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Archive for July, 2012

The latest “If We Knew Our History” column from the Zinn Education Project is by Dave Zirin. In the article, Zirin tells the story behind the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The ongoing “If We Knew Our History” columns show why it is so important for teachers to “teach outside the textbook”–to bring a people’s history to our students. The Zinn Education Project is a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in Schools

by Dave Zirin, Sportswriter

This iconic photo appears in many U.S. history textbooks, stripped of the story of the planned boycott and demands, creating the appearance of a solitary act of defiance.

It’s been almost 44 years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the medal stand following the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and created what must be considered the most enduring, riveting image in the history of either sports or protest. But while the image has stood the test of time, the struggle that led to that moment has been cast aside.

When mentioned at all in U.S. history textbooks, the famous photo appears with almost no context. For example, Pearson/Prentice Hall’sUnited States History places the photo opposite a short three-paragraph section, “Young Leaders Call for Black Power.” The photo’s caption says simply that “…U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in protest against discrimination.”

The media—and school curricula—fail to address the context that produced Smith and Carlos’ famous gesture of resistance: It was the product of what was called “The Revolt of the Black Athlete.” Amateur black athletes formed OPHR, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, to organize a black boycott of the 1968 Olympic Games. OPHR, its lead organizer, Dr. Harry Edwards, and its primary athletic spokespeople, Smith and the 400-meter sprinter Lee Evans, were deeply influenced by the black freedom struggle. Their goal was nothing less than to expose how the United States used black athletes to project a lie about race relations both at home and internationally.

OPHR had four central demands: restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title, remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee, hire more black coaches, and disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics. Ali’s belt had been taken by boxing’s powers-that-be earlier in the year for his resistance to the Vietnam draft. By standing with Ali, OPHR was expressing its opposition to the war.

By calling for the hiring of more black coaches as well as the ouster of Brundage, they were dragging out of the shadows a part of Olympic history those in power wanted to bury: Brundage was an anti-Semite and a white supremacist, best remembered today for sealing the deal on Hitler’s hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. By demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia, they aimed to convey their internationalism and solidarity with the black freedom struggles against apartheid in Africa.

The wind went out of the sails of a broader boycott for many reasons, partly because the IOC re-committed to banning apartheid countries from the Games. The more pressing reason the boycott failed was that athletes who had spent their whole lives preparing for their Olympic moment simply couldn’t bring themselves to give it up.

There also emerged accusations of a campaign of harassment and intimidation orchestrated by people supportive of Brundage. Despite all of these pressures, a handful of Olympians was still determined to make a stand. In communities across the globe, they were hardly alone.

The lead-up to the Olympics in Mexico City was electric with struggle. Already in 1968, the world had seen the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, demonstrating that the United States was nowhere near “winning the war”; the Prague Spring, during which Czech students challenged tanks from the Stalinist Soviet Union, demonstrating that dissent was crackling on both sides of the Iron Curtain; and the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the urban uprisings that followed—along with the exponential growth of the Black Panther Party in the United States—that revealed a black freedom struggle unassuaged by the civil rights reforms that had transformed the Jim Crow South. Then, on October 2, 10 days before the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Olympic Games, Mexican security forces massacred hundreds of students and workers in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square.

Although the harassment and intimidation of the OPHR athletes cannot be compared to this slaughter, the intention was the same—to stifle protest and make sure that the Olympics were “suitable” for visiting dignitaries, heads of state, and an international audience. It was not successful.

On the second day of the Games, Smith and Carlos took their stand. Smith set a world record, winning the 200-meter gold, and Carlos captured the bronze. Smith then took out the black gloves. The silver medalist, a runner from Australia named Peter Norman, attached an Olympic Project for Human Rights patch onto his chest to show his solidarity on the medal stand.

As the stars and stripes ran up the flagpole and the national anthem played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists in what was described across the globe as a “Black Power salute,” creating a moment that would define the rest of their lives. But there was far more to their actions on the medal stand than just the gloves. The two men wore no shoes to protest black poverty, as well as beads and scarves to protest lynching.

Within hours, the IOC planted a rumor that Smith and Carlos had been stripped of their medals—although this was not in fact true—and expelled from the Olympic Village. Brundage wanted to send a message to every athlete that there would be punishment for any political demonstrations on the field of play.

