Teaching to Change the World

Teaching to Change the World

Rethinking Schools Note: Wayne Au is a Rethinking Schools editor and author. In 2014 he edited the second edition of Rethinking Multicultural Education and in 2012 he co-edited Pencils Down: Rethinking High Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public School.

In January 2013, teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School sparked an already-growing movement over standardized testing in the post-No Child Left Behind era.

They announced that they were boycotting the district-mandated Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP test, a move that was initially met with threats from the school’s administration. Almost immediately, support for the teachers started pouring in, from near and far, from other educators, schools, and districts, and from unions, parents, and students.

Wayne Au, a former high school teacher, graduate of Garfield and Evergreen, and professor of education at the University of Washington Bothell, was an early and influential backer. Au is the author of Unequal by Design: High Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality and co-editor of Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools. Within days, he posted an insightful blog about the boycott on the website of Rethinking Schools, a social justice education journal he helps edit.

He also released—on Martin Luther King Day—a statement of solidarity he co-authored, which was signed by scores of education professionals across the country, including such prominent figures as Jonathan Kozol, who’s written extensively about public education; Diane Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. Secretary of Education; and Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The statement hailed the boycott as a “blow against the overuse and misuse of standardized tests” and expressed support for the “brave teachers” and opposition to “the growing standardized testing industrial complex.”

Four months later, after resistance had spread to other schools in the city, the district backed down, making the test optional if other assessments of student performance are used. To Au, the boycott “was a total success from several angles. Most importantly,” he said, “it became a flashpoint nationally—and even a little internationally—and it helped galvanize a growing, popular movement challenging regimes of high-stakes standardized testing.” Furthermore, he said he saw many “practicing teachers develop deeper and more complex understandings of the complications and problems surrounding high-stakes, standardized testing.” In the end, he said, the uprising demonstrated “the power of a broad-based, democratic, popular movement.”

Au is recognized nationally as a scholar of social justice in education. He’s written and spoken publicly about such issues as multiculturalism in education, the problems with using standardized testing to evaluate learning and teaching, and public funding of charter schools. And he’s not only voiced solidarity with activists in their struggles to better their schools, but also informed them with his prolific work.

His articles have been published in both academic journals and popular media outlets. He’s written two books and edited or co-edited six more, including the upcoming Mapping Corporate Education Reform, an analysis of the key actors influencing policy, which will be released next spring. He’s also contributed curriculum to several projects focused on social justice teaching, including The Zinn Education Project, Beyond Heroes and Holidays, and Putting Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching.

Au became a teacher to change the world. At an early age, he saw teaching as a powerful way to make a difference in the lives of others. “I knew I wanted be a teacher in ninth grade at Garfield,” he said. He also believes that the arena of public education—where he obtained his elementary-to-doctoral schooling—holds great promise in promoting equity and positive social change.

His fundamental commitment to social justice underscores everything he does, from teaching students and speaking at conferences and rallies to researching educational policy and organizing challenges to the status quo. “It’s part of who I am,” he said. “It drives the work.”

Au earned his bachelor’s and Master in Teaching degrees at Evergreen in 1994 and 1996, respectively. During his time at the college, he was an Upward Bound tutor to at-risk high school students preparing for college. Afterward, he was a social studies and language arts teacher at South Seattle Community College’s alternative Middle College High School. He then taught language arts and African history at Garfield, his alma mater, before relocating to California, where he worked at Berkeley High School, teaching social studies, language arts, ethnic studies, and Asian-American studies.

In Berkeley, he was active in the Education Not Incarceration Coalition, which opposed California’s plan to cut education funding while increasing monies to state prisons. Schools lost in the state’s final budget, and he was laid off, prompting him to pursue a career in higher education.

Au completed his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2007. In 2012, he was honored with an Early Career Scholars Award from one of the American Educational Research Association’s special interest groups. A decade before, he received the Early Career Advocate for Justice Award from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which honors “individuals in teacher education who firmly support equity issues, who have linked their work with social justice and teacher education, and whose work shows evidence that it will have impact over time.”

