LESSON

A Living History

Students can make a pledge to help end continued racism.
Grade Level

Back in 1926 when Dr. Carter G. Woodson established a week-long celebration of the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States, he probably never envisioned just how his idea would take root and blossom. Today, Americans of all ethnicities formally recognize the entire month of February as a time to honor the bountiful legacy of Black history. In addition, similar month-long observances now honor a broad array of ethnic and other groups.

If you are highlighting African American history during February, or have plans to incorporate the subject in your curriculum throughout the year, why not take the moment to remember that history occurs on a continuum?

Though many people are wont to believe that the Civil Rights Movement -- certainly a watershed period in the nation's evolution -- and the consequent signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought an end to the systematic disfranchisement of African Americans, it did not.

In 1999, many African Americans still fight to acquire equal treatment under the law, and, as they do so, they and those who stand with or against them continue to make history urgent and real. By learning about the integral role the city of Birmingham, Ala., has played in the African American struggle for equity, you and your students can simultaneously glean an understanding of the Black experience in America and take action to become a part of that living history.

 

A commitment to change: A city seeks to heal its history of racial violence

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s thrust Birmingham, Ala., into the national spotlight as a scene of bitter racial conflict. Photographs of Dr. King behind bars, of the bombed-out Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and of firehoses and police dogs set upon peaceful marchers remain icons of the period, indelibly linking Birmingham with hate.

The image -- and the reality -- of racist violence on their city streets confronted Birmingham residents with a complicated crisis. For Black citizens, the dream of participating in democracy was on the line. In the view of many Whites, including most city officials, an old and cherished concentration of power was in jeopardy. Some Whites actively supported the African American community's appeal for justice. But for one group -- downtown merchants -- the moral and political tensions presented an economic emergency, as well: Shoppers' fears had left the city's commercial district a ghost town.

Early efforts at renewing downtown Birmingham played primarily on this economic angle, but a few business leaders recognized the need to heal old wounds that recent events had opened. After years of working behind the scenes, and with the strong urging of Black leaders, the group "went public" in 1969 to establish the biracial Community Affairs Committee (CAC), under the sponsorship of an older organization called Operation New Birmingham.

Now in its 30th year, the CAC -- comprising business, civic and religious leaders -- meets every Monday morning at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to discuss community concerns and to develop concrete ways of bringing the races together. The group's latest project is the Birmingham Pledge.

A Groundswell of Support

Since its introduction at the city's annual Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast in January 1998, the Pledge has gathered thousands of signatures in Birmingham, as well as across the U.S. and around the world. President and Mrs. Clinton and numerous other dignitaries are among the signers. The participation of young people is especially critical in the effort to stamp out racial prejudice and discord, and the Pledge sponsors have been impressed with the commitment exhibited by students who choose to add their name.

By signing the Birmingham Pledge , keeping a copy for yourself and mailing the original to the CAC, you can join a national campaign that began as a simple vision of hope for one community. CAC encourages teachers, students, parents and others to make copies of the Pledge and distribute it wherever they deem appropriate. Signed Pledges returned to the CAC will appear in a registry at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Should you have questions about the Birmingham Pledge or would like to sponsor your own Pledge drive, call (205) 324-8797 for more information.

To enrich your Pledge initiative and learn more about the struggle of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, have students read Dr. King's 1963 "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." If possible, consider recording as a podcast or video. For examples, click here to listen to the entire letter and watch others recount their reactions to this powerful defense of civil rights activism. Prompt discussion with the following questions:

  • To whom is Dr. King writing the letter and why?
  • What does he identify as the four steps of any nonviolent campaign?
  • Why did the organizers of the Birmingham campaign choose the Easter season for their protest?
  • What did Dr. King mean when he wrote that "there are two types of laws"?
  • What personal disappointments does the letter describe?
  • Identify the following individuals: Mr. Connor, Rev. Shuttlesworth, James Meredith.
  • Whom does Dr. King consider the "real heroes" of the South?
  • What challenges does the letter offer to young people today?

See this related lesson.