But Brundage was not alone in his furious reaction. The Los Angeles Times accused Smith and Carlos of a “Nazi-like salute”. Time had a distorted version of the Olympic logo on its cover but instead of the motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” it blared “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier.” The Chicago Tribune called the act “an embarrassment visited upon the country,” an “act contemptuous of the United States,” and “an insult to their countrymen.” Smith and Carlos were “renegades” who would come home to be “greeted as heroes by fellow extremists,” lamented the paper.

But the coup de grâce was by a young reporter for the Chicago American named Brent Musburger who called them “a pair of black-skinned storm troopers.”

But if Smith and Carlos were attacked from a multitude of directions, they also received many expressions of support, including from some unlikely sources. For example, the U.S. Olympic crew team, all white and entirely from Harvard, issued the following statement:

“We—as individuals—have been concerned about the place of the black man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As members of the U.S. Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate our society.”

Smith and Carlos sacrificed privilege and glory, fame and fortune, for a larger cause—civil rights. As Carlos says, “A lot of the [black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would supersede or protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?”

The story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics deserves more than a visual sound bite in a quickie textbook section on “Black Power.” As the Zinn Education Project points out in its “If We Knew Our History” series, this is one of many examples of the missing and distorted history in school, which turns the curriculum into a checklist of famous names and dates. When we introduce students to the story of Smith and Carlos’ defiant gesture, we can offer a rich context of activism, courage, and solidarity that breathes life into the study of history—and the long struggle for racial equality.

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by Stan Karp

Last summer, the Save Our Schools march brought thousands of teachers, parents, and supporters of public education to Washington, D.C. The march and rally were hopeful signs of pushback against corporate ed reform. A school year that began with the media blitz around the pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for Superman ended with the voices of grassroots resistance in the nation’s capital.

From August 3 to 5, Save Our Schools supporters will gather again in D.C., this time for a “peoples convention” focused on giving more shape and substance to the SOS effort.

Rethinking Schools will be there, joining longtime friends and advocates for educational justice like Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, and many others. We hope you will join us. More info here.

Rethinking Schools editor and parent activist Helen Gym and I will host a workshop session Saturday morning on education activism. We’ll share some lessons from Rethinking Schools’ 25-year history as a voice for social justice inside classrooms and communities. We’ll also share our experience with efforts to create local, state, and national coalitions to defend and improve public education, and we’ll invite discussion about how SOS might move that effort forward amidst the strongest corporate counterattack on public schooling we have seen in our lifetimes.

One topic will be strategies for countering the current mainstream narrative about education reform. That narrative is based on fundamentally inaccurate descriptions of the central problems public schools face and disastrous policy prescriptions misframed as the solutions our schools need.

For corporate reformers, the main problems in public education are low test scores, “bad teachers,” and union contracts. Their “solutions” are more standards and tests; creation of a less secure, less experienced, and less expensive professional staff; and more privatized, corporate management of schools, districts, and education policy.

But in the real world, the core problems facing public education are poverty, inadequate resources, systemic inequality and racism, and the misuse of standards and tests. The real solutions are fair and sustainable school funding, poverty reduction, curricula that reflects the real world our students live in and engages them in improving it, better preparation and support for educators, and stronger partnerships with parents and communities.

Solutions like these will only emerge from broad social movements that challenge the lack of democracy and equity both inside our schools and in the society around them.

Rethinking Schools has been addressing these issues since it was founded in 1986—partly in response to an earlier wave of top-down, business-led ed reform. We have tried to provide both critiques of bad policy and concrete examples of better practice. We have highlighted the kinds of stories and voices of educators, students, and parents that are crucial to replacing the current narrative of failure and privatization with one of hope and collective democratic vision.

At the end of last year’s SOS march and conference, participants were invited to submit a short vision of “what next.” In response we wrote:

“As we build on the SOS march and rally, we invite activists to use, support, and contribute to Rethinking Schools in a variety of ways: as a starting point for discussion, a venue for telling our stories of struggle and success in schools and classrooms, as a place to discuss ideas for building our movement, and as an accessible way to reach new audiences with our hopes for what our schools could and should be.”