At the University of Washington Bothell, where he chairs the school’s Diversity Council, he continues to practice his first love: teaching. This past summer, he taught a three-week bridge class to 22 incoming freshmen in the Academic Transition Program, which serves individuals with disadvantaged backgrounds. His lessons covered the links between poverty, educational attainment, and successful first-generation college students. This year, he’s teaching an undergraduate class, “Race, Culture, and Identity in the Classroom,” and three graduate-level courses, including one on multicultural education, “Teachers’ Self Understanding,” and another on education policy, “Theories of Organizational Change and School Reform.”

On the subject of school reform, Au urges “teachers, parents, and students to be activists. Instead of top-down reforms, I want a much more fully informed democracy around education policy. I want to see people get together, be strong, and be informed.”

The Garfield boycott didn’t end testing, but it was a seminal event in a larger grassroots movement. “In the broader struggle over how people understand education policy and practice, symbolic victories are critical to winning future fights,” says Au, who’s gearing up for battles ahead, including over Common Core testing and Initiative 1240, Washington’s Charter School Act.

The Koch Brothers Sneak into School

How Right-wing Billionaires Seek to Shape the Social Studies Curriculum

By Bill Bigelow

koch_bros_dirtymoney_byPeterMarshall-335x222This month in Boston, thousands of teachers will gather for the annual National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference.

Two non-teachers will be there, too: Charles and David Koch, the notorious right-wing billionaires.

Well, the Kochs won’t be there in person, but they will be represented by a Koch-funded and controlled organization: the Arlington, Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute. For years, the Bill of Rights Institute has shown up at NCSS conferences to offer curriculum workshops, distribute teaching materials, and collect the names of interested educators. What the Bill of Rights Institute representatives fail to mention when they speak with teachers is that they have been the conduit for millions of dollars from Charles and David Koch, as the brothers seek to influence the country’s social studies curriculum. (When I attended a Bill of Rights Institute workshop at an NCSS conference, I asked the presenter who funds their organization. “Donations,” she replied.)

rollingstone_kochbros_articleWith assets of more than $80 billion, the Koch brothers, who control Koch Industries, are together richer than Bill Gates. As a recent Rolling Stoneexposé (“Inside the Koch Brothers’ Toxic Empire”) by investigative reporter Tim Dickinson details, the Kochs made that money largely by polluting the Earth and heating up the climate, with massive oil and gas holdings. And through their network of far right foundations and front groups, they lobby for policies and fund politicians in line with their free market, fossil fuel interests.

One of those front groups is the Bill of Rights Institute, launched in 1999 and funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, and David Koch. The BRI directors include Mark Humphrey, Koch Industries senior vice president; Ryan Stowers, director of higher education programs at the Charles Koch Foundation; and Todd Zywicki, a senior scholar of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, funded with corporate donations from the likes of Koch and ExxonMobil. Until 2013, the Bill of Rights Institute president was the Koch operative Tony Woodlief, who headed the Market-Based Management Institute in the Kochs’ hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and served as president of the Mercatus Center.

The Bill of Rights Institute is funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, and David Koch.

The Bill of Rights Institute is funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation, and David Koch.

The Bill of Rights Institute says it offers “engaging educational games, videos, and activities for people of all ages, and classroom lesson plans for teachers across the country.” The institute holds essay contests for students and promotes free teacher seminars throughout the United States—on topics like “Being an American,” “Preserving the Bill of Rights,” and “Heroes and Villains: The Quest for Civic Virtue.” Their promotional materials boast that the BRI has offered sessions for 18,000 teachers and provided materials for another 40,000.

billofrightsinstitute_libertarianmssgIn its materials for teachers and students, the Bill of Rights Institute cherry-picks the Constitution, history, and current events to hammer home its libertarian message that the owners of private property should be free to manage their wealth as they see fit. As one Bill of Rights lesson insists, “The Founders considered industry and property rights critical to the happiness of society.” This message that individual owners of property are the source of social good, their property sacred, and government the source of danger weaves through the entire Koch curriculum, sometimes with sophistication, other times in caricature. For example, in one “click-and-explore” activity at the BRI website, showing the many ways that government can oppress individuals—“Life Without the Bill of Rights?”—a cartoon character pops up with a dialogue bubble reading, “The gov’t took my home!” An illustration shows his home demolished.

