“That’s the problem with Black Lives Matter! We need a strong leader like Martin Luther King!” Tyriq shouted as I wrote King’s name on the board.
I started my unit on the Civil Rights Movement by asking my high school students to list every person or organization they knew was involved. They replied with several familiar names: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Emmett Till. Occasionally a student knew an organization: the NAACP or the Black Panther Party.
“Has anyone ever heard of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee?” I asked while writing the acronym on the board.
“S-N-C-C?” students sounded out as my black Expo marker moved across the whiteboard.
“Have you ever heard of the sit-ins?” I prodded.
“Yeah, weren’t they in Alabama?” Matt answered.
“No, Mississippi! Four students sat down at a lunch counter, right?” Kadiatou proudly declared.
This is usually the extent of my students’ prior knowledge of SNCC, one of the organizations most responsible for pushing the Civil Rights Movement forward. Without the history of SNCC at their disposal, students think of the Civil Rights Movement as one that was dominated by charismatic leaders and not one that involved thousands of young people like themselves. Learning the history of how young students risked their lives to build a multigenerational movement against racism and for political and economic power allows students to draw new conclusions about the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement and how to apply them to today.
Adam Sanchez (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. He is an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and a Zinn Education Project teacher leader with a focus on the Teach Reconstruction campaign.