Lesson

After Charlottesville: Contested History and the Fight Against Bigotry

Essential Questions

  • Why do some symbols from the past provoke such strong feelings in individuals and communities?
  • How do our beliefs about the past influence our choices in the present?
  • Why does it matter how we understand the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction?

Overview

American history, especially the public memory of the Civil War, has played a central role in the debates following the episodes of racism, antisemitism, and violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and 12. These debates are not new.

Beliefs about the history of race, slavery, and the Civil War and Reconstruction are deeply held in the United States, whether or not they are consistent with the evidence presented by historians specializing in these topics. These histories have had a powerful influence on American politics since the Civil War, and beliefs about the past have inspired acts of terror and violence, as well as individual participation and social movements dedicated to justice, equality, and democracy.

The conflict over the public memory of the Civil War in the United States raises profound questions about the relationship between history and the possibility of democracy, and about how our memory of the past influences our choices and beliefs in the present. This lesson invites students to think deeply about these questions by examining responses to a 2015 incident of violence and terror—when a white supremacist murdered nine African American worshipers in a South Carolina church. While recent debates have focused on the appropriateness of monuments to Confederate generals and politicians in our public spaces, the debate in 2015 centered on the meaning of another powerful symbol from the Civil War era: the Confederate battle flag.

Because the violence and bigotry we witnessed in Charlottesville can leave many students feeling raw and confused, teachers should be thoughtful about when they use this lesson. Some may decide that their students are ready to have a discussion based on reactions to previous discussions. Other may use this lesson later in the year, after student have processed the details of Charlottesville.

Materials

Activities

  1. Establish a Safe Community

    The resources in this lesson probe themes about race, racism, and history that feel deeply personal to many people. Therefore, it is important to begin the lesson by preparing students to engage honestly, but civilly and respectfully, with these topics. The following activities are designed to create a safe space for dialogue throughout the lesson.

    • Start with a journal prompt: Tell students that the following writing exercise is a private journal entry that they will not be asked to share with anyone, so they should feel free to write their most honest reflection. Have students take several minutes to complete this sentence: “I mostly feel ____________ when discussing race, because _________.”
    • Now that students have gathered their thoughts, tell them you are going to do a group brainstorm. They should not make “I” statements or share how they feel or what they wrote. Tell students: Let’s put words on the board that represent the feelings that we think may be in the room when we discuss race. At this point, we will just list and not comment on them.
    • Now look at the list. Ask students:
      • What do the words have in common? (The words are usually mostly, but maybe not all, negative.) What else do you notice? (The words are not just surface observations; they are deeply personal feelings.) Do you have any other important reflections? (The words represent a wide and varied range of responses.) Which of these feelings are most valid? (They are all valid. You may want to acknowledge that this is a rhetorical question, but it is important to validate everyone’s feelings.) Where do these feelings come from? (Personal experiences, stereotypes, etc.)
    • It’s important for teachers and students to acknowledge that these feelings are in the room and that they need not be afraid of them. Each person should be allowed to enter this conversation wherever he or she is without being judged or shut down. Everyone needs to feel free to participate without fear of being called racist or given any other label.
    • It is also essential for students to understand that racial epithets and other dehumanizing or violent language are unacceptable and will not be permitted in the classroom. It is the teacher’s responsibility to respond immediately to any use of such language with consequences that are appropriate within the context of the school and make clear to all students that offensive language is unacceptable.
    • Follow this discussion with the short video How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist by New York City hip-hop DJ and blogger Jay Smooth. Give students an opportunity to discuss their responses, in pairs or as a group. Ask:
      • What does Smooth mean by the “what they did” conversation? How is that different from the “what they are” conversation?
      • Do you agree with what Smooth suggests when he says people should focus on “what they did” versus “what they are”? How is the difference important?
      • What is the difference between intent and impact? When discussing race and other sensitive issues, is it useful to distinguish between the two?
    • Next create a classroom contract. Acknowledging that these complicated feelings are in the room and considering what Jay Smooth said, ask students: What do we as a community of learners need from each other to have a safe yet courageous conversation about race in this lesson? You can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past. Make sure that the contract is clear that offensive, dehumanizing, and violent language is unacceptable.
  2. Consider the Power of Symbols of History

    Begin a discussion with students about the complex role that symbols, like flags and monuments, play in representing a society’s past. Their meaning comes from not only the historical figures and periods that they commemorate, but also, and perhaps more directly, from the political debates, social movements, and values of the times when they were erected and when they are viewed.

