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Civil Rights Veterans Teach the Movement

Every January, Charles Cobb Jr. makes the 1,100-mile trek from sunny Jacksonville, Fla., to chilly Providence, R.I. For the past eight years, Cobb — a veteran of the civil rights movement who in the 1960s served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in Mississippi — becomes a visiting professor of Africana studies at Brown University.

There, he teaches a popular course that he designed called “The Organizing Tradition of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.” Students enrolled in the course read a half-dozen books focused on SNCC, and Cobb brings in his life experience and many of his friends — all of whom are prominently referenced in the books that his students read — to provide details of the movement.

“It’s fun,” says Cobb, who began a career as a journalist in 1974 and has written two books focusing on the civil rights movement. “I make them write a lot because I am a journalist, but in some ways what I do in the classroom is what we tried to do in the South — get people to engage in conversations.”

Cobb is one of a handful of civil rights activists from the 1960s who have successfully made the transition to academia, helping students who were born in a different era understand how the freedom struggle transformed America.

In the years after the civil rights movement, a few colleges and universities hired activists. The University of Massachusetts- Amherst hired SNCC member Ekwueme Michael Thelwell in 1970 as founding chairman of its W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. The school recruited John H. Bracey Jr. — active in civil rights, Black liberation and other social justice movements in Chicago — to the department two years later.

Dr. Angela Davis, a former Black Panther, recently retired from her teaching post in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Kathleen Cleaver, who also was a member of the Black Panther Party, teaches law at Emory University. Dr. Joyce Ladner, a renowned sociologist and the first woman president of Howard University, was a member of SNCC. She and her sister Dorie organized protests in Mississippi alongside Medgar Evers and were jailed for their activism.

Still, most colleges have been slow in luring veteran activists to their campuses, outside the occasional speaking engagement during Black History Month. Cobb and a handful of his former SNCC comrades want to change that. They argue that as these ’60s activists continue to age, the time is ripe for schools — particularly Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs — to move quickly to find a way to introduce them to a younger generation. They have developed a proposal aimed at encouraging schools to hire these veteran activists for short-term teaching gigs.

Filling a Void

The proposal comes in the wake of an alarming report released last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center that points out that most graduating high school students know little about the civil rights movement as they enter college. According to the report, only 2 percent of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history. Generally speaking, the farther away from the South — and the smaller the African-American population — the less attention paid to the civil rights movement. Sixteen states do not require any instruction whatsoever about the movement. In another 19, coverage is minimal. In almost all states, there is tremendous room for improvement,” the report notes. 

Julian Bond, who headed the NAACP board of directors from 1998 to 2010 and is now chairman emeritus, is a distinguished scholar in the School of Government at American University in Washington, D.C., and a professor in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. He says that most of his students are ignorant about the movement before entering his class. 

“My students are often outraged to learn that they have never been taught about events in their own hometowns,” says Bond, who also has taught at Harvard, Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania and Williams College. “The civil rights movement is given short-shrift in the educational standards that guide what students learn.” He points out that many students enter his classroom with the “American civil rights narrative,” which generally includes a basic knowledge of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

“The movement is much more complex and broader,” says Bond. “There were many, many, many more people involved in the civil rights movement than Martin Luther King.”

The attraction to higher education came naturally for Bond, whose father, Dr. Horace Mann Bond, was an influential educator who became the first African-American president of Lincoln University in 1945. Based in Chester County, Pa.,

Lincoln was one of the first HBCUs to award a degree. Even though he is the only full-time faculty member in the Department of History at the University of Virginia who does not hold a Ph.D., Bond, who teaches a course on the history of the civil rights movement, says that despite lacking a terminal degree, “I hold my own” in the classroom.

Some colleges and universities recently have recognized the importance of having civil rights activists on their campuses. For example, Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies announced last year that Robert P. Moses, who worked with Cobb in Mississippi as a field secretary for SNCC, was spending the academic year as a distinguished visiting fellow.

Moses, who joined the burgeoning sit-in movement as a field secretary for SNCC in the summer of 1961, initiated the coordinating committee’s Mississippi Voter Registration Project that summer and was appointed its director in 1962. Along with Medgar Evers, David Dennis and Aaron Henry, Moses revitalized and led the Council of Federated Organizations into the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project.

That project, known as Freedom Summer, parachuted the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., where Fannie Lou Hamer led the insurgency that eliminated Jim Crow from the National Democratic Party.

Moses is conducting scholarly research and co-teaching a course with history professor Tera Hunter. The course focuses on education and labor policies through the lens of race. He received an honorary doctorate from Princeton in 2004 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1982 that was used to create the Algebra Project, a foundation devoted to improving minority education in math.

“We are delighted to be privileged to have such a historical figure walking among our students, teaching our students and teaching us,” says Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., William S. Tod professor of religion and African-American studies and chairman of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton.

“We want to give him the space and room to think about his work with the Algebra Project,” says Glaude, adding that Moses also will spend his year hosting activities that continue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of SNCC.

The tradition of civil rights lawyers moving between practicing and teaching is nothing new. For example, Charles Hamilton Houston, dean of Howard University’s law school, taught and worked for advocacy organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Others such as Theodore Shaw, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, have followed Houston’s example; Shaw teaches at Columbia University as a professor of professional practice.

John Brittain, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia and the former dean of the Thurgood Marshall Law School at Texas Southern University, worked in Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s as a civil rights and public interest attorney.

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