Teaching #BlackLivesMatter

In support of the Movement for Black Lives, we share this collection of teaching ideas and resources. The Movement for Black Lives challenges the ongoing murders of African Americans by the police and the long history of institutionalized racism. This resource collection was originally published in August of 2014, after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Updated September 2016.

By Julian Hipkins III

As the new school year begins, first and foremost on our minds and in our hearts will be the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Teachers may be faced with students’ anger, frustration, sadness, confusion, and questions. Some students will wonder how this could happen in the United States. For others, unfortunately, police brutality and intimidation are all too familiar.

Here are a few ideas and resources for the classroom to help middle and high school students think critically about the events in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, North Charleston, Baltimore, Hempstead, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Tulsa, Baton Rouge, Charlotte, and across the United States and ways they can be proactive in their own communities. We welcome your additional suggestions.

Police Brutality

BPPTenPointsThe Black Panther Party’s 1966 platform, known as the ten-point program, included the demand: “#7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people, other people of color, and all oppressed people inside the United States.” The issue of police brutality in communities of color has a long history and the Panther platform gives an example of how to turn grievances into a clear set of goals for meaningful change. The lesson “‘What We Want, What We Believe’: Teaching with the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program” by Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au introduces students to this history and invites them to create their own list of demands.

Credit: Reuters.

Credit: Reuters.


History of Racism

An exploration of  U. S. history can help students understand how racism, while not natural, has always played a key role in this country (predating 1776) and how it became embedded in all of our institutions, including the criminal justice system. “The Color Line” is a lesson by Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow (available from the Zinn Education Project) on the origins of racism in the United States and who benefits. Students hopefully will see that if racism is learned and reinforced by laws, it can also be unlearned and dismantled. (Below are images of three people who dedicated their lives to exposing and challenging institutional racism: Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, and Ida B. Wells. )


International Human Rights

Upon his return from Mecca in 1964, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) stated that he wanted to bring charges against the United States for its treatment of African-Americans. He believed that it was “impossible for the United States government to solve the race problem” and the only way to get the United States to change its racist ways was to bring international pressure. He made the clear distinction between civil rights and human rights.

In an earlier example, on October 23, 1947, the NAACP sent to the U.N. a document titled “An Appeal to the World,” in which the NAACP asked the U.N. to redress human rights violations the United States committed against its African-American citizens. W. E. B. Du Bois, who drafted the NAACP petition with other leading lawyers and scholars, intended to focus attention on the U.S.’s systematic denial of human rights to its African American citizens. They presented in the petition facts about lynching, segregation, and the gross inequalities in education, housing, health care, and voting rights. DuBois stated, “It is not Russia that threatens the United States so much as Mississippi . . . [I]nternal injustice done to one’s brothers is far more dangerous than the aggression of strangers from abroad.” [Read more about this petition at the University of Chicago Library News.]

Indeed, the U.S. government is quick to condemn human rights violations in other countries, but seldom expects to be accountable to the world for actions within its own borders. A lesson by the Stanford University Liberation Curriculum Project engages students in a discussion about the human rights violations perpetrated against African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s — and can serve as a springboard for looking at human rights today.

On November 11, 2014, Michael Brown’s parents testified at a United Nations Committee Against Torture session in Geneva, Switzerland about the killing of their son. Brown’s father stated, “I would like to see the United States make a commitment to address racial discrimination in a comprehensive and coordinated manner.”

Another lesson that highlights this American exceptionalism is “Whose Terrorism?” by Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools (posted on the Zinn Education Project website).


Militarization of the Police

New Jim CrowIn The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander describes the militarization of the police, foreshadowing the heavy weaponry used by police in Ferguson. In the section titled “Waging War” in Chapter 2, Alexander states,

The transformation from “community policing” to “military policing,” began in 1981, when President Reagan persuaded Congress to pass the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which encouraged the military to give local, state, and federal police access to military bases, intelligence, research, weaponry, and other equipment for drug interdiction.

That legislation carved a huge exception to the Posse Comitatus Act, the Civil War-era law prohibiting the use of military force for policing.

Students and teachers can read this chapter to explore how many police departments “seek and destroy” in some neighborhoods while they “protect and serve” in others.


Student Fear and Resilience

Illustration by Alain Pilon. © Rethinking Schools.

