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The Hidden History of Teacher Advocacy in the Civil Rights Movement

There has been a resurgence of both teacher activism and attention to the unfinished challenges of desegregation in recent years. In the latest installment of AdvocacyLabs interviews with leading scholars of the advocacy landscape, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee talks with Tondra Loder-Jackson, a professor of Educational Foundations in the School of Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is the author of Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.

Porter Magee: You are one of the leading voices on the role of teachers in the civil rights movement. What was it about that topic that drew you in?

Loder-Jackson: Growing up in Birmingham, you're influenced by the history of the civil rights movement because it is so central to the city’s history, and that history is all around you. So that was certainly part of it. But I’m also an educator. I have spent a lot of time with educators. I’ve watched them advocate on behalf of their students. So I'm just aware that on a regular basis, there's a lot that teachers are doing behind the scenes.

And as I read more civil rights history, I kept seeing this curious phrase: “Teachers were not involved in the movement.” And I said to myself, “There has to be more to this than meets the eye.” Any categorical statement that a whole group is not involved is always going to raise my eyebrows.

Where did the notion that teachers were not advocates in the civil rights movement come from?

There is some truth to the idea that teachers were not involved in some of the most visible direct-action tactics, which is what we’ve come to think of as the civil rights movement: marching in the streets, sit-ins, going to jail. It is true that a number of teachers would not have wanted to be publicly identified in that way. But if we broaden the definition of civil rights participation to include not only direct action, but the support work for that direct action, what I found in my research is that teachers were often very involved.

For example, one of the educators I interviewed said that when he was a student in Selma, he remembered his teachers preparing sandwiches and other meals for civil rights workers. Some of the teachers who I have interviewed mention that when civil rights leaders came to town, they would go pick them up if they came in at the airport. All of those support services make a movement possible, but are largely ignored in the traditional histories of the period.

What other ways did teachers support the movement?

In the classroom, teachers would act as if they didn't know their students were leaving when they participated in 1963 Children’s March, when by law they were supposed to make sure students were there and report them as absent. And students were supposed to be suspended or expelled for absenteeism, but there were many teachers who found ways to avoid doing that.

The 1963 Children’s March had enormous levels of participation from students, and if you step back and you think about it, that just really couldn't work without support from teachers. Again and again that is what I found in my research for my book Schoolhouse Activists.

One male teacher I interviewed told the story of finding a few students left in his classroom and he asked them directly, “Why are you still here? You're supposed to be out there marching for your rights.”

But of course, they didn’t write any of this down. So if you’re looking at the agendas of teachers' meetings—especially black teachers associations meetings—they were not going to put on paper that they were going to be talking about voter registration or supporting a walk out. That’s why we have to rely on oral histories.

And that seems particularly true in your work to uncover the role African American teachers play in the South during the first wave of school desegregation.

Yes. The big question that is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s is: How do you really go about integrating a school? We can talk about policy, but it’s experienced and carried out at the human level.

And when you interview the teachers involved you realize how powerful and challenging it was to be a black teacher in these newly integrated classrooms. One of the examples in my book is of a white boy who was learning one thing about race in his home but then seeing a very kind black teacher who isn’t anything like what he had been taught. And that child is trying to put this all together: “Well, you don't seem to be this bad person that my parents have been talking about.” And then the child blurts out these revelations, “Well, my parents are in the Klan and they wear sheets and so forth.” And perhaps not even fully understanding what that must sound like to his black teacher.

And the cost of integration was born disproportionately by black teachers.

That’s right. In my interviews I heard a refrain of regret that the way integration unfolded put all the burden on black teachers (and black students and their families). High-performing black teachers would often find themselves demoted when they were moved into the white schools. Reportedly, the lowest performing white teachers were sometimes reassigned to the black schools.

Black teachers lost power as important black institutions within education were dismantled, including not only successful black schools but also the black teachers associations. After Brown v Board of Education you saw those dissolve, and the black teachers associations became part of the National Education Association. A lot of black teachers felt we hadn’t really thought about what the consequences of integration could be.

Your research has helped uncover the ways that teachers were active in the civil rights movement. They were also active in the push for collective bargaining in public education in the 1960s and 1970s. Now we are seeing a resurgence of teacher activism. What advice would you give to a young teacher who's thinking about stepping forward to be an advocate?

It is fascinating to start seeing teachers mobilizing themselves today, and in many instances outside of teachers unions. In some of the states, the teachers union was not really present or certainly not very powerful in the protests of the past couple of years. So that kind of mobilization is very impressive. While obviously issues like teacher pay are part of it, it is also driven by a larger desire to speak out for their students.

What I tell my students when that say they want to be an advocate for their students is that number one, you do need to examine yourself, your motives for doing this. It's important to be self-reflective, particularly for teachers who don’t look like the students they are serving. So I tell them to try to work through some of their own issues around race and gender.

The second thing that I say is that they need to take some time to research and learn about other teachers who’ve come before them, who’ve done what they want to do. Try not to be ahistorical and act like you are the beginning of all of this. You are a part of a continuum. You are at one place in history. It gives you some humility to understand what they’ve done and to learn about their strategies, what worked and what didn’t, and then realize what won’t fit during your contemporary time.

Third, I tell them you cannot work in isolation. Any teacher who has been successful with any movement was part of a larger group of teachers working together.