Educator resources for “Documents of Freedom” at the BRI site underscore this business-good/government-bad message: “When government officials can make any laws they please—and hold themselves above the law—there is less economic growth, less creativity, and less happiness. Entrepreneurs won’t be willing to risk time and money starting businesses. Writers and speakers will restrain their words. Everyone will worry that his freedoms can be destroyed at the whim of a powerful government agent.”

However, the materials at the Bill of Rights Institute avoid discussing how the free exercise of property rights has played out in the real world—especially with respect to historically oppressed groups.

For example, the BRI introduces a Constitution Day lesson plan with a quote from Patrick Henry—you know, the fellow who said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” As a Virginia plantation owner, Henry denied his beloved liberty to the more than 70 individuals he enslaved on his 10,000-acre estate. Instead of focusing on the contradiction of “freedom loving” individuals like Henry enslaving other human beings, the institute selects a passage from him that warns of the evils of big government: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government—lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” The BRI is fond of this quote, which features prominently in one of the webinars at its website.

In reviewing curriculum and background materials at the institute’s website, I found nothing that could help teachers show students how race and social class shaped the U.S. Constitution—nothing that invites students to think about the Constitution from the point of view of anyone other than the elites who drafted it. A background article on how the Founders approached slavery says that this “would be a ‘make-or-break’ matter for the new republic,” but ignores those for whom slavery was the ultimate “make-or-break” issue: the enslaved people themselves.

billofrightsinstitute_curriculum_300pxwAnother Constitution lesson at its website, “Meeting the Framers—A Reunion Social in 1840,” is more hagiography than history. The lesson asks students to make business cards for the Framers attending the Constitutional Convention that they can distribute to one another at a fictional 1840 gathering. Students are required to list Framers’ contributions, “most noteworthy characteristics/interesting facts,” and contributions following the convention. There is not a single critical question raised. This lesson highlights another feature of Bill of Rights materials: They’re boring. A curriculum that tiptoes around real-world issues like race, class, and power is unlikely to fire students to life. An alternative lesson would be a Constitutional gathering that included individuals other than plantation owners, bankers, and merchants—one that examined issues from the perspective of common farmers, debtors, and people who were enslaved.

Focusing narrowly on property rights to the exclusion of racism and issues of social inequality are not limited to history lessons in the BRI materials. One section on the website is “Teaching with Current Events,” and includes a lesson, “Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine Laws.” It offers quiet cover for Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, mentioned in the lesson’s introduction. Here’s the lesson’s first discussion question: “Florida’s ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ law states ‘A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.’ How would you put this law in your own words?”

A follow-up question asks students to search the Constitution and Bill of Rights to support this law. But nothing in the lesson encourages students to search their own lives or to view Stand-Your-Ground from the standpoint of people who might be victimized by someone like George Zimmerman. The sanctity of an individual’s property is paramount—here and everywhere in the BRI materials.

billofrightsinstitute_legitimizedcurriculumThis lesson is especially disingenuous given that Florida’s “Stand-Your-Ground” law was a product of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council—a Koch-funded outfit that promotes “model” conservative legislation. The Kochs not only pay for laws to be written and passed, they now pay for them to be legitimated in the school curriculum as well.

The “Current Events” subject that should be at the top of any school curriculum these days is climate change. But the BRI appears to want to avoid the issue. Dickinson’s Rolling Stone exposé chronicles the Kochs’ massive fossil fuel holdings and climate pollution. The Koch empire generates more greenhouse gases annually—24 million metric tons—than either Chevron or Shell. The Kochs own 1.1 million acres in the Alberta oil fields (tar sands land), an area larger than Rhode Island. And the Kochs are “a key player in the fracking boom,” polluting precious water supplies, and releasing unknown quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The BRI is one of the Kochs’ phalanx of organizations promoting the free market snake oil that economic decisions should be left up to the people who own the economy. This ideology offers implicit approval for the fossil fuel industry to do whatever it wants with its massive lode of carbon—even as greenhouse gases rise to a level that puts all life at risk. I say implicit approval because even the “Current Events” curriculum materials at the BRI website are entirely silent about the climate crisis. A search for “global warming,” “climate change,” and “fracking” yields a “Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.”