One of the toughest challenges for teachers and counselors is to create a safe space for students in an unsafe world. New York teaching-artist Renee Watson used poetry to help her students deal with the very real fear for their own safety. In The Murder of Sean Bell: From Pain to Poetry (Rethinking Schools) she describes this process,

“I’m afraid that one day I’ll be shot by the cops for no reason,” a 7th-grade student blurted out in our class discussion. My teaching partner and I had asked students to call out their hopes and fears. “What do you hope for your community? What is it about your community that makes you afraid?” we asked. I wrote their answers on chart paper and by the end of the discussion, our class list included better schools, more parks, peace, and safer neighborhoods. Our list also included violence, drugs, bullying, and police brutality.

renee-watsonSix years later, Watson wrote “Happening Yesterday, Happened Tomorrow: Teaching the ongoing murders of Black men” (Rethinking Schools). The article, with a detailed description of her poetry lesson, begins,

There is a history in our country of white men killing unarmed black boys and men with little to no consequence. I taught the murders of Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo, using Willie Perdomo’s “Forty-One Bullets off Broadway” as the model poem (‘From Pain to Poetry,’ fall 2008).

But then there was Trayvon Martin, then Jordan Davis, then Michael Brown, and the list keeps growing. (Continue reading article and lesson.)


Housing Inequality

African-Americans have often been the victims of housing discrimination in Ferguson and countless other towns and cities across the country. The discrimination has occurred through laws and sometimes violence.


Tulsa, Oklahoma

This violence has a long history. For example in 1921, a mob of deputized whites looted and burned to the ground a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This included the destruction of 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and 150 businesses. By the time the terror ended, 300 African-Americans had been killed. Here is an article and lesson for high school classrooms called “Burning Tulsa: The Legacy of Black Dispossession.”

In “The Making of Ferguson,” Sherrilyn Ifill and Richard Rothstein show that government actions — such as racially explicit zoning, public housing segregation, and federal requirements for white-only suburbs systematically segregated African Americans — and set the stage for the conditions in Ferguson.

The film, The Genesis of Discriminatory Housing Policies, can be viewed online for free. It is an episode from Race – The Power of An Illusion by California Newsreel on housing inequality.

In The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses laws such as restrictive covenants in the section titled Making the Second Ghetto. The tactics used to bar African-American from communities are outlined highlighting housing discrimination in Chicago during and following World War II.


zep_resources_donateFor ongoing news and on the ground interviews, follow Democracy Now! and Colorlines.

To include the stories of women, visit the #SayHerName campaign of the African American Policy Forum.

For more teaching ideas, see the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility.

For more resources and to contribute your own, follow #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter, launched by Dr. Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown University.

6 comments on “Teaching #BlackLivesMatter

  1. Black Man on

    I wouldn’t say this is as comprehensive as i would of hoped. Black Lives Matter starts with US. This is centered too heavily on what White people have done to us, and not too much on what we are doing to ourselves. Nor any real social strategies to implement into our everyday lives, far more in the way of hoe to respond to white violence, which in my humble opinion will only ever continue, question is how are we going to prevent rather than respond.

  2. Kathryn Grace on

    Thank you for providing this article and all these resources.

    I grew up learning about slavery in a fairly abstract way, although thankfully from teachers and parents who were horrified by it. In high school, I learned, in a far more graphic way, complete with photographs I can still see in my mind’s eye on one history book page, about the shirtwaist factory fire that killed immigrant seamstresses. And there were more pictures of children working in filthy conditions in factories and mines.

    I remember, too, the photographs of the beautiful little girl being escorted into school, past crowds of jeering whites with hatred on their faces. I wondered who would protect her inside. Our teacher told us proudly that our country had finally, through the United States Supreme Court, brought justice to Black children (he would have said Negro children back then) who, he said, were not so different from us.

    Little did I know how far we had to go. In that moment, I believed America had finally stamped out discrimination, probably because that’s what my teacher told me. Nor did I know that lynchings were still fairly common in the United States, and that Black men were at risk 24-7. It boggles me that they still are, more than half a century later.

    I remember the Watts riots and asking questions about them. Martin Luther King. Malcom X, Eldredge Cleaver and Angela Davis, The Chicago Seven. One by one, they exploded into my consciousness and I read their books, trying to understand something I had never experienced.

    Never, not once, in all those years of school, from my parents and teachers, and indeed in any of the books I’ve since read about civil rights or about what life is like for anyone who is not white and middle or upper class in this country, did I learn of the horrific Tulsa massacre. I’m sixty-six years old.

    It is a travesty that this story is not taught in history classes across the land. But you know that all too well.

    Thank you, to each individual in your organization and larger network who sacrifices time, a more lucrative career, and so much energy to educate and to build peace.

    Thank you.

  3. Ana Nogueira on

    I will share this with my colleagues, thank you so much for this wonderful research. My students say thanks.

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