Junior Kendall Hymes is watching history repeat itself. While she learns about the civil rights unit in her History of the Americas class, the protesters get louder and louder about the injustices African Americans still face in the United States today.
The connections between the nationwide demonstrations and what students are learning regarding Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the Freedom Rides, lunch counter sit-ins and the countless marches for equal rights are unmistakable.
“I […] thought that we made a lot of progress since the [1960s],” Hymes said. “It saddens me that there are still people who still haven’t acknowledged the fact that black people still face racism in the U.S. today.”
Social studies teacher Patricia Coppolino said exploring civil rights in a time filled with Black Lives Matter protests and racial inequality has been both challenging and humbling. But, in some ways, she said the displays of overt racism have made it easier to teach about the Civil Rights Movement.
“The legacies of slavery, segregation and continuing systemic racism in our political, economic and social systems are painful topics to discuss,” Coppolino said. “Many people don’t want to believe these are even issues any more […] The recent events […] are potent reminders that, despite the progress made during the 1950s and 1960s, we still have a lot of work to do to eradicate racism in this country.”
Though Coppolino said there is a danger with making facile comparisons, she does find similarities between the events of almost 70 years ago and now.
“The protests of the civil rights era and the current waves of protests are using [largely] nonviolent, peaceful protest to effect change,” Coppolino said. “To the extent they remain peaceful, the current protests do seem to be drawing widespread attention to issues of racism and generating sympathy for change.”
Coppolino said the message she is trying to send her students by teaching the civil rights unit amid the George Floyd protests is that the legacy of the past defines people’s identity, their choices and their future.
“History isn’t a dead thing,” Coppolino said. “It falls to all of us – but especially to [the current] generation – to address the ugly, persistent racism that continues to scar our country. I hope that by understanding where we came from, [the current] generation can chart a better path ahead for us all.”