Koch Highhuffingtonpost_kochhigh

A July 2014 investigative article in the Huffington Post, “Koch High: How the Koch Brothers Are Buying Their Way into the Minds of Public School Students,” by Joy Resmovits and Christina Wilkie, describes another Koch organization that targets public schools, Youth Entrepreneurs. According to internal documents uncovered by the authors, the group’s mission is to develop “a high school free market and liberty-based course” supported by the network of Koch foundations and Koch-supported organizations. According to these private documents, a 2009 Charles Koch Foundation working group, overseen by former Bill of Rights Institute president Tony Woodlief, worked to produce an economics curriculum to challenge what the group identified as “common economic fallacies,” including: “Rich get richer at the expense of the poor … Government wealth transfer programs help the poor … Private industry incapable of doing functions that public sector has always done … Unions protect employees … Minimum wage, ‘living wage,’ laws are good for people/society … Capitalist societies provide an environment for greed and materialism to flourish.”

Of course, this is the ideology of the Tea Party. According to Youth Entrepreneurs, its curriculum is now taught in 36 high schools in Kansas and Missouri. Resmovits and Wilkie sum up: “Youth Entrepreneurs is just one piece of the Kochs’ slow creep into America’s schools.”

But what makes the Koch brothers’ focus on public schools so profoundly cynical is that they hate public schools. As Resmovits and Wilkie point out, this can be traced back at least as far as 1980, when David Koch was the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee. The Libertarian platform that year was unambiguous: “We advocate the complete separation of education and state. Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”

John Stossel: "K through 12 education in America is lousy. And I say it’s because you don’t have the free market."

John Stossel’s talk at BRI’s essay gala: “K through 12 education in America is lousy. And I say it’s because you don’t have the free market.”

Even as it infiltrates public schools, the BRI continues to trash the very idea of public education. Its website features a video of a talk by Fox News commentator John Stossel, who spoke at a dinner honoring student winners of a BRI essay contest. Stossel was blunt: “K through 12 education in America is lousy. And I say it’s because you don’t have the free market. A free market is what brings us all the good stuff that makes our life better. And education, K through 12, is largely a government monopoly. And they don’t do things very well. …. Forty years of reporting have taught me that the market does everything better.”

This Koch-sponsored hostility to public schools finds expression in what Koch brothers’ darling Gov. Scott Walker has done in Wisconsin, along with fellow Republicans. Walker has received lavish funding from the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity. As Bob Peterson summarizes in a forthcoming article in Rethinking Schools magazine, Walker’s 2011 Act 10 first took away virtually all collective bargaining rights from public employees, including the right to arbitration. Immediately following Act 10, Wisconsin initiated the largest cuts to public education in the country. Walker and cronies then expanded a statewide school voucher program—one that steals money from public schools to subsidize private schools—and enacted an income tax deduction for private school tuition.

Over at the Koch family foundations, they explain that these budget cuts make the BRI and their other education work even more necessary: “As budgets for liberal arts and social studies continue to shrink, BRI provides much needed instructional materials and conducts programs that teach the words and ideas of our Founders and the liberties and freedoms guaranteed in our Founding documents.” In other words, as the Kochs spend millions undermining and defunding public schools, impoverished schools will become more and more dependent on the millions that the Kochs spend to shape the curriculum.

The liberties that the Kochs are so fond of include the liberty to endlessly pollute the environment, the liberty to emit greenhouse gases without regulation, the liberty to bust unions, and the liberty to contribute unlimited amounts of money to candidates who will do their bidding.

Teachers and parents need to ensure that the public school curriculum is animated by a concern for the public—and that it does not promote a vision of society that offers freedom only to those who have the wealth to buy it. Perhaps when teachers gather in Boston for the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference, they will tell the Bill of Rights Institute representatives what they think of this ersatz version of freedom.

billbigelow-100x100Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. He co-edited the just-released A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

if_we_knew_bannerThis article is part of the Zinn Education Project If We Knew Our History series.

Restore Recess: A Movement is Born

Rethinking Schools:

Jesse is an editorial associate at Rethinking Schools.

Originally posted on I AM AN EDUCATOR:

Sign the Save Recess Petition today!Seattle Schools: Save Recess!

You have heard about Seattle’s fight for a $15 minimum wage, or the teachers who organized a mass boycott of the MAP test.  But you might not be aware of the newest movement–organized for one of the most basic human rights–that was recently ignited in the emerald city: The struggle for the right to play.