As SOS regathers, we’re happy to repeat the invitation and look forward to working with other activists to realize the potential of a grassroots national movement for educational and social justice.

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by Bill Bigelow

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been spared most of the brutal weather experienced in the rest of the country. Throughout the United States, in the month of June alone, 3,200 daytime high temperature records were broken or tied. In Washington, D.C., an 11-day stretch of temperatures above 95 degrees is the longest since records have been kept. The weird and deadly mid-Atlantic storm—the “land hurricane”—took the lives of 23 people and left 4 million without electricity. Colorado has suffered through the worst forest fires in the state’s history. And the fire still burning in southeastern Oregon is the biggest one the state has seen in 150 years.

As climate scientists will tell you, there is no way to link any single weather event to global warming. But as Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground website, said recently on Democracy Now!, “What we’re seeing now is the future. We’re going to be seeing a lot more weather like this, a lot more impacts like we’re seeing from this series of heat waves, fires, and storms. . . . This is just the beginning.”

And yet, the fossil fuel industry continues to lead the climate change denial parade. On June 27, a day when almost 200 high temperature records were broken, Rex W. Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, pooh-poohing climate change, saying that the problem was activist organizations that “manufacture fear.” Tillerson said that the problem was an “illiterate public,” which needed to be taught that all environmental risks were “entirely manageable.”

And conservative pundits proudly wave the same flat-earth flag. Arguing with E. J. Dionne on ABC’s This Week, George Will said, “You asked us—how do we explain the heat? One word: summer. . . . We’re having some hot weather. Get over it.”

In our editorial, “Our Climate Crisis Is an Education Crisis,” in the spring 2011 issue of Rethinking Schools, we wrote that the climate crisis is “arguably the most significant threat to life on earth,” and urged educators to respond with the urgency that the crisis deserves. The events of this summer have added an exclamation point to our editorial.

A new article by Bill McKibben in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion Magazine, “A Matter of Degrees: The Arithmetic of a Warming Climate,” holds profound implications for educators. McKibben begins with the reminder that there is a global consensus that if the planet warms more than 2 degrees Celsius, we enter the “guaranteed-catastrophe zone.” (And McKibben acknowledges that even 2 degrees may be too generous of a climate allowance.)

So McKibben does the arithmetic. To remain under the 2-degree threshold, we need to emit no more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide over the next 40 years. As he puts it, “It’s like saying if you want to keep your blood alcohol level legal for driving, you can’t drink more than eight beers in the next six hours.” But here is the problem. Analysts have calculated that all the claimed reserves from fossil fuel—coal, oil, and natural gas—companies add up to 2,795 gigatons, five times more than the maximum allowable, even in a scenario that itself is fraught with climate danger.

“Here’s another way of saying it: We need to leave at least 80 percent of that coal and gas and oil underground,” McKibben writes. “The problem is, extracting and burning that coal and oil and gas is already factored into the share prices of the companies involved—the value of that carbon is already counted as part of the economy.” This would be the equivalent of these companies writing off $20 trillion.

For those of us who take climate science seriously, I think that we’re left with an inescapable conclusion: It’s not enough to teach about fossil fuels, we have to teach against fossil fuels. Any curriculum discussion that fails to address the threat posed by fossil fuel consumption to humanity and the future of all life on earth is profoundly irresponsible.

To illustrate the criminal full-speed-ahead approach of the fossil fuel industry, here in the Northwest, coal companies are pushing plans to export between 150 and 170 million tons of coal a year from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana through six different Oregon and Washington ports to Asia.

Illustration: Erik Ruin

Put aside for a moment the horrible toll that coal mining takes on the land and water and people in Montana and Wyoming.

Put aside the coal dust pollution that destroys lungs and kills people.

Put aside the violation of Native fishing rights along the Columbia River, where all the coal would travel by train and barge.

Put aside the noise pollution and disruption from as many as 60 mile-long, diesel exhaust-spewing trains a day.

And instead think only about the climate implications of the hundreds of millions of tons of coal that will be burned if these export routes are opened—a yearly figure, by my calculations, of between 240 and 270 million tons of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of 65 coal-fired power plants. (Of course, anti-coal export activists are busy making sure this doesn’t come to pass.)

