Student-selected and student-run current events discussions are a daily ingredient of my high school social studies classes. The first 20 minutes of every 90-minute class period, we read an excerpt from a recent newspaper article and discuss its significance. In the last few years, the discussions have been dominated by names that have piled up with sickening frequency: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland. My students, mostly Asian American and white, live in Lake Oswego, one of the wealthiest cities in Oregon and a community that benefits from mostly positive relationships with police. They struggle to understand a society that continues to allow Black lives to die at the hands of law enforcement.
This year, student attention has turned to how activists are responding to the racism in the criminal justice system, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. In November 2015, a student brought in an Oregonian article, “Black Lives Matter: Oregon Justice Department Searched Social Media Hashtags.” The article detailed the department’s digital surveillance of people solely on the basis of their use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. My students thoughtfully discussed and debated whether tying #BlackLivesMatter to potential threats to police (the premise of the surveillance program) was justifiable, with most students agreeing with the Urban League and the American Civil Liberties Union that the U.S. Department of Justice acted improperly and potentially unlawfully.
But what was not noted in the Oregonian article was the historical resonance of this story, which recalls the ugly, often illegal, treatment of Black activists by the U.S. justice system during an earlier era of our history.
My students had little way of knowing about this story behind the story because mainstream textbooks almost entirely ignore COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program of the 1960s and ’70s that targeted a wide range of activists, including the Black freedom movement.
COINTELPRO offers me, as a teacher of classes on government, a treasure trove of opportunities to illustrate key concepts, including the rule of law, civil liberties, social protest, and due process, yet it is completely absent from my school’s government book, Magruder’s American Government (Pearson).
The Zinn Education Project’s COINTELPRO lesson plan made for a remarkable class session. I used the lesson as a capstone to a Civil Rights/Black Power unit.
While the underlying background sometimes astounded students, it was being able to see the historical narrative grounded in primary source documentation — to see a story that might seem beyond belief for some of them — that really inspired them to pay closer attention to their work.
They dug into and debated every paragraph of every document! It was an energy boost, new fuel for their thinking and communicating, for the remainder of the semester.
This site is an essential tool when trying to untangle the complex history of race in America.
No matter what, the lessons that seem to shock my students the most center on the Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. Even though I’m providing the materials to students, they still come up to me aghast and say, “Did you know about this?” The demonization still present when speaking about the Black Panther Party in this country is astounding. Even students who grew up in predominately black communities have only learned about the black freedom movement as one of violence and hatred. When they learn of the murder of Fred Hampton, there is nearly palpable anger.
The last time I taught with these materials, I had a student who almost never did his work. He was trying to graduate and had to do one final project and chose this time period. When he realized no one had taught him this history in his 12 years of school, he was astounded. He put in more effort on that project than any of the 60 other students with similar projects. The idea that he had been manipulated and taught to hate people who were trying to help their own community resonated as a reflection of what is happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and the classification of that group as a hate group.
As a teacher of African American history, my class generally centers on how the shaping of narratives changes the way that history is interpreted. Students come to my class used to talking about slavery and black struggle, but also having a limited understanding of the overall scope of the African American experience. They presume history goes like this: Slavery was bad, then it ended, things got a little better but not enough, so MLK came along and everything was good, until some people turned their back on his peaceful mission and ruined it for everyone. This is the traditional narrative that I get when I ask students to write out what they know about black history.
Once we start to delve into the stories, the students start to see how much manipulation is built into the U.S. education system.
I was incredibly impressed with the materials presented during a workshop on the Civil Rights Movement and a COINTELPRO lesson by the Zinn Education Project during the NCSS conference in 2018. Since then, I have used facets of that specific lesson, such as the sources on the Black Panthers, in class to spark discussions with my students.
I was so happy I discovered both the Zinn Education Project and this lesson, in particular. It provides a different lens that I had not previously given to my class, regarding the Black Panthers. The lesson as a whole allows for links to current events and issues in today’s society as well.
This lesson was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Rethinking Schools magazine.
It is included in the Rethinking Schools publication Teaching for Black Lives.
Find related teaching resources below. In addition, find graphic art about COINTELPRO by illustrator Stacey Uy by clicking the image above.