Parents and educators across Seattle are taking action to defend their children’s right to ample time for recess and lunch.  Parents and students at Whittier Elementary school set this movement in motion when they voiced objection to the school reducing lunch and recess time from 40 minutes to half an hour–gaining important local TV and media attention.  Parents at Leschi Elementary soon launched an online petition that has gathered nearly a thousand signatures in a few short days.  Now there is a city-wide organization of parents, students…

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Teaching in Black and White: Fall Issue is Live


Table of Contents


FREE Black Like Me

By Renée Watson

A poem—and the history behind it—about being invisible, yet stereotyped, as an African American student bused to a predominantly white school.

FREE Dear White Teacher

By Chrysanthius Lathan

An African American middle school teacher calls on white teachers to think before they routinely send black children to black teachers when there is a problem.

FREE Queridos maestros blancos

Por Chrysanthius Lathan

Una maestra afroamericana de secundaria les pide a los maestros blancos que piensen antes de mandarles los niños negros a los maestros negros cada vez que tengan un problema con ellos.

Teaching the N-Word

By Michelle Kenney

A white high school teacher prepares her students to read August Wilson’s Fences by leading an exploration of the n-word.


Rocketship to Profits

By David Bacon

Rocketship Education, a rapidly expanding charter school chain, shows what happens when the rich control our schools.

“Aren’t You on the Parent Listserv?”

By Grace Cornell Gonzales

A kindergarten teacher tries to change the power imbalance between Spanish- and English-speaking parents in her classroom and school.

FREE ¿No estás registrado en la lista de correos electrónicos?

Por Grace Cornell Gonzales

Una maestra de kínder intenta cambiar el balance de poder entre los padres hispanohablantes y angloparlantes en su salón y su escuela.

FREE The Military Invasion of My High School

By Sylvia McGauley

A high school teacher describes the problematic impact of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at her school.



Restorative Justice

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

What it is and is not


The Children of Gaza

By the editors of Rethinking Schools



When Girls Are Activists

By Elizabeth Marshall

“More Than a Score” named in The Nation’s “5 Books to Build a Movement for Education Justice!”

Rethinking Schools:

Jeese Hagopian is an Editorial Associate at Rethinking Schools. Check out his latest book!

Originally posted on I AM AN EDUCATOR:

I am thrilled to announce that Kenzo Shibata, writing for the current issue of The Nation magazine, named the forthcoming book I edited, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, to the list of “5 Books to Build a Movement for Education Justice.” The book’s forward was written by Diane Ravitch, the introduction by Alfie Kohn, and the afterward by Wayne Au.

Shibata wrote in part, “More Than a Score collects narratives from teachers, parents, students, academics and elected union leaders describing the growing grassroots resistance to testing gone mad.”

Cover_MTaSI am greatly honored that our book made this list with such a wonderful collection of must read volumes in defense of public education, including, SCHOOL REFORM, CORPORATE STYLE: Chicago, 1880–2000, THIS IS NOT A TEST: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, THE TEACHER WARS: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, and…

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Guns and the Southern Freedom Struggle: What’s Missing When We Teach About Nonviolence

Morning strategy session, Greenwood. From left: John Lewis (SNCC), unidentified boy, Mateo “Flukie” Suarez (CORE), Jerome Smith (CORE), Dave Dennis (CORE). (Photo: CRMVET.org)

This country is bad with its history. Pieces of history that could help us think more clearly about today’s movements for social change are often ignored or distorted in popular media or commercial textbooks. This is especially true in the treatment of “nonviolent” resistance in the Civil Rights Movement.

We see this in how the import of the mid-20th-century civil rights struggle has been reduced. Julian Bond once succinctly and pointedly quipped that currently the public’s understanding of that struggle boils down to “Rosa sat down; Martin stood up. And then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” To state the obvious, we need to know a lot more about what took place and why if we are going to find and apply the most useful lessons of movement history to 21st-century life today.

