A new year has began. I look around me in my Civil Procedure class, and of the 60 or so students, I am one of four black people. Not a bad number, you might think. But I know better. Just because they are black, doesn’t mean we’re fighting the same battle. I’m just sayin.’ I don’t know them, so I assume I’m fighting alone until experience tells me otherwise.
The class begins with a discussion of Walker v. City of Birmingham, decided by the Supreme Court in 1967. Already my stomach is sinking. Anything about Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s is not really something I want to talk about on the first day. Not when I’m surrounded by fresh-out-of-undergrad-white-folks-who-have-never-paid-a-bill-and-really-believe-they-are-here-based-on-their-own-“merit”. Shit.
But in it we go. Short law lesson: The case is about Walker et al, with the et. al. including MLK Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, appealing a decision by a lower Alabama court. The city had an ordinance on the books that gave it broad discretion in who to issue a permit to. Bull Connor refused them a permit to march twice during the Easter weekend in 1963. They started small protests anyway, so the city got a judge to issue an injunction – an order that said they were not allowed to march or protest in any way. Now the ordinance was pretty unconstitutional, and the injunction just mimicked what the ordinance said. But the ordinance is a statute, and the injunction is an order of the court.
The men marched anyway. Bull Connor and his police arrested them and jailed them, of course. Then the city filed a motion for contempt of court, because the men violated the injunction. And that’s the issue that went to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court upheld the contempt order. You cannot violate an injunction, no matter how unconstitutional it is, out of respect for the “rule of law.” You must challenge the injunction, in front of the court who ordered it, before you violate it.
Fine. I love legal analysis. Of course, there are reasons to agree with the court’s ruling, and reasons to disagree. There were dissenting opinions.
What gave me pause in this class was that after we’d discussed the case, the professor decides that we all need to understand the “context” of the case. Generally, I’m all for that. I’m a sociologist; I believe context is paramount all the time. But when you are the 1/4 black contingent, and suddenly huge powerpoint photos of black people, black children being hosed, attacked by dogs, beaten with billy clubs, and inhumanely jailed, you wonder if “context” is really the right word.
The next slide put up is Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in that Birmingham jail, writing his Birmingham letter, and the professor asks the class, what would you have done in this man’s situation, and then adds on quickly, well, of course this is a trick question because these images being projected into living rooms across America is what led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And everyone laughs.
But to me, what made it a trick question was the fact that these people would have never been in MLK’s position, never in his position to put black children on the street because all the black adults were in jail, never in MLK’s position to break the law in homage to justice over order, never in MLK’s position to stare down water hoses and dogs because their skin color would never have been black. It is not a hypothetical they have to truly contend with.
But for me, and the millions of students that go into classrooms this year, the hypothetical feels real. A girlfriend of mine told me a story of her six-year-old who was taught about segregation and MLK in his first grade classroom. This mother is very light-skinned, and her child brown-skinned. After the lesson at school, the child came home and told his mother that if things ever “went back,” he’d have to leave her. He might also have to “fight, like MLK did.” Why? Because the teacher didn’t take any account of the fact that in teaching this “lesson,” the only black child in the classroom might take it literally, and not place it in its historical context.
In other lessons, this teacher, attempting to be “historically correct, not politically correct” had black children act out being slaves on a field trip to a plantation while white children looked on. This teacher bound the hands of two black girls in a lesson about slavery order to make it more lively. Another teacher had black children create fugitive slave posters of themselves.*
While black parents have fought hard to have “our” stories told in schools, something has gone horribly wrong in implementation. Has your child been the recipient of this psychological attack disguised as a history lesson? What is the alternative for teaching all children about the sordid legacy of oppression in this country without making the historically oppressed relive their oppression?