veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement (1951-1968). It is where we tell it like it was, the way we lived it, the way we saw it, the way we still see it.

Under this explanation is the blunt statement: “We ain’t neutral.”

The decision to publish the Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as a comic book in the late 1950s is a bit surprising.  At that time the genre of comic books in America had come under scrutiny. A psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, made public his criticisms that comic books promoted deviant behavior. That claim in 1954 led to the creation of a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency along with the Comics Code Authority (CCA). That Authority drafted the self-censorship Comics Code that year, which required all comic books to go through a process of approval.

In 1958, the Friends of Reconciliation published the 16-page comic book as a challenge to CCA restrictions. An artist from the Al Capp Studios, creators of Li’l Abner, donated time to illustrate the book. Benton Resnick, a blacklisted writer, wrote the text. He concluded with a promotion for the “thousands of members throughout the world [who] attempt to practice the things that Jesus taught about overcoming evil with good.” The Friends of Reconciliation’s religious message passed the scrutiny of Senate Subcommittee.

The comic book also received Dr. King’s approval who called it “an excellent piece of work” that did a “marvelous job of grasping the underlying truth and philosophy of the movement.”

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was distributed through churches, universities, social justice organizations and labor unions during the Civil Rights Movement. Now in reproduction, the comic book has been widely circulated to support international struggles for civil rights, including Egypt’s Tahrir’s Square.

Teachers can use this primary source comic book as a way to explain how nonviolent protests held throughout the South contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the first frames in the book holds a proclamation:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, 50,000 Negroes found a new way to work for freedom, without violence and without hating.”

Several frames later, there are illustrations showing Rosa Parks’s arrest when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. These events are narrated by a fictional character named “Jones”. His role is to introduce the reader to the 29-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, a preacher from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dr. King will become the charismatic leader who planned the bus boycotts in Montgomery.

In the comic book, several frames show how protesters rehearsed for confrontations during protests. King wanted protesters to practice the tenets of non-violence the same way that Mahatma Gandhi had used non-violence in liberating India from the British Empire.

The “Montgomery Method” that Dr. King promotes in the strip is based on religion; God is referenced as the motivating force.  An explanation of the different steps to follow the method of non-violence begins with the statement that God “says you are important. He needs you to change things.”

In the concluding pages, the comic book also has suggestions for activists that were used to guide those who worked for civil rights in the 1950s -1960s. Some of these suggestions are remarkably timely, and they could be used in class discussions:

Be sure you know the facts about the situation. Don’t act on the basis of rumors, or half-truths, find out;

Where you can, talk to the people concerned and try to explain how you feel and why you feel as you do. Don’t argue; just tell them your side and listen to others. Sometimes you may be surprised to find friends among those you thought were enemies.

This comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story can be used to prepare students for the graphic novel memoir by Congressman Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. While he is not directly named in the 1957 comic book, he participated in many of the events and his memoir March provides another point of view to major events.

In Lewis’s recounting, March: Book I is set up as a flashback in which he remembers the brutality of the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March.  The second book, March: Book 2 (2015) highlights the Freedom Bus Rides and Governor George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech.  The final book, March: Book 3 (2016) includes the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; the Freedom Summer murders; the 1964 Democratic National Convention; and the Selma to Montgomery marchesMarch: Book 3 received multiple awards including 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature, the 2017 Printz Award Winner, and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner.

In receiving these awards, Lewis restated his purpose that his memoir was directed toward young people, saying:

“It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just.”

He could just as well have been speaking about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They may belong to the genre of comic books, but they also are serious records of our history.

My letter to the Social Studies Department Chair at West Haven High School

Dear Mark …and to every other Civics or AP Government Teacher in the USA:

Sorry to interrupt your well-deserved summer vacation.

But I have a resource that I think you should use next year in the Advanced Placement American Government class. You should share this resource with the Issues in Government classes.