    • You might share with students the fact that most Confederate monuments in the United States were erected not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but decades later as white supremacists in former Confederate states constructed and defended the legally segregated society of the Jim Crow South. (The Southern Poverty Law Center created this timeline Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy showing when monuments to the Confederacy were erected.) Based on this fact, what questions might we ask about the intent behind the creation of these monuments across the country?
    • Given this context, therefore, memorials raise complex questions about which history we choose to remember. If a memorial cannot tell the whole story, then what part of the story, or whose story, does it tell? Whose memories, whose point of view, and whose values and perspectives will be represented?
    • The reading Taking Down the Confederate Flag probes this complexity and summarizes the ongoing argument about a controversial symbol from history. It includes the voices of three people who changed their minds after a racially motivated mass shooting in 2015 and argue for the flag’s removal from public spaces. Share the reading with students. Given the reading’s length, you might use the Read Aloud or the Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources teaching strategies to promote students’ understanding of the ideas and arguments presented. You might also use the first two connections questions following the reading to check for understanding.
    • Then, ask students to respond in their journals to either the third or fourth Connections question: How should a society determine which symbols and people from history should be honored in public spaces, like parks and government buildings, and which should be rejected? In a democracy, should an offensive symbol be allowed to remain in a public space even if everyone does not find it offensive?

    Students can discuss their responses in small groups using the Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn teaching strategy.

  3. Make the Connection to the Violence in Charlottesville

    Help students connect the 2015 controversy over the Confederate flag to the conflicts and debates over historical symbols in the headlines more recently. For instance, throughout 2017, Americans argued over the question of whether or not monuments to Confederate leaders should be removed from public spaces. In August of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee was the occasion for a rally of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists. Counter-protesters also gathered in the area to respond to the racist and antisemitic rally. Violence broke out, and a white supremacist killed one counter-protester by hitting her with his car. Two law enforcement officers also died when their helicopter crashed after surveilling the scene.

    • Ask students to consider the following questions:
      • Why in both 2015 and 2017 have acts of violence prompted increased scrutiny and debate about Confederate symbols and monuments?
      • Is there a relationship between these monuments and symbols, the ideas they represent, and the acts of violence that occurred? Explain your answer.

    Consider using the Barometer teaching strategy to structure a class discussion about this debate. You might read the statement: All Confederate monuments should be removed entirely from parks, government buildings, and other public spaces. Then have students stand along a continuum in the classroom between signs that read “Strongly Agree” and “Strongly Disagree” to indicate their position. The discussion unfolds as you ask students to explain their positions, first reminding them of the guidelines they established earlier for respectful discussion and debate.

    Alternatively, you might simply give students time for quiet reflection, during which they can privately collect and record their thoughts about the debates over symbols and monuments from history in their journals.

Extensions

  1. Explore the Contested History of Reconstruction

    To have a better understanding of why the controversies about Confederate memorials and monuments are so emotional and enduring, it is important for students to have an understanding of how history is written and how public memory of the past is shaped.

    The video A Contested History explores how Americans battled over the memory and meaning of the Civil War and Reconstruction, starting in the immediate aftermath of the war itself and continuing to the present day. Watch the video with students and use the Connect, Extend, Challenge teaching strategy to help them process what they learned. In their journals, ask students to respond to the following questions:

    • How is the information presented in the video CONNECTED to what you already know?
    • How does the video EXTEND or broaden your thinking about the Civil War and Reconstruction and how their history is remembered?
    • Does this video CHALLENGE or complicate your understanding of this period, how history is written, or the connection between the past and present?

    Then follow up with a conversation in response to the following questions:

    • Why does it matter how we understand the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction?
    • What influence does the way we remember the past have on the present? What specific examples of this have you seen in our society recently?
    • What role does history play in a democracy?
  2. Read W.E.B. Du Bois’s Essay about the Purposes of History

    In the last chapter of his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois criticized the way his contemporaries remembered and taught the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Reading a portion of this essay can help students reflect on the purpose of learning history and the ways in which history can be used and misused.

    Read aloud the document, W. E. B. Du Bois Reflects on the Purpose of History. Ask students to copy a sentence from the essay into their journals and write a response to it explaining why that sentence is notable. Students can then share their selections and responses using the Save the Last Word for Me teaching strategy.

    Finally, discuss the following questions:

    • For what reasons have others used the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, according to Du Bois?
    • What does Du Bois believe is the purpose of learning history? Do you agree or disagree?

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