Changing the Narrative About Selma

Selma by Matt HerronThanks to support from our donors and advisers, we’ve been able to provide vital background information and lessons for schools on the bottom up history of the voting rights struggle. Here is a brief overview.

On this 50th anniversary year of the Voting Rights Act, the mainstream media features images of President Lyndon Johnson making history with the stroke of a pen. Hidden is the more pivotal role of brave people such as the child in the photo,  about to be arrested in Selma as he demands voting rights for all.

Through our widely read article, The Selma Voting Rights Struggle: 15 Key Points from Bottom-Up History and Why It Matters Today by Emilye Crosby, we are pleased to have played a key role in uplifting the role of students, teachers, and other community members. The article also highlights the role of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the connection to labor struggles, and the fact that the movement in Selma dates back to the 1930s, long before the iconic leaders came to town.

Amelia Boynton Robinson as a teen in the 1920s. Courtesy of Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson.

Amelia Boynton Robinson as a teen in the 1920s. Courtesy of Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson.

In preparing the article, we found that there were no online entries for key people and groups in the grassroots history of Selma. No wonder the narrative of LBJ and Dr. King permeates the media—the more complete and complex history was not online.

For example, there were references to the Dallas County Voters League in online articles about Selma, but not one dedicated entry. This is the group that had been organizing in Selma since the 1930s and, along with SNCC, invited Dr. King to Selma. To fill this gap, Crosby found an informative doctoral dissertation and Teaching for Change secured permission to reprint an excerpt so that we could create a Dallas County Voters League post online.

Likewise, there were lots of online profiles of Bernard Lafayette, but not one profile of Colia Lafayette who was often simply referred to as his wife. Read the profile we created for Colia Liddell Lafayette Clark and you’ll learn that she played a pivotal role in Selma.

People were hungry for this deeper narrative. The Selma Voting Rights Struggle: 15 Key Points from Bottom-Up History and Why It Matters Today quickly became the most widely read text on the grassroots history of the voting rights struggle. It was widely circulated on social media and read by hundreds of thousands of people.

A shorter version was published on Common DreamsHuffington PostSan Diego Free PressSan Francisco Bay View, and more. Most Common Dreams articles are shared a few hundred times at best—this article has been shared 22,000 times on Common Dreams, let alone all the other media outlets.

Noted historians including Robin Kelley, Barbara Ransby, and Clayborne Carson tweeted the article — along with hundreds of school districts, civil rights organizations, and youth groups.

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Jubilee bookletJames Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, wrote:

This article is the best thing I have read about Selma, the voting rights act, or even the Civil Rights Movement itself.  It should be required reading for everyone who sees the movie Selma.

We are honored that the article is the lead entry in the official Selma-to-Montgomery Bridge Crossing Jubilee commemorative booklet.

To help teachers bring the grassroots history to the classroom, we developed a lesson called Stepping into Selma and a dedicated web page of recommended resources TeachAboutSelma.org. Our staff prepared the lesson with the help of historians and veterans who donated their time and wisdom.

The lesson is being used by teachers as a pre-film viewing activity for the feature film Selma and Teaching Tolerance’s Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot. Both films are available for free to schools across the country, so our companion lesson is all the more vital.

Kosciusko, Mississippi teacher  Jessica Dickens said her students loved how the lesson helped them step into the shoes of activists in Selma:

With the movement in Selma being started mainly by teenagers their own age, it was made more relevant to them. Also, understanding how the government failed to protect the citizens of Selma, we were also able to make connections to events today, such as Ferguson.

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Kosciusko students in roles of Malcolm X and James Orange.

White Oak Middle School (in Montgomery County, Maryland) used the lesson with 400 middle school students to prepare them for the film.

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With your help, we can reach many more classrooms across the country.

Posted Thursday, May 14, 2015 |

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