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Black Teachers’ Resistance to Segregation 60 Years Ago Offers Lessons for Today’s Teachers
Being from Birmingham, Alabama, Tondra Loder-Jackson draws inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. She is particularly moved by the 1,000-plus Black children who participated in the Children’s Crusade on May 2, 1963, walking out of school in Birmingham to protest against Jim Crow segregation.(source)
However, Loder-Jackson had one burning question: Where were the Black teachers?(source)
Having become a professor of educational foundations at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Loder-Jackson embarked on a quest to find the answer. In her book titled “Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement” (2016) and her co-edited book “Schooling the Movement: The Activism of Southern Black Educators from Reconstruction Through the Civil Rights Era” (2023)(source), she dispels the false narrative that Black teachers were reluctant to join the movement or actively opposed it. In fact, she reveals that many Black teachers risked their livelihoods and even their lives to silently organize and support the movement through their scholarly work, teaching, and collaboration with external organizations.(source)
Loder-Jackson recently discussed her findings and the lessons that teachers in states like Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida, where race-related teaching is being restricted, can learn from the schoolhouse activists of the 1960s. The goal is to resist attempts to whitewash Black history that are now being sanctioned by the states.(source)
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What compelled you to examine the role of Black educators in the Civil Rights Movement?
I noticed that this specific aspect of history had been largely overlooked. While some scholars began unearthing archival data and sharing new stories several decades ago, I didn’t know of any researchers in Birmingham who were focused on educators. In fact, I discovered a false narrative that portrayed Black teachers and principals in Birmingham as generally apathetic toward the movement. There is even a story of a Black principal who reportedly stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent students from participating in the Children’s Crusade in 1963.(source)
Why is it crucial to correct this narrative about Black teachers’ involvement in the movement at this particular time?
Disproving the false narrative that Black teachers in Birmingham, as well as throughout the southern region, were not active participants in the Civil Rights Movement is essential. By doing so, we ensure that today’s teachers have a complete understanding of the level of activism displayed by their predecessors. Many Black teachers and administrators, operating discreetly, contributed to the Alabama movement in ways aligned with their professional practices. They formed Black teachers associations and actively engaged with the Alabama State Teachers Association, NAACP, Alabama Christian Association, and other civil rights organizations. It is vital for all educators, regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality, to acknowledge the crucial role educators played in voting rights and various other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement.(source)
What was the most unexpected discovery you made?
I was taken aback by the existence of this underground network of Black educators and their collective efforts to fight for civil rights. They played an instrumental role in compiling reports documenting racial discrimination, advocating for voting rights, organizing Black history programs, and strategizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These educators truly fought for civil rights as a united front. While it is true that some teachers didn’t feel comfortable engaging in protests, many blended in with the crowds during mass meetings, which were a core activity of the movement. I have personally interviewed teachers who attended every single meeting.(source)
Did you anticipate that, 60 years after the Children’s Crusade, states like Tennessee and Florida would enact laws that hinder teachers from discussing the crusade and the role played by Black teachers?
History seems to repeat itself in cycles. We experienced a backlash against multiculturalism in the 1980s, but things subsided somewhat. However, the current backlash appears particularly intense. Perhaps the election of the first Black president for two terms, the pandemic leading to virtual classrooms with parents closely monitoring their children, and the George Floyd protests all contributed to this current situation.(source)
What concerns you the most about these laws and their potential consequences?
I am deeply troubled by the attacks against civic education. This educational space is where students are meant to learn how a democracy should function. One teacher I interviewed highlighted the importance of helping students understand why they were participating in street marches during the movement. She would utilize her civics lessons to establish a connection between their actions and the underlying principles. Therefore, teachers play a pivotal role in laying the intellectual foundations for any social movement. In the South, especially, Black teachers had a significant impact in this regard.(source)
What can educators in states where teaching about race is restricted learn from Black teachers in Birmingham who found ways to resist unjust laws without jeopardizing their jobs or lives?
Nowadays, it is essential that we avoid educational gaps and any constraints on teachers’ ability to authentically and faithfully teach social studies. Therefore, the lessons today’s teachers can learn from their predecessors involve organizing at local, state, and even national and international levels, going beyond conventional unions. Many professional associations and informal coalitions are emerging. For instance, in Birmingham, I am part of a grassroots organization called the Coalition for True History, comprising educators, civic leaders, and community members. Our mission is to advocate for rigorous, authentic, and critical approaches to teaching history. We have sought assistance from organizations such as the NAACP to interpret legal leeways for teaching about race. Teachers must stand in solidarity. This model has proven effective in the past, based on my research and scholarship.(source)