Educators need to do our part. We have to continue to create—and teach—curriculum that through role play, simulation, experiment, projects, art, story, media, and activism helps students explore the causes and consequences of climate change—and imagine economic arrangements that can stop hurtling us toward the “catastrophe zone.” This work is already under way.

We concluded our climate crisis editorial: “The fight for a climate-relevant education is part of the broader fight for a critical, humane, challenging, and socially responsive curriculum. It’s work that belongs to us all.”

It’s also work that has never been more urgent.

Bill Bigelow (bill@rethinkingschools.org) is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.

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It’s summertime, and who doesn’t need a few good books to take to the beach or park?

Listed here are some of the books we’ve recommended in Rethinking Schools magazine in the past year, and we think they would make fine choices for your summer reading list.

Our own Rethinking Schools titles also make for great summer reading.  Take 25% off any of our titles with discount code 5BSummerG12 until August 1, 2012.

I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters

Edited and introduced by Michael Long. 522 pp. $18.95

Although Rustin was the logistical genius behind the historic 1963 March on Washington, this was just one of his accomplishments over many decades. Textbooks have left Rustin in obscurity, no doubt in part because he was gay and for a period of time a socialist. Rustin was active in civil and human rights struggles dating back to the 1940s.  This book is a collection of more than 150 of his letters to fellow progressives including Ella Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr.


Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation

Edited by Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp, 285 pp. $17

Bale and Knopp write as partisans in the struggles to transform schools in the process of transforming society—and they have invited contributors active in teachers’ unions, solidarity movements, and classrooms. The book’s foreword is an interview with Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow by teacher-activist Adam Sanchez.

What Teaching Means: Stories from America’s Classrooms

Edited by Daniel Boster and Marni Valerio, 235 pp. $20

At a time when everyone from computer geeks to talk show hosts pontificates about what should happen in the classroom, the press and the government ignore those who know schools best—teachers.  This collection of essays from the classroom reminds readers that what matters in our schools isn’t laws or standards, but the lives of students and the teachers who nurture them.  For the teachers in this book, classrooms are about the messy, painful, sometimes tragic, sometimes delicious work of teaching at a time when so many in our country struggle to survive. Readers will weep and laugh along with the teachers who crowd these pages.


Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage

by William Loren Katz, 254 pp., $19.99

This startling and readable new edition chronicles both the attempts to keep black people and Indians divided in the Americas, and their efforts to unite. Two lessons in the Zinn Education Project draw on Black Indians: “The Color Line,” about conscious efforts in early America to create divisions between the races; and “The Cherokee/Seminole Removal Role Play,” which helps students explore events leading up to the Trail of Tears.


Crow

By Barbara Wright, 298 pp., $16.99

Crow is a historical novel about the brutal repression of African American voters that brought an end to the short-lived Reconstruction era. Shining a light on the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, Wright creates the character of 5th grader Moses Thomas, whose father is an alderman and reporter for the only African American paper in the South. Through young Thomas’ adventures and his conversations with his grandmother, who lived for decades in slavery, readers learn about day-to-day life in the black community.


No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and
Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Artwork by Gregory Christie, 188 pp., $17.95

An honest and engaging story about Lewis Michaux, whose Harlem bookstore was a center of African American history, scholarship, debate, and activism from 1932 to 1974.  The book is full of diary-like chronological entries—written in the voices of Michaux, his family and those who frequented the store, including Malcolm X and Nikki Giovanni—interspersed with reports from Michaux’s FBI files, newspaper reports, photos and Christie’s gorgeous illustrations.


News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media

By Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres, 456 pp., $29.95

The book documents how the media have played many roles with respect to race and racism—from ignoring institutional racism to actually functioning as a key pillar of racism by stirring up hatred and violence against people of color. Also included are dozens of inspiring stories of the Native American, African American, Latina/o, and Asian American  journalists and news outlets that we rarely learn about in school.


The John Carlos Story

By John Carlos with Dave Zirin, 210 pp., $22.95

The image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their fists in the air at the 1968 Olympics is recognized around the world. Yet, as with so much of history, we know about the event but not the story of the organizing by athletes leading up to the Olympics, nor what happened to Carlos and Smith afterward. Read this beautifully written book and you will realize that the full story is as powerful and gripping as the photo.

Have you read any of these books?  Tell us what you thought in the comments.

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