The Cross-Cultural Solidarity History Education Project aims to provide excellent resources, for free, to everyone who wishes to deepen their understanding of the struggle for racial justice in U.S. history. The histories told here are organized into five series: Black/Brown Solidarity, Black Internationalism; White Allies; Understanding White Supremacy; and Reframing Civil Rights.
This series will explore the lives of figures such as Yuri Kochiyama (the famed Japanese American disciple of Malcolm X) and Grace Lee Boggs (a major Chinese American theorist of Black Power;) coalitions between black and brown organizations such as those that came together in the Black Panther’s famous Rainbow Coalition; and the grassroots solidarities that developed between black and brown communities in cities across the country.
Interracial tensions, misunderstandings, and strategic differences often existed within these solidarities, and black/brown solidarity has often involved navigating these challenges. Even figures as thoughtful as Martin Luther King made mistakes when reaching out to Latino and Native American communities… mistakes that he learned from, and that we can learn from. For those seeking to build solidarities today, there are crucial lessons to be learned from looking at both the successes and the mistakes of black/brown coalition building in U.S. history.
For our black and brown youth, these stories provide the opportunity to explore the history of the tensions they often feel between their communities, and to think about how to resolve them. They provide our youth with visions of solidarity they might not have been able to previously imagine, and in doing so, help to create a sense of solidarity that facilitates strong classroom communities.
“Black Internationalism” refers to the international dimensions of the black freedom struggle: the ways that African Americans thought about white supremacy as a global phenomenon, and built relationships with people around the world and sought to influence world affairs as part of the struggle against racial oppression.
These stories include attempts made by African Americans to influence global human rights proposals, such as their support for the Japanese Racial Equality Proposal at the League of Nations after World War I; and their attempts to ensure that racial equality became a global human rights doctrine accepted by the United Nations after World War II. They include stories of African Americans building connections with colonized people struggling against the white supremacy of their European rulers, including the NAACP’s support of anticolonial movements; and the black American connection to India that began in 1919 and led to the principles of nonviolent resistance soaking deeply into the consciousness of black American freedom fighters. Stories of black internationalism also include stories of exile and expatriation: many black freedom fighters have been forced to flee to other countries; and black American expatriate communities have formed in countries as diverse as Mexico, Ghana, and France.
These stories help us understand that race relations in the United States exist within a larger, global context. For our young people studying history today, bringing black internationalism into the classroom gives them an opportunity to think about connections between the local, the national, and the global, and by doing so supports the critical thinking skills required of informed citizens and global thinkers. Young people are inspired by these stories, which portray black American freedom fighters not as a beleaguered minority whose struggles were invisible to the rest of the world, but as sophisticated global thinkers who built international relations and had a global audience. The study of black internationalism is one of the best ways to portray the genius and sophistication of the black freedom struggle.
The support of white allies has been critical in the struggle for racial justice, but their support has often been problematic. This series explores the many dimensions of white allyship: through looking at figures such as Anne Braden and Myles Horton, to the white students who poured into the South during the civil rights movement; to the Young Patriots – a group of poor whites of southern ancestry who worked in coalition with the Black Panthers – this series will explore the many ways that white Americans have fought for racial justice.
It is crucial for white allies today to learn the lessons of the past. There are lessons to be learned from looking at how highly educated white students from the north unintentionally undermined black leadership when they went South to support the civil rights movement; or from how middle class whites often alienated poor whites. And there are lessons to be learned from figures like Anne Braden, who contributed to the black freedom struggle with great wisdom and success.
It’s important for all of our youth, regardless of their racial background, to see powerful, positive examples of white people fighting for racial justice. For our white youth, they need examples and figures to look up to and learn from. For our black and brown youth, it’s important for them to know that white allyship can be done well. It’s psychologically unhealthy for them to feel that they live in a world absent of this possibility. Teaching histories of white allies is empowering for us all.
Understanding White Supremacy
It might seem strange to include a series of writings about white supremacy on a website devoted to the struggle for racial justice. However, white supremacy must be understood if it is to be fought effectively. Understanding the history of white supremacy, and of how it transforms and reshapes itself in different historical contexts, has always been essential in the struggle for racial justice.
This series will include subjects such as the rise of racially coded language in the years since the civil rights movement; the reaction of white southerners as they experienced the world shifting around them; the rise of new ideologies such as color-blindness that continue to facilitate white supremacy today; the mechanisms facilitating unequal schooling and race-based poverty across the nation; and the rise of mass incarceration.
