“This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement”: History education and Black Lives Matter


How does high school US history education shape people’s expectations on activism in America? History oftentimes appear as a simple retelling of events from the past, but there are certain characteristics of education system that influence how students learn about the past. In the case of the Civil Rights movement, these factors shape perceptions of activism. The first relates to the overtly nationalistic nature of our educational system while the second characteristic deals with the narrative format of history writing favored by historians. These two characteristics of US history education work together to create a watered down, simplistic, and ultimately unrealistic portrayal of the actual movement. By analyzing history textbooks and utilizing popular media sources, I argue you that Civil Rights education’s nationalistic tendencies and narrative approach to storytelling have created expectations for Black Lives Matters.

The first part of my argument focuses on how history education tends to both champion American values and incorporate differences into a larger story of America’s principles. I will conduct a literary analysis focusing on those two issues. Specifically, I will analyze if textbooks frame the Civil Rights as a reaffirmation of American values and how they portray the US government and US citizen. Throughout the analysis, I will support my claim about the expectations these nationalistic influences have created for Black Lives Matters by highlighting popular media sources. The second part of my argument explores the narrative form of history with the goal of highlighting the events and actors textbooks leave out and their treatment in the text. I detail the timelines, events, and actors mentioned in these texts. Then, I explain the implications of these choices by focusing on the idea “politics of respectability” that textbooks develop by their sustained focus on MLK and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and treatment of the Black Panthers. I will use excerpts from videos and articles to support these claims.

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