This Sunday’s NY Times (7/2/17) magazine has special section devoted to a single spread layout, four pages long, that features an annotated United States Constitution.


How could this be used in your classroom?

You will note that on the front of the section is the editors’ statement about the Constitution, that “Schoolchildren are sometimes forced to read it.” You have mentioned several times that students at every level sometimes have difficulty reading a primary source document like the Constitution. They are not alone. The editors of the section also note that scholars “pore over it,” inferring they too are reading the text to better understand this primary source document:

“For most Americans, the United States Constitution remains a distant and archaic text, a relic to be revered but rarely consulted.”

In presenting this annotated document, the editors have given teachers a tool to help students better understand our country’s basic rules. They have implemented a literary strategy known as “chunking the text” which means breaking down a difficult text into more manageable pieces so that students can close read for better comprehension. Chunking helps students identify key words and ideas, develops their ability to paraphrase, and makes it easier for them to organize and synthesize information. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text multiple times for what the text says and how the text works in order to determine how the text has an impact on their lives.

Several sections of this annotated Constitution have commentary from a lawmaker or a scholar or an author or a NYTimes editor. Over 30 individuals offered commentaries printed in the margins including: Representative John Conyers (Michigan), Representative Adam B. Schiff (California), Senator Mike Lee (Utah), Senator Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Senator Patty Murray (Washington) Janet Napolitanto (former Secretary of Homeland Security), Jamal Green (Columbia Law Professor), Lawrence Tribe (Harvard Law Professor) as well as staff writers Adam Liptak and Emily Bazelon.

Each short commentary, about one or two short paragraphs long, serves as a model for students to follow. Students can be asked to imitate what the contributors have done and chunk the text of the Constitution in order to rewrite text in their own words. By chunking the text, students are better able to identify key words, to analyze ideas, to paraphrase, and to synthesize information.

Each commentary is connected by an arrow imposed on the section being annotated. For several sections Amendment 14 -Civil Rights) there are several commentaries. In total, there are 40 commentaries offering multiple points of view on our founding charter.

For example, Senator John McCain writes about the “common defense”(Article I: Section 8):

“With the powers given to us by our founders, it must be the urgent work of Congress to meet our sacred obligations to give our service members everything they need to defend our nation and our liberty.”

Vanita Gupta, former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice writes about the 14th Amendment,

“The struggle to realize the promise of this brief but important clause has been at the heart of every movement for civil rights in this country and continues to animate social justice activism of today.”

Their examples serve as models to show students how to analyze and to synthesize the language of the document.

What teachers have with this annotated Constitution are 40 mini-lessons they can share with students sequentially or by order of a trending topic (capital punishment, freedom of the press, etc.)

But that’s not all!

There is a prologue to the inside spread, a two page essay by author  Garry Wills, who has written about James Madison, framer of Constitution. His essay, titled “Child of the Enlightenment,”  discusses the principles derived from the the Age of Reason that guided the “secular miracle” of the Constitutional Convention over the course of a year: convened in 1787 and ratified 13 months later in June 1788.

Wills considers what he calls the “myth” of the checks and balances built into the Constitution, suggesting that:

James Madison was not so much as wanting to encourage “competing interests but to arrive at a ‘disinterested’ view of a common purpose, what Enlightenment philosophers call ‘virtue’ – or public spiritedness.”

Wills argues that such virtue was-and still is -the key component of all government.

Finally, at the the bottom of Wills’ prologue, there is a timeline marking several Constitutional milestones, beginning with its origins in Ancient Greece and ending with today.

Taken as a whole, the special section this Sunday eliminates the need for civics textbooks, which I have often suggested are dated. We both know that students are more motivated when they respond to the issues being discussed today.

This four page spread of newsprint is an entire civics course. just have to get a copy! (or you can borrow mine).

There is no surprise in reading the word “precision” in the language of the Common Core’s Mathematical Practice Standards. Mathematics requires precision:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP6 Attend to precision.