Reframing Civil Rights
The civil rights movement is often presented in a shallow and misleading way that disempowers our youth and prevents our society from understanding the lessons of the movement, as well as the evolution of race relations since the movement. This series aims to rectify this serious problem by providing profound-yet-accessible versions of critical moments from the civil rights movement, from the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott to the almost-invisible Lowndes Country Freedom Struggle.
The portion of the black freedom struggle known as the “civil rights movement” ought to be a history that inspires and empowers us all, and especially our black youth. And yet, when the figures in the movement are presented as perfect and infallible, they also become unrelatable, their examples unattainable. Romanticizing civil rights figures alienates youth and strips them of the opportunity to learn how the struggle actually worked. What youth need – and what we all need – are stories that touch us, stories that we feel have really taught us something important. This requires presenting characters like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as fully human – as people who make mistakes, experience fear, learn and change over time, need mentors, and exist not as solitary figures but rather within profound relation to others. Once they are humanized, we can truly learn from them.
However, reframing civil rights requires not only humanizing it’s most famous leaders; it also means fully representing the powerful roles of women, LGBT figures, and grassroots characters. It means not relegating them to sidebars in a textbook, where they appear as separate from the main flow of the story – and thus appear as “not normal” – but organically weaving them into the story as the essential players that they were. Within the classroom context, the representation of powerful women and LGBT figures in the past affirms the young women and LGBT youth in a school and helps them to come forward fully and confidently into their communities. Thinking about these figures also helps young people work through their own sexism and homophobia. And considering the historical processes of marginalization helps youth develop their understandings of how people become marginalized in the first place, and of how marginalization can be fought. Similarly, thinking about grassroots characters empowers youth by providing them with visions of local leadership that they can imagine themselves engaging in. Bringing a focus to the grassroots brings history down to earth and helps us realize that change is not brought about only by celebrities, but by ordinary people who, even when they remain invisible, wield enormous power.
Reframing civil rights also means offering a rich and dynamic portrayal of strategy. Shallow portrayals of nonviolent resistance often leave black youth feeling conflicted: when they see images of black people allowing themselves to be hit, many see black people who are failing to stand up for themselves… and yet, they are being asked to revere these figures. Nonviolent resistance is, for many, a counterintuitive, difficult strategy to understand. Our youth deserve the opportunity to fully comprehend it. Rich portrayals of nonviolent resistance help to affirm black youth by giving them a powerful vision of their own history that they can be truly proud of and inspired by, instead of confused by and alienated from. This is especially true because nonviolent resistance offers many opportunities for spiritual and philosophical reflection. Such opportunities are an essential but often neglected way of caring for young people.
Honoring nonviolent resistance and affirming our youth also means honoring the fiercest criticisms of nonviolent resistance… the criticisms that great nonviolent leaders had to respond to and navigate themselves. When nonviolent resistance is uncritically portrayed as the only correct strategy, which we should all somehow immediately agree with, we shut down many critically engaged black voices from the past and in the present, and we demean many powerful, longstanding traditions in the black community such as self-defense, black separatism, and black internationalism. Reframing civil rights means treating a variety of strategies seriously, understanding the contexts in which different strategies took place and made sense, and exploring how very different strategies were not necessarily mutually exclusive or opposed to each other. Such an analysis not only helps us understand history, it helps us develop the sort of strategic thinking vitally necessary for building a better world today.
Finally, reframing civil rights means telling civil rights stories in such a way that they facilitate the critical thinking skills necessary for thinking both about history, and the present day… such as learning to think about multiple layers of context, the connections between different periods of time, and the multiple causes of events. Many civil rights stories only fully make sense when local, national, and global contexts are explored, and yet, civil rights stories – like many mainstream histories – are often told without considering even one of these multiple layers of context. Likewise, there is a general tendency to explain complex events as if they had a single cause… or even as if they just happened, with no cause at all. This sets a dangerous precedent, because a population that develops the negative intellectual habit of not questioning and challenging oversimplified explanations will be a population that can be easily divided, misled, and controlled. The “Reframing Civil Rights” series, like all of the resources provided here, aims to contribute to the development of the kind of critical thinking skills necessary for a robust democracy.
In summary, the “Reframing Civil Rights” series – and all of the writings at the Cross Cultural Solidarity History Education Project – aims to:
- Humanize all the characters involved, allowing us to truly learn from them.
- Fully represent the powerful roles of women, LGBT figures, and grassroots characters.
- Richly describe a variety of strategies, allowing us to develop our own capacity for strategic thought.
- Bring historical context to life, from local to global levels.
- Portray multiple causes of events.
- Portray the connections between different periods of time.
And, finally, do all of this within a rich narrative framework, so that young people – and all people – can develop a positive relation to historical texts, rather than a resistant one.