When Dennis first met Chinn, he encountered the reality largely ignored today that guns were inescapably going to be part of his and CORE’s grassroots organizing projects, notwithstanding the organization’s founding commitment to nonviolence as a way of life. George Raymond, deeply committed to nonviolence, and who was the project director Dennis had sent there, told him that he had a problem with Chinn bringing his guns around movement activities. As a meeting at a local church got under way, Raymond asked him to step outside and talk to Chinn. “Whenever we have a meeting,” Raymond told Dennis, “C.O. Chinn sits outside with his guns. He won’t leave. He says he’s here to protect his people. Can you talk to him?” So, Dennis recalls:

I went outside to talk to him. He’s sitting in the back of his truck with a shotgun across his lap and a pistol by his side. I introduced myself, told him about CORE’s nonviolent philosophy. He listened. Then, very calmly, he told me: “This is my town and these are my people. I’m here to protect my people and even if you don’t like this I’m not going anywhere. So maybe you better leave.” I could tell he wasn’t a guy for any bull and I could tell he was there to do what he said he was going to do. I didn’t argue. I said, “Yes sir” and shook his hand, then walked back into the church thinking he’s got his job to do and I’ve got mine.

The best way to understand this Mississippi movement episode is not as a story of C. O. Chinn and his guns, but as a story of organizers and the communities they were embedding themselves in during the Freedom Movement of the 1960s. Within this organizing experience, guns in the hands of supporters sometimes existed in tension with the nonviolence usually used to define movement philosophy and practice, but that more often existed in tandem with nonviolence. In other words, something more complex was at play.

It is the complexity of the movement—so often missing—that is my chief complaint about much movement historiography—at least that found within textbooks. The story of the Freedom Movement is a story of resistance. The “non-nonviolent” Chinn was attracted to and willing to support the nonviolent CORE because he recognized and valued that it was an organization resisting white supremacy. This is more important, more fundamental, than the weapons he often carried. This was true for SNCC and even SCLC as well as CORE.

The stories that emerge from the Southern Freedom Movement introduce a set of extraordinary heroes and heroines who need to be better known: small farmers, sharecroppers, day laborers, craftsmen, entrepreneurs, and church leaders. Many of these men and women, chafing under white supremacist rule, chose to fight back. They often traveled armed and kept their homes organized for self-defense as well. Much of their story is set in rural communities and reveals an unexpected form of “black power” that was grounded in a collective determination to defeat white supremacy, manifested well before that term was popularized by Stokely Carmichael in 1966. These ordinary people were attracted to the nonviolent movement because of its militancy. The movement in turn welcomed and needed them because of their strength.

Asserting their right to defend themselves when attacked was a tradition that has safeguarded and sustained generations of black people in the United States. Yet this tradition is almost completely absent from the conventional narrative of the Southern civil rights struggle. Organized self-defense in black communities goes back to the aftermath of the Civil War. Guns were an integral part of Southern life. Although many rural blacks respected protesters’ use of nonviolence, they also mistrusted it. Hartman Turnbow, a black Mississippi farmer and community leader, was a case in point. With tragic foresight, Turnbow bluntly warned Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, “This nonviolent stuff ain’t no good. It’ll get ya killed.”

Rev. King knew the risks. In fact, after the Jan. 30, 1956, bombing of his home in Montgomery, he applied at the sheriff’s office for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. He was denied the permit, but this did not stop him from having firearms in his house. Indeed, there were few black leaders who did not seek and receive armed protection from within the black community. They needed it because both local law enforcement and the federal government refused to provide it.

To get at a real understanding of this requires a bottom-up approach to movement thinking. Such an approach does not diminish the importance of strategic and tactical decisions emanating from the various national headquarters of movement organizations, but rather, elevates the importance of ordinary people to movement struggle.

C.O. Chinn, among other things, had a small farm and sometimes bootlegged whiskey. Men and women like him did not write papers or books, were rarely seen or heard on television and radio; more often than not they were spoken for and about. But these are the voices of people who actually made change and we need to recognize that these are the voices that gave credibility and power to the movement.

Recognizing this—a history full of human richness and complexity and even contradiction—helps enable the much-needed replacement of the damaging over-simple narratives in school textbooks and classroom exchanges.

Two great lessons emerge from the experience of Chinn and others in the movement. These are essential not only for understanding movement history but also its relevance to struggle today. These lessons are:

  • As much as the movement challenged white supremacy, it was the challenges that black people made to one another within the black community that empowered the movement.
  • The most powerful forces of black struggle and change emerged from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Underlying all of this, of course, is resistance. In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were subjected to persistent violence targeting not only civil rights activists but also random acts of violence (rapes, beatings, homes burned, lynchings) that targeted the community to create a climate of fear and maintain white supremacy. Thus the fight for civil rights was also a fight for safety and security. African Americans often armed themselves for self-defense. The lives of “nonviolent” civil rights activists also depended on these armed communities for their protection. It was not either/or—violent or nonviolent—but instead a close relationship that mirrors the real complexity of most history.

Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a journalist, and the author of a number of books including This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic Books, 2014)

The Children of Gaza

This editorial is featured in our upcoming issue: Teaching in Black and White. Subscribe today!

Like millions around the world, Rethinking Schools editors have been horrified and angered by Israel’s assault on the Palestinian people of Gaza. Of the more than 2,100 Palestinians killed, the vast majority civilians, more than 500 have been children. The images of Israeli bombs destroying hospitals, homes, and schools are devastating—indiscriminate killing by weapons whose use in highly populated areas constitute war crimes, according to Human Rights Watch. This compounds the ongoing Israeli siege that has turned Gaza into an open-air prison where the Israeli military controls the entry and exit of people and goods—a collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law.

Israel says it is acting against rockets. These have led to a total of six civilian deaths in Israel—tragic but inevitable as long as Israel maintains its illegal and unjust occupation and as long as it enforces its blockade on Gaza.

As we mourn the deaths, injuries, and destruction, we want to call attention to a less noted crisis: the long-term effect on the children who survive. According to Ziad Abbas, of the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), himself a Palestinian refugee:

After this attack ends, children in Gaza who are 8 years old will have experienced three wars: 2008-9, 2012, and now 2014. They have survived, but social workers and psychologists working in Gaza say that the children have lost focus, they have insomnia, they wet their beds. Many have lost the ability to speak or to play. They live, but the Israelis have killed their childhood.

This trauma has a devastating impact on children’s ability to learn and develop. During the recent assault, half a million people were forced from their homes to seek shelter, often in local schools. There they stay, crowded maybe 100 to a room, with insufficient water and food. Then, many of the school shelters were themselves bombed. Either way, children come to associate school not with learning, but with terror and loss. In all, 141 schools were destroyed or damaged; six universities were also damaged.

As educators, parents, and activists, we have a critical responsibility to speak out against these attacks, paid for in large part with U.S. tax dollars. We can’t turn back the clock. But we can insist that Israel immediately end the seven-year siege of Gaza and respect the safety and human rights of Palestinians. We also call for an end to all U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and a just peace that can secure a future without war for the children of Gaza and all their neighbors.

“We will overcome and come back,” Abbas says. “As Palestinians we have learned to work together, teachers and parents, to protect the children and to help them see education as part of their resistance.” We invite the Rethinking Schools community to contribute in a small way to rebuilding Gaza’s schools. Since 2009, MECA’s Maia Project (maia means water in Arabic), in partnership with local organizations, has been installing low-cost water purification units in Gaza schools. The entire water system of Gaza—wretched even before the latest assault—was systematically destroyed, so the need for safe water is critical. To learn more about the Maia Project, go to mecaforpeace.org/projects/maia-project.

Girl in Gaza drinks clean water

A kindergartener in Maghazi Refugee Camp drinks clean water from a Maia Project unit installed in Dec. 2009.   Original Photo Credit: Mohammed Majdalawi

Finally, we urge educators to join together to create curriculum on Israel-Palestine that looks deeply and honestly at the roots of crisis and the prospects for peace. For our part, we will continue to work with teacher-writers who want to share their work.

Articles from the Archives:

Independence or Catastrophe? By Samia Shoman

A social studies teacher uses conflicting narratives to engage students in studying the history of Palestine/Israel, focusing on the events of 1948.

Portland to Palestine: A Student-to-Student Project Evokes Empathy and Curiosity by Ken Gadbow

U.S. students talk directly with Palestinian youth and learn what it is like to live in a war zone.

From Tucson to Palestine by Gabriel Matthew Schivone

A generation ago, students led the movement in the United States to divest from apartheid South Africa. Today, student leaders are shaking Arizona as they defend Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program.


Books About Contemporary Palestine for Children by Katharine Davies Samway

It’s difficult to find accurate books on Palestine for young readers. A former teacher educator describes resources for K-8 students, including picture books, nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.