Mathematically proficient students try to communicate precisely to others. They try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning.

Writing requires precision as well. Proficient writers in every genre communicate precisely to others. Yet, one of the most difficult concepts to teach to students in recognizing the precision in an author’s craft. Word choice and punctuation are committed with intent by an author, yet, there are students who doubt these steps of precision made by an author. They believe that any text has stepped, as if full-formed or Athena-like, from the mind of an author. They think that novels pop into existence…unless, they are reading Toni Morrison.

Screenshot 2014-02-27 21.57.19

A “Wordsift” of precise language in Chapter 3 of “Beloved”; Denver and Sethe dominate as does the simile generator “like”.

My Advanced Placement English Literature students are currently reading Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved. This story confronts the horrors of slavery by fictionalizing the true story of Margaret Garner who, in a failed bid for freedom, killed her baby daughter rather than have her returned to slavery.

A look at the opening two lines to Toni Morrison novel Beloved demonstrate her power as a storyteller and highlight her precision with language:

“124 was spiteful. Full of baby venom.”

An quick analysis of the specificity of language in these two short statements reveals:

  • 124 is the address (setting) where Paul D arrives looking for the run-away slave, Sethe.
  • 124 is also a combination of 1and 2 and 4…the first-born, the second-born, and the fourth-born children of Sethe. The third-born child (3), the child named Beloved, is missing numerically. That child chooses to make her presence known in more ghostly ways.
  • Morrison is exacting in her selection of word choice from her opening personification of the house as spiteful (“having or showing a desire to harm, anger, or defeat someone; malicious”) to the incongruous pairing of the words “baby” and “venom”.

So, when I asked students to write about the precision in word choice Morrison uses to craft imagery in the novel in the first 100 pages, they had much to choose from:

“In describing the choke cherry tree of scars on Sethe’s back, Morrison writes, ‘See, here’s the trunk it’s red and split wide open, full of sap and here’s the parting for the branches'(79). A history textbooks do not give details of slave wounds like that.”

“Sethe and Denver even accept ‘the lively spite the house felt for them'(3) …. Morrison utilizes this personification to show how objects took on the role of companionship when Sethe and Denver were ignored by their community.

“Sethe describes seeing the sunrise as menacing with ‘red baby blood’ with ‘pink gravestone chips'(34)  instead of seeing the colors as warm and inviting.”

In making these and other observations, students called attention to Morrison’s specific use of dialect, alliteration, hyperbole, synecdoche, repetition, smilies, symbols as well as the differences in syntax to serve her purpose in making the reader confront the irreparable harm of slavery. The closer the students read, and they were “close reading”, the more appreciative they became of Morrison’s style. They became more appreciative of her power to select specific words in creating a particular image. They had no idea they could have just as easily be applying a mathematical practice standard (“attend to precision”) in their literary analysis.

Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 in for her body of work that included the novel Beloved. In her acceptance speech, she addressed how precise language is used to describe; to depict [as if] by painting or drawing:

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. … When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,” his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the “final word”, the precise “summing up”, acknowledging their “poor power to add or detract”, his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns.

Morrison’s admiration for Lincoln’s precise language in the Gettysburg Address is a shared admiration. The speech is a suggested 9th/10th grade text for the Common Core Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies. Moreover, educators should note the literary connection between the president who led the nation to abolish slavery with authors like Morrison who use their craft in pressing the reader to face the horrors of slavery.

Finally, the Mathematical Practice Standard #6 states that by high school, students will “have learned to examine claims and make explicit use of definitions.” There could be no better claim on the damage inflicted on humans in bondage than Morrison’s story of Sethe and her Beloved.  The last lines of the novel, “This is not a story to pass on” communicates “You [reader] may not pass [or avoid] this story.” She explicitly defines the experiences of those “60 million or more” and captures their love and their longing for familial bonds by writing precisely what they could not.

Just had a first sighting of The Help by Kathryn Stockett in a local Goodwill store. This best-selling fictional account of maids and the young reporter who records their stories during the Civil Rights decade (1960s) was first published in 2009 and has remained on the New York Times Best Seller List since then. Granted, this particular copy was a moderately water-damaged paperback selling for $2.00, but this sighting marks the moment when the book is cleared from the reading shelf to the donation shelf in order to make way for other titles.

Paperback copy of The Help sighted at local Goodwill store.

We are hoping to get a class set (30+ copies) of The Help over the next two years to offer with the English III Civil Rights unit (To Kill a Mockingbird; A Lesson Before Dying; The Bluest Eye; Mississippi Trial, 1955; Warriors Don’t Cry; The Color Purple). Thrift stores and public library book sales will probably be the best venues for getting inexpensive copies.

Currently, the book retails for $9.60 at Amazon.  That would be an expense of $288.00. We hope to get these copies for under $50.00 total.

Stay tuned for sighting #2.

I am not a fan of the hardcover book, and for the most part, neither are my students. They are often heavy, and the book jackets bruise easily in lockers or backpacks. However, while I am also not a fan of the mass market paperback, my students often prefer the small sized text. While I have trouble with the font size in these publications, my students –with their younger eyes- want books they can pop into a backpack or purse…they want the mobile edition. Occasionally, I will have a student look for the “smaller-sized” version, “because it’s shorter.” This logic escapes me, but I am happy to comply.

The length of a text is definitely an issue for my students. While they do understand from experience that the quality of the writing (complexity of sentences, vocabulary, point-of-view, etc) are all factors in making a book readable, the damaging effect of a hefty text on a teenage brain cannot be underestimated. I applaud JK Rowling for conquering the size of text criteria in book selection.

Hard cover texts are plentiful in book sales, but they usually do not attract the box-toting buyers with whom I have jostled while perusing the trade paperback tables. I am puzzled that hardcovers are more expensive at most of these sales. If I were loading and unloading these heavier texts, I would advocate they be sold at bargain prices….everything must go! But, hardcover texts, with the exception of Danielle Steele romances and James Patterson mysteries, often sit forlorn, while their cheaper and more popular paperback offspring receive all the attention. Book dealers armed with scanners and mobile apps that identify first or rare editions are the most likely buyers.

I have had to resort to buying some hardcover titles when I am short specific titles for instruction or when I know students are looking for a particular book.  These titles include:
by Anthony Swofford
Black Hawk Down
by Mark Bowden
A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison  (Oprah Book Club edition)

Summer Reading for AP Lit students...all 562 pages!

Recently, I assigned The Story of Edgar Sawtelle  by David Wroblewski to my Advanced Placement English Literature students; this is a retelling of Hamlet using a modern family of dog breeders. The book was a 2008 Oprah book club pick and is 562 pages in the hardcover. There are far more hardcover copies than paperback copies of this title in the used book markets that I follow. So, I have purchased about a dozen hardcovers for students to borrow as beach books…some heavy lifting required.

In shopping for books, I have noticed the strategies of some publishers to delay going into the paperback market (mass market or trade) with their titles. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code is an example of this delay. There are a plethora of hardcover DaVinci Codes, while there are fewer mass market paperbacks and  no trade paperbacks of this title. The popularity of this text kept the publication in hardcover which was more profitable for publishers and for Dan Brown. The same,however, does not hold true for his Angels and Demons; the number hardcovers and mass market paperbacks for this title are about the same in used book sales.

Currently, the book experiencing a publication popularity is The Help by Katheryn Stockett . I would like to add this text to my Civil Rights Unit for Grade 11, but I will have to wait for at least another summer. The Help will be available in record numbers in hardcover as the book has remained on the best seller list for weeks; paperback copies will be available in another two years.

The trade paperback is currently my edition of choice for use in the classroom…but the onset of the Kindle and Nook are shifting book availability of these texts for the future. My